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The Importance of Curriculum Analysis in the Fostering of Reflective Jewish Studies Teachers

By Eric Caplan, Dept. of Jewish Studies, McGill University

All involved in the training of Jewish teachers would agree that fostering reflective practitioners is a desirable goal. It has been my experience that engaging teacher training students in a careful and comparative analysis of Jewish studies curriculum helps them internalize the type of critical thinking so important to reflective practice. By comparing three, non-Orthodox curriculum for the teaching of Shabbat, this paper will illustrate how and why curriculum analysis can be an essential tool in the Jewish teacher training classroom.

The three curricula that I have chosen to analyze are: Joel Lurie Grishaver, Building a Jewish Life: Shabbat (Los Angeles: Torah Aura Productions, 1990); Adam Fisher, My Jewish Year (NJ: Behrman House Inc., 1993); and Ruth Lurie Kozodoy, The Book of Jewish Holidays (NJ: Behrman House Inc., 1997). Building a Jewish Life and My Jewish Year are to be used in grades two and three. The Book of Jewish Holidays is for grades four and five.

Why I have labeled these curriculum as 'non-Orthodox' will be clear as our discussion unfolds. At this point, the following general observations will suffice:
* No curriculum mentions the prohibition against using electricity or discusses the Eruv
* Each omits entirely, or ascribes to 'some Jews' only, at least one of the traditional home observances of Friday night
* Two of the curricula do not mention that Sabbath observance includes specifically defined prohibitions. While The Book of Jewish Holidays does refer to certain prohibitions as 'commands,' it also makes reference to Bat Mitzvah services in synagogue on Saturday. The Teacher's Manual speaks of 'some' synagogues only as having a Musaf service
* Late Friday night services of the type developed in Reform and Conservative Judaism are included as normative practice
* No prior knowledge of Sabbath rituals is assumed.

The three curricula will be compared in terms of the function or purpose of Shabbat delineated in each work.

Building a Jewish Life

The curriculum includes a fascinating essay aimed at parents and teachers. In it, Joel Grishaver delineates two functions/benefits that emerge from observing Shabbat.

1. Shabbat fosters renewal of the self. Shabbat was created as a tool for perpetual self-renewal...For an individual, a real Shabbat, one which indeed breaks into the escalating stress and relentless pace of the workday week, is a major opportunity not only for self-restoration, but for personal growth. This is as true for children as it is for adults. A deep breath and a moment of reflection are valuable commodities. Shabbat offers both (38). For modern families, whose lives Grishaver describes as very hectic, Shabbat is a potential miracle. It would be trite to call it Judaism's organic 'quality time.' However, trite as it may be, it is appropriate. Shabbat is a calendared rest stop where the whole family is encouraged to pull over together and refresh themselves. What does Grishaver mean when he speaks of renewal, self-restoration, reflection, growth? On what are we to reflect, in what direction are we to grow? For Grishaver, we are to "search in quiet for our essences, for the nature of creation." He believes that a sense of what this entails can be had by picturing a Club Med advertisement. A Club Med vacation is marketed as an opportunity to restore oneself to one's essence...The next time you wonder about the value of Shabbat, remember the beach in the Club Med ad (38).

What does this image conjure up for you? Definitely a profound sense of peace and contact with nature. Is reflection involved? Growth? Not necessarily. The curriculum, itself, focuses mainly on renewal and refreshment. Students are told to compare Shabbat to recess. Recess is a kind of recreation. Recreation has to do with fun, rest and play. Re-creation is a way of becoming a new creation. After recess you feel renewed. You feel refreshed. It is as if you have been created anew. In many ways, Shabbat is a lot like recess. It too is recreation. It too is a way for us to become new creations. Shabbat is a day set aside to rest, pray and be with our families and friends. On Shabbat, we take a break from work and school. (5-6)

Like recess, there are few rules. This is a family room. On Shabbat it becomes a place to get together with family and friends. We put our feet up, talk, perhaps play a game, or just spend time together. These are sneakers. They, too, can be an important part of Shabbat. Going on walks is a great Shabbat thing to do. Walking rather than riding lets us really see, smell, hear and touch things. It reminds us that God created the world and then rested. This is a bookcase. Shabbat is also a great time to just lie around and read. This is a couch. Napping is also a great Shabbat activity. Lots of adults can't make it through Shabbat without a nap. (26-27) At no point does Grishaver state that these positive activities emerge, at least in part, from the specific prohibitions delineated by halakhah. Shabbat as a day for reflection emerges in two places within the curriculum. In relation to the blessing of children, Grishaver states that "with a hug, with a few words whispered in the ear, and with a kiss, [parents] share their love as a hope for the future. Shabbat is a time to think about the future" (20). When discussing the lighting of candles, Grishaver argues that "when we look at the world on Shabbat, we can easily see the wonders which God created. Shabbat is the one day when we stop trying to change creation...Instead, we let the wonders of creation change us" (16). This may also be where growth comes in.

