History – the Orthodox Way: Without Causality and with Presentism

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

7 responses to “History – the Orthodox Way: Without Causality and with Presentism

  1. Jewish day school education is precisely meant to instill “moral simplicity, religious clarity, and, ultimately, social insularity.” So it seems that Mrs. Glickman’s Holocaust unit was quite successful. I am not being glib. The author seems shocked, shocked that this is what is being taught? That a parochial school has a parochial outlook? This is excoriation clothed as social science.

    That’s not to deny that holding fast to the idea that the Jews transcend history makes one nearly incapable of apprehending the world rationally. But that’s a critique that you could come to just by picking up a Berel Wein book. You didn’t have to sit in on a girls high school class for that.

    [Incidentally, what is up with Lubavitchers as recurring subjects of social science research (at least three book length studies come to mind)? Do they have some explicit policy welcoming all sociologists? I seem to recall once meeting three NYU grad students in the course of a week or two all doing field work in Crown Heights.]

  2. Holocaust education within Haredi circles is viewed as theodicy, not within the context of the exact earthly political or sociological mechanisms by which Hitler was able to come to power.
    The purpose of teaching Jewish history in the yeshiva day school is certainly not the same purpose for its teaching within the academy. The former does not exist to further any communal or spiritual aims, while the uniquely theological Jewish History courses within a yeshiva (assuming that they even exist) are intended to instill a sense of awe and an understanding of the nature of Divine providence. The teacher mentioned in that article failed to realize that there is no desire to have an understanding of secular knowledge (or even view it as sanctifiable a la Rav Kook) within Chabad or any other Haredi communities. Education serves a purely utilitarian function within those circles. The same is also probably true for the bulk of the Modern Orthodox, who do not become academics or professors, but who go to college in order to obtain good jobs law, medicine, business, etc.) To assume otherwise and to think that yeshivas and their products are going to be open to the academic study of Judaism on any level is naive and foolish.

  3. This raises the larger question of the status “Jewish History” with in the Orthodox curriculum, from Artscroll to Berel Wein to R. Rakeffet. How does these various writers and teachers ballance the conflicting methods and conclusions of modern academic historiography with those of traditional Jewish narrative memory and theology?
    I think the answers to these questions are more complex and varied than we often give credit.

  4. Mordechai Shinefield

    One striking thing is that the Jewish community reinforces this sort of tactile personal feeling through history. On Passover we tell the wicked son that were he there at the Exodus, he would not have been redeemed, and b’chol dor vodor chayov odom leeros es atzmo ki-eeloo hoo yotzo mee-mitzroyim. When I was growing up, the “ki-eeloo” part of that formulation was always de-emphasized. This approach even arises in our social media — Saw You at Sinai, where matchmaking becomes codified as literal historical engagement. Or in children’s holocaust literature, where in The Devil’s Arithmetic the protagonist is literally transported to a camp to learn the true meaning of the Holocaust.

  5. I actually first thought of this in general terms not Jewish ones.
    Social science exists to teach certain skills. In the modern world, the lessons of 3rd and 4th grade are mastered but there is a breakdown between 10th and 11th grade. Many Christian and Jewish groups do not acquire the 11th grade skills of social science analysis.
    So for Moshe’s comment, there is a difference between those who did not master 11th grade and those who mastered it but choose not to use it, or those who only use causality that serves their needs.
    The author’s starting premise was that Christians she has worked with. Other studies have shown that even if they think Christianity is the answer to the Holocaust have mastered greater skills. meaning that even if they have moral arrogance, they may not have social isolation or a lack of complexity.

  6. You are correct; no matter how Christians may place the Holocaust into their eschatological view of things, their educational institutions nonetheless do ensure that in the secondary level, their students are competent in the humanities, social and physical sciences. Haredi institutions by their nature, purpose, and design do not share these goals. .

  7. Teach at the college level for a bit and then let me know how competent you think the average students is in the humanities, social and physical sciences.

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