Monday, April 24, 2006

The trouble with Jewish education

An analogy from science:

In elementary school, we teach children that electrons travel around an atom's nucleus in nice circular orbits at discreet energy levels. Later on, we say that the electrons don't exactly travel in circles and that they hang out in dumbbell shaped probability spaces. Next, the high end physics guys talk about quarks and leptons. At each stage of education, more detail is provided.

The problem with Jewish education is that, when it comes to certain subjects, the extra details are never provided. There are legions of Jewish men running around, for example, who can't discuss Chumash with any intelligance. In their mind, midrashim are literal, and Rashi's purpose is to tell us exactly what happened. The problem is so endemic that the views of other Rishonim and Achronim - indeed Midrashim that aren't cited by Rashi - are cavalierly dismissed. (For an example, see this comment thread where "lakewood yid," clueless as ever, can't seem to wrap his head around the possibility that a gloss his first grade Rebbe gave him was incomplete. To save himself the chore of re-examining and adding nuance to an old idea, he's accused me of fabricating a Maharal, a Maharal that is cited in the Schottenstein Talmud on Sotah 11A. )

The irony is that many of these ignoramouses are well-informed when the subject is Jewish law; somehow they've managed to accept that multiple levels of understanding exist when the issue is a legal one. The same people who can effortlessly recount the opinion of 15 achronim when the question is kashrus, refuse to leave Rashi's bes medrash when we're discussing chumash. It's really quite bizarre.

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