My guess is that students will not internalize the theme of reflection to the same extent as they will internalize the theme of self-renewal. The statements are somewhat obscure, and Grishaver does not ask any follow-up questions (questions are placed occasionally at the bottom of the page in small print). The statements also pale in comparison with the four, full consecutive pages that compare Shabbat to recess. Students are likely to emerge from the study of this curriculum seeing Shabbat as a time of fun, relaxation, and family time. I do not think they will feel that the freedom afforded by Shabbat is to be used for deep reflection.

2. Connection to the Exodus Myth. For Grishaver, the second opportunity afforded by Shabbat is to connect Jews to the story of the Exodus and the years of wandering in the desert. This period of Jewish history is called to mind by the fact that the 10 commandments link Shabbat with this experience. Why is this story worth recalling? It is part of Jewish collective psychology. The life changing moments which lead a collection of slave families to risk their lives for a vision of the future are still part of who we are. As a Jewish family, we are the direct extension of moments of fleeing, crossing, standing, receiving and accepting...Shabbat is at the core of that experience...We celebrate Shabbat because it allows us to re-enter and re-experience the moments which tell us who we are (38). This theme is conveyed concretely in the curriculum. The other candle teaches us that when we celebrate Shabbat we are like Moses and the Families of Israel who celebrated Shabbat for forty years in the wilderness. We are free...When we celebrate Shabbat we celebrate our freedom (16). When we eat Hallah on Shabbat, we remember that every day of the forty years when they wandered in the desert, God fed the Families of Israel with manna (22). For Grishaver, Shabbat can also connect us to other Jews living today. Shabbat is a time when Jews gather in the synagogue. In the synagogue, we pray and sing, we hear the Torah being read, and we spend time with our friends. Shabbat is one time when families join together to become a community (25).

Of the two major themes - Shabbat as an opportunity for self-renewal and Shabbat as a time to connect to the historical and present reality of the Jewish people - it is the former that is more sensed. It opens the curriculum and is dealt with in one block of pages. It is also the first theme raised by Grishaver in his essay for parents and teachers. The other theme is there, but is more subtly expressed. Even the discussion of the significance of the second candle is ambiguous as to whether personal concern or collective consciousness is implied (what is the meaning of the word 'our' in the assertion that "when we celebrate Shabbat we celebrate our freedom"?). The decision to emphasize the personal, over the collective benefits of Shabbat says something about liberal Judaism in our time, I believe.

My Jewish Year

One central conception of the function and purpose of Shabbat is forwarded in My Jewish Year. For Adam Fisher, Shabbat allows us to enjoy the world that God has created. The curriculum begins with the following statement: When you finish a beautiful painting, you like to sit back and look at what you have done. You are proud of it, you enjoy it, and you want others to enjoy it too. When God finished creating the world, God was very pleased. So God set aside a day to enjoy the world - the holy day Shabbat (57).

This theme is reinforced elsewhere in the unit.

The third part of the Kiddush reminds us of our Exodus from Egypt, when God freed us from slavery and led us to the Land of Israel. On Shabbat we are free to enjoy the world God has created (64-65). Shabbat is a time of peace, of Shalom. During the week we are all busy. Children go to school. Parents work. But Shabbat is different...We do things to help us enjoy the wonderful world God has created (68). While in Grishaver, the break from the living patterns of the work week on Shabbat comes firstly to allow for re-creation and renewal, in Fisher, it is primarily to better enjoy God's world. As in Grishaver, there are no clearly defined restrictions. The curriculum never expressly says that work is forbidden. A very general statement is given: Shabbat is a time of peace, of Shalom. During the week we are all busy. Children go to school. Parents work. But Shabbat is different. It is a time for rest, for reading, for spending time with friends and family. We do things to help us enjoy the wonderful world God has created. Each family has its own way of observing Shabbat (68). To reinforce the fluidity of Shabbat observance, a sidebar is included in which students are encouraged to write a few lines on their "idea of spending a peaceful Shabbat with [their] family" (68). Grishaver and Fisher's unwillingness to discuss the halakhah of Shabbat observance likely reflects liberal Judaism's general discomfort with setting ritual boundaries for its membership, and, perhaps, a belief that the goals of Shabbat can be attained in different ways and thus need not be subject to uniform law. Both of these tendencies were strongly evident in the research that I completed recently on prayer in Reconstructionist Judaism. There is also likely a desire to avoid using 'negative language' when first introducing students to the institution of Shabbat. I believe that for both Fisher and Grishaver, a fairly traditional Shabbat is a personal ideal. In Grishaver, lights are out in all the pictures of Saturday afternoon. Fisher informs students that in ancient Israel, "no one worked. People did not farm or cook or build. Shabbat was a day to study and to pray and to rest" (60). But Grishaver and Fisher's ideal is never articulated in a manner where it is very likely to be absorbed.

The Book of Jewish Holidays

Three conceptions of the purpose of Shabbat are discernible in Ruth Kozodoy's work.

