Tag: Education

B-B-B-Bad to the Bone?

You gotta hand it to those ancient rabbis–they sure knew how to tackle classroom management. In fact, we read about their nuanced understanding of effective pedagogical techniques each year at the Passover Seder.

Forget everything you thought you knew about education. The rabbis had it all figured out: there are simply four kinds of learners–the familiar four sons that appear in the Haggadah:

The Wise Son
The Wicked Son
The Simple Son
The Son Who Doesn’t Know How to Ask

(Of course, in true traditional Jewish fashion, the women-folk were relegated to the kitchen, so we’re not sure what the daughters were up to.)

So which kind of kid do you think is the best? Which one might go on to become a Jewish professional or effective leader? Who is more apt to make Mom and Dad proud?

No brainer right? I think it’s the wicked child.

Like a lot of kids who seem to resist learning, I think the wicked child is the most misunderstood. Let’s take a closer look at how the Haggadah presents this type of learner.

We might imagine that he simply disappears during the Seder. Maybe he announces to everyone, “This is stupid!” and storms off to go partying and have an illicit bagel with his other hoodlum friends. But that’s not what happens at all. This kid is engaged. He’s present. He’s asking questions and challenging authority. Rather than absenting himself, he wants answers. And most surprising, he’s knowledgeable about the Seder and the Torah. He uses a direct quote from Exodus–What does this service mean to you?–and puts a sarcastic twist on it by emphasizing the words “to you,” challenging the adults in his life to explain why and how he should embrace these rituals. He wants in–but needs to see more.

In other words, what the rabbis of the Haggadah called the Wicked Son is really just a typical teenager.

And here’s where actually understanding the Hebrew text comes in handy, because in most translations I’ve read, this next part is simply omitted. When asked how we should handle such an awful child, the text reads:

.אף אתה הקהה את שיניו
Smack him in the teeth.

Obviously, those guys had very little patience for anything but blind obedience. That’s why they loved the wise child, an annoying little goody-two-shoes who sat right up front, always raised his hand first, and begged to be called on with the correct answer. (Good thing the Jews never believed in gym class, because this kid would have been toast.)

As for me, give me the wicked child any day. I much prefer to be around students who ask difficult questions, challenge established beliefs, and rethink the best way for them to engage in Jewish tradition.

Finger Puppets and Genocide

Long ago, I think some corporate executives within the Organization of Jewish Religion decided that they had a ratings problem.

Christian merch was flying off the shelves and their branding was expanding around the globe. The Jews felt they had something special–after all, it was their legacy product that set the stage for everything that came after. They had secured all the important celebrity endorsements–

“I’m proud to call the Jews My chosen people!”–God

–and had established their headquarters in a desirable Jerusalem neighborhood.

Still, the Christians were killing it. So the marketing executives in the corporate office set out to find out why. They quickly realized what every modern company knows so well–get the kids hooked and the customer stream will follow. Christmas was introduced with their new mascot–Santa Claus–which was also a brilliant piece of cross promotion with Coca Cola and brought in needed revenue. They unveiled the Easter Bunny–a bit controversial since the Bunny character inexplicably laid eggs and didn’t even have a passing connection to the Resurrection of Jesus, but it was an instant success and had a lasting effect on public school calendars for all time.

The report got sent upstairs–Target the kids!

Everyone got to work right away. It wasn’t easy. Many of our Jewish holidays deal with serious, complicated, and violent themes. There’s brutality and sexuality throughout. How do you turn an R-rated subject into something G-rated?

They began with Purim, and took a cold hard look at the holiday. A dubious leading man, Mordechai, schemes to place himself at the pinnacle of power using every Machiavellian trick in the book. He pimps out his nubile underage niece to the non-Jewish middle-aged king to secure a presence in the palace. He skulks around the grounds until he spots an opportunity to turn in would-be traitors to ingratiate himself with the king. He sets up the mighty but ultimately dim-witted Haman to take the fall for attempted genocide. Finally, in the climax of the story, the newly powerful Mordechai leads the Jews on a killing rampage throughout Shushan, wiping out 75,000 non-Jews who had been bent on their destruction.

The solution: Let’s get the kids to dress up and make a ton of noise. We’ll market character costumes and manufacture promotional noise-makers with Jewish stars and Torah logos on them.

Next came Chanukah. This one was tough. It was a rather dry festival commemorating a military victory. To further complicate matters, the victors in the story–the Hasmonean Dynasty–never made much of themselves after this episode. They themselves ended up assimilating and falling victim to the very thing which their recent ancestors had fought against. It was a fairly decent story of underdogs overcoming the odds, but how can you repackage this one for the kids?

The solution: We’ll create a new back story. Snazz it up with special effects–a divine miracle–and introduce a product that everyone has to have. Before this point, no one even knew what a menorah was, but soon enough it became the hot button product of the time, with people lining up around the shuk all night to get the latest release. Throw in a dreidl (with a hint of gambling to appeal to parents), and Chanukah became the must-celebrate holiday of the year for the whole family.

The marketing department even looked at stories from the Torah–in particular the story of Noah and the Flood. The team took a unflinching look at this story–how could they spin the needlessly violent and agonizing death of all humanity, not to mention the horrible suffering of all the animals on earth?

The solution: Focus instead on the very few animals that were actually spared, and portray Noah as a benevolent and avuncular figure who was simply along for the ride. Instead of worrying about the devastating effects of the flood, transform the ark into a cruise ship with lovable animals, bobbing happily along the waves on an extended tour of the ancient Middle East. Using the rainbow as their logo, this story of a happy man with cute pairs of animals became enshrined in children’s hearts forever.

Fast forward to today. This once-brilliant marketing campaign has become a victim of its own success. Every facet of Judaism seems tailored only for kids. The medium has become the message. This became apparent when I recently spied a certain product intended for kids at a Passover seder–Ten Plague Finger Puppets. Some Jewish company thought this was a good idea? OK, frogs are pretty amusing, and in fact, that particular plague was itself intended to be a somewhat comical jab at the Egyptians. But blood? Vermin? The Death of Every First Born Son and Animal??

In our Siddur, it explains that during Passover, except for the first two days, we recite an abbreviated version of Hallel, the series of Psalms and blessings added for every festival. The reason for this, according to Jewish tradition, is because our own joy and celebration must be tempered by our acknowledgment of the deaths of so many Egyptians, during the plagues and then their drowning in the Red Sea. An incredible Jewish concept–we don’t take pleasure in the suffering of our enemies. That’s also the reason why we remove a drop of wine from our glasses during the recitation of the Ten Plagues at the seder. So should we wear our Finger Puppets while we take a drop of wine out of our cups?

Let’s make Judaism an adult religion again. Let’s not infantilize kids and teens and assume they can’t handle any serious subjects. Let’s struggle with reconciling the violent and anachronistic episodes of our tradition with living a life of holiness and community. Let’s come up with ways to explain a modern concept of what God is, what God means, and what God can be, and move away from the white-bearded father and king who lives in the sky that so many people learned about as children without the possibility of any more sophisticated and adult alternative.

I’m fully confident that our ratings will go up and we’ll once again establish brand loyalty.

 

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