Here is a good article that I missed when it came out and it does not seem to have gained notice of the Jewish education circles. The article is about a Lubavitch girls school, but most of the observations that I excerpted apply equally well to Modern Orthodox students on both college and graduate level. In addition, the article is on the Holocaust but can apply equally well to most other issues in Jewish history. I have found students unable to apply any causality to the Middle East, to modern religious movements, or anti-Semitism. I have also found students who treat theological statement of Rabbis or Rabbis working out theology as if it was real history. Theological statements about halakhah are used as causality for events. The lack of social science thinking about Judaism is wide spread despite the required Jewish history in high school. Absurd forms of presentism are acceptable for debate. This article harshly calls this accepted orthodox approach narcissistic, social isolationism, moral arrogance and religious triumphalism. Any thoughts?
Simone Schweber, “Here there is no why”: Holocaust education at a Lubavitch girls’ yeshivah. Jewish Social Studies Volume 14, Number 2, (Winter 2008) 156-185
Numerous authors have elaborated the discourse of the Holocaust’s unintelligibility, expounding on the Shoah’s unspeakability, unimaginability, and fundamental unknowability… Few, however, have considered the disciplinary limitations of such a theoretical position. The stance of unintelligibility may work for literary theorists and cultural critics, but it hardly aids educators. What might it mean, for example, to teach toward unintelligibility? Can one teach despite, through, or with a Warumverbot? [Asking why is forbidden]
When I set out to study the teaching of the Holocaust at a Lubavitch girls’ yeshivah in the Midwestern United States, I was not aware, naïvely perhaps, that a Warumverbot could serve as a pedagogical platform. How might students who believed in divinely driven history, for example, understand human perpetrators? When would contingency trump eschatology and vice versa?
First, as a result of the culture of argumentation, the students’ presentist orientations toward history surfaced. Because they thought of their religious dictates as being ahistorical or transhistorical, they could argue over whether it was “okay” for Jews in hiding to recite Catholic prayers; their investment in prayer and religious obligations trumped historical circumstances in their understandings of the Holocaust. Second, because some of the girls thought of Jewish teenagers as being basically the same across time and space, they could argue over why European Jewish teens would return to their homes. The girls’ assumptions about Jews, in other words, were personally based (and similarly presentist). In most public or Christian school contexts where the Holocaust is taught, Jews are easily exoticized, but for these Hasidic girls, Jews were noticeably normalized.
Rather than blaming assimilation, secular Jews, the advent of Reform Judaism, Zionism, Zionists, or the lack of or dedication to a Jewish homeland—all of which are common refrains in Israeli haredi materials—these girls located the root of persecution in envy. In response to the interview question “Why were Jews persecuted?,” each of the other four focus students supplied an answer that involved jealousy or difference… Because chosenness bounded the girls’ historical meaning-making, other victim groups fell out of their Holocaust narratives…. Hashem used the Holocaust as testament to both the endurance and enduring nature of the Jewish people…. By contrast, later in the unit, when they read about Japanese-Americans being interned in camps, a student asked, “What did they do to deserve that?”
Although Mrs. Glickman taught about the Holocaust during her secular studies block, she taught about it as a religious event. She did not include miraculous stories that so frequently populate Hasidic sources, but her course relied on the miraculous as explanation; for much of her Holocaust curriculum, rational explanations for events were not proffered.
The special status of the Holocaust in their classroom deprived them of basic historical understandings. None of the girls at the end of their unit knew about the history of antisemitism, the reasons Germans voted for Hitler, or the ways perpetrators were socialized. None could answer even basic historical questions like why the Holocaust occurred without resorting to all-encompassing theological rationales.
As I see it, Mrs. Glickman taught toward fundamentally narcissistic ends: she did not expand the girls’ notions of others, of otherness, or even of Jewishness itself
Moreover, in considering Nazi behavior to be abnormal, unknowable, and unable to be investigated, Mrs. Glickman fed the girls’ moral arrogance and religious triumphalism. Not only did the girls believe themselves to be incapable of compromising behavior, but they could not deign to discuss it even in others. The starkness of the moral divide… reified the girls’ righteousness and supported their narrow-mindedness. In the process, the contingencies, complexities, and even overly simplistic explanations that sometimes masquerade as history were occluded, rendered invisible to these girls.
Mrs. Glickman’s Holocaust education thus did not serve to complicate the girls’ worldviews but rather to narrow their world’s vistas and support its moral simplicity, religious clarity, and, ultimately, social insularity. Rather than opening up moral questions, Mrs. Glickman’s pedagogy closed them down.
Simone Schweber is the Goodman Associate Professor of Education and Jewish Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is the author of Making Sense of the Holocaust: Lessons from Classroom Practice (2004) and, with Debbie Findling, Teaching the Holocaust (2007).
Copyright © 2010 Alan Brill • All Rights Reserved