Sunday, March 09, 2008

Chana, I Hear You!

Last week one of my readers directed me to a lengthy essay by a young woman named Chana. She is the owner of the blog The Curious Jew. In an almost cathartic way she relates of her personal journey through high school. And it wasn't pretty.

Born into a religious home she was raised to be observant. She was sent to religious schools for her Jewish education which included most of high school. But she was not your average student. She had an inquisitive nature – always asking questions… a condition that her parents encouraged.

But in the Torah world - primarily the Charedi portion of that world - that is not always a good thing. There are certain questions that are taboo. Asking them will sometimes get you in trouble. Most often these are questions of faith. That’s because having faith is always the assumed status of every student in a religious school. So when such questions are asked, far too many teachers believe it stems from some sort of rebellion.

Many teachers are ill equipped to handle that. No matter how intelligent; no matter how well trained; no matter how experienced… they will often fail. And the results can be devastating. Unanswered questions can grease the path away from belief and out of observant Judaism. Often it is the brightest among us who fall victim to it.

Chana had such experiences in high school. Her high school has an otherwise good reputation - having been cited several years ago as one of the top high schools in the country! And yet the otherwise excellent teachers there were completely inept in dealing with her.

Chana, by her own admission says that her teachers did not even realize they were harming her. They actually believed they were helping her. But they so badly botched her Chinuch that she almost dropped out of Judaism. In the end she didn’t and is now an honors student at Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women.

What did they do that was so terrible? They refused to listen to her questions. They failed to understand her sincerity. They saw her as a troubled girl who might be part of a dysfunctional family. Instead of dealing with her questions, they tried to be ‘Mekarev’ her. And in her case, that amounted to a form of brainwashing. They wanted to disabuse her of her questions and mold her into their version of a Bas Yisroel… the type that doesn’t question authority… that soaks up all the learning taught in that school of both Halacha and Hashkafa.

Her high school is a moderate Beis Yaakov and has a good academic program. Nonetheless, the values taught there are mainstream right wing - the Agudah version of Judaism. It teaches and preaches highly defined and very narrow roles for women that go well beyond the requirements of Halacha.

A young woman is taught that ideally her Tachlis… her purpose and goal… should be to marry a young man who will be learning in Kollel. She is taught to understand that her role will be to have a large family and to provide for it so that her husband can devote his time fully to learning.

She is taught that her mode of behavior and dress must comply with Charedi standards …behavior and dress codes not determined by Halacha but by Hashkafa …dress codes that include stringencies not necessarily Halachic. In some cases that includes certain types of clothing that are forbidden only because non Charedi woman wear them and are identified by them.

Chana is a brilliant young woman. She loves Judaism. And she loves studying Torah, But in her school she felt that Judaism didn’t love her back. Her brilliance enabled her to know Scripture quite well and whenever she was admonished about not conforming to schools dress codes, she was able to quote sources and refute the standards demanded of her - sources that her teachers could themselves not easily refute.

She quickly became a pariah in her high school. Even her fellow students would not stand by her.

Long story short - she ended up hating these teachers and the Charedi version of Judaism they taught. To this day her anger surfaces from time to time. The result of all that friction was that she spent much of her senior year in a private secular school. There she flourished. She could love Judaism again. She was the ‘rabbi’ of her class. Everyone there knew she was Orthodox and respected her for it. Any questions they had she answered.

I am sad for Chana. I'm sad that she had to live through her high school experience; sad that she still carries this anger. But mostly I am sad for Klal Yisroel. It’s sad because it there is no intentional villain here. Her high school is basically a good school. The problem is that even though they are moderate, they are so married to an Agudist Charedi Hashkafa - they don’t know what to do with someone who questions it. They do not know how to handle serious questions of Emunah. There in no thinking outside the box!

So why did she remain religious when so many others who had her experiences didn’t?

The answer is that her own brilliance and search for truth saved her. She found her salvation in the words of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik and Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch. Those words spoke to her. They dealt with her issues. She saw a reflection of herself in those words.

Charedi educational systems like Beis Yaakov have to very seriously re-think their approach to Chinuch. They cannot rely on the vast majority of young women who have succeeded in these schools. We cannot afford to lose the Chanas of the world. And it does Charedi Chinuch little good to have a young woman come out of the system Frum but hating the system and its teachers. No matter how nice or gentle or even compassionate they might be, Those teachers have to learn how to listen and actually hear the questions. Not be dismissive of them.

In yesterday’s Torah portion of P’kudei we read about the Urim V’Tumim. This was a holy item for use in the Holy Temple created to be a source of heavenly advice to the high priest. Whenever he had an issue to deal with for which he did not know the answer he would ‘consult’ it.

Rabbi Elijah Kramer has an interesting interpretation of the story of another Chana. It involves the Urim VeTumim. It is the famous story from Scripture about the high priest, Eilie who saw a young woman come to the Temple that seemed to be drunk. She was shaking and moving her lips.

Eilie went to te Urim VeTumim and asked it what to do. The Hebrew letters Shin, Chaf, Resh, and Heh, bolted out. He read it as Shekirah – drunk! He went over and asked Chana how much longer will she be drunk?!

Chana retorted to Eilie that she was not drunk - that Eilie was judging her unfavorably rather than favorably as required by Halacha.

Eilie read letters incorrectly. He did not have Ruach HaKodesh, the Divine presence, upon him when he read it. That is a requirement when reading the Urim V’Tumim. Without it mistakes can easily be made. And that’s what happened here. The very same Hebrew letters that spell Shekira, spell K'sherah – Kosher. Chana was not a Shekira… a drunk but a K’sherah – an upright person. She appeared drunk to Eilie and he misinterpreted it. In truth she was in great pain because she was barren and praying quietly for Divine intervention.

We have here today another Chana. And instead of reading her as Kosher, her teachers read her as a ‘Shekirah’ a ‘drunk’. They did not judge her favorably and did not treat her well.

Educators have to realize this flaw in the system. Those who ask challenging questions deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. Not as a Kiruv project - or worse - as a pariah. No student should ever have to be go through what Chana did.