1. The peace and calm of Shabbat is to allow self-examination and reflection. "Our tradition teaches us to stop working on the seventh day, too. As God did, we look at what we have done to see if it's good" (60). The purpose of this reflection is to gain perspective on what is truly of value in life, and to appreciate family, friends and the natural world. As we race from activity to activity, it can be difficult to see clearly how we are living. When we slow down, we can better judge what is important and what is not, and we can take the time to appreciate the people and world around us (61).

2. Shabbat frees us from self-enslavement. Today we are not slaves to others. But sometimes, when we rush nonstop from one activity to the next - dashing from soccer practice to math tutoring to play dates with our friends - we can make ourselves slaves to our work and even to our play. How can Shabbat help us remain free from this inner enslavement? (60)

In the Teacher's manual, Kozodoy tells teachers to use this statement to bring students to the realization that their enslavement deflects their attention from essential social responsibilities. Ask your students if they think it is possible to be slaves to leisure activities. For example, what happens when someone is so busy watching TV or running from swimming lessons to baseball practice that they don't take the time to call a sick friend or help out at home? (60)

The connection between Shabbat and social responsibility is further developed in the Teacher's Manual. Explain to your students that light is a symbol of truth and goodness. When we light Shabbat candles and the havdalah candle we are reminded that God brought light - truth and goodness - to the world. Ask your students how these two rituals can remind them to make good choices as they return to their weekday lives (69).

3. Shabbat draws Jews closer to their families, to God, and to their community. This brings a feeling of strength and peace that is useful in the face of adversity. Over many centuries and through many difficult times, Shabbat has given our people strength. Today, too, when the world is frightening or family arguments are upsetting, observing Shabbat can draw us closer to our families, to God, and to our community, bringing us a feeling of strength and peace. It's been said that 'more than the Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews' (62). We see that Kozodoy is the only author whose curriculum makes a clear connection between Shabbat and self-examination. While it is possible to argue that this difference should be traced to the fact that Kozodoy's curriculum is geared for older children (grades four-five, instead of two-three), I'm not sure that this fully accounts for it. Grishaver's curriculum series, for example, has no problem discussing Kozodoy's themes in relation to the high holidays. Kozodoy is also the only author to emphasize the prohibitions of Shabbat. People who keep Shabbat don't work or talk about business. It is a mitzvah not to cook, shop, do homework, or run errands on Shabbat...(65). Ordinary studying - writing compositions or solving math problems, for instance - is work, which we are commanded not to do on Shabbat. But studying Torah is different. It is a way of coming closer to God and therefore is an excellent Shabbat activity (67). Notice, however, that writing itself, for example, creating a sonnet, is not presented as forbidden necessarily.


Although I believe that the comparison of these three curricula has yielded interesting insights, as I stated in my opening words, my ultimate goal is to discuss teacher education. Why is a comparison of curricula a useful tool in fostering reflective practitioners? First and foremost, it causes students to grapple with essential questions. The following sample questions emerge out of our analysis, and can be used effectively to spark debate in a course on the teaching of Jewish holidays:
* What is the function of Shabbat? What message should teachers impart in this regard?
* What role do the prohibitions of Shabbat play in forwarding the aims of the day? Are teachers morally bound to place Shabbat in its halakhic setting? Is it dishonest to compare Shabbat to recess? If they are indeed morally bound, which prohibitions are appropriate for each age group? Is there a hierarchy of prohibitions (i.e., something that needs to be taught first)?
* What rituals are essential to teach? Should rituals be taught as possibilities or as responsibilities? The Book of Jewish Holidays omits netilat yadayim; My Jewish Year ascribes the custom to "some families" only. Grishaver does not mention that it is customary in Ashkenazi ritual to cover the eyes when lighting Shabbat candles. For the author of My Jewish Year, "many cover their eyes."
* To what extent is it necessary to provide a philosophical rationale for observances? In order to show how Jewish ritual helps convey profound ideas, Grishaver always provides a rationale. Kozodoy and Fisher only provide a rationale for 50% of the rituals that they describe. What types of rationales are most attractive? Is it sufficient to say we do this act because Jews have done it for centuries? This whole issue is very relevant to non-Orthodox settings where it is unlikely that observances will be ascribed to God.
* Only Grishaver footnotes ideas to their rabbinic sources. Is this footnoting necessary? How can curricula be used to teach general Jewish cultural literacy?

The following are some additional benefits of curriculum analysis:
* Students learn that education is never ideologically neutral
* They learn that they cannot pick something up blindly and teach it. They must examine its message
* They see, in a practical sense, how a given ritual is open to a wide variety of understandings
* They begin to internalize the philosophical questions that need to be asked when fashioning units that will challenge students intellectually.

The study of curriculum is not only to impart ideas for lesson plans. If we accept that successful Jewish education requires reflective practitioners, content analysis of curriculum should form an integral part of pre-service training.

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