Remixing Jewish Moral Education

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February 1, 2011
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Judd Kruger Levingston

Having served as a Jewish educator in an array of schools and settings, I am inspired by a new, four-pronged educational mission articulated by Russel Neiss and Charlie Schwartz. Their call to make learning meaningful, open, and focused on community building probably resonates already with progressive educators. Their call to “remix” our tradition could lead to significant changes that may unfold in the next few years. Some of these changes may feel threatening to teachers.

As a middle school and high school teacher, I work with adolescents in two realms: in the academic study of Jewish philosophy and Bible, and in the affective realm of moral education. Today, as we become aware of the dangers of information overload, the distraction of technological gadgets, the growth and terror of cyber-bullying, and the abundance of inappropriate material on the Internet, all of us who work with young people can play an important role in nurturing moral growth and character development by remixing ancient texts and practices with contemporary life.

Technology can be an important ally in this effort. Students with computers, phones, laptops, cameras, and other devices can (and already do!) remix the material they study in schools with photographs, songs, and conversations from outside of school. The formats and software may be new, but the practice isn’t: The Talmud itself is filled with moments of remixing, as when one generation of sages speaks to another or when an anecdote of some sort gets repurposed to serve a new argument or conclusion.

Teachers should aim to unleash the creative, moral spirit of their students, giving them the vocabulary of our tradition while encouraging them to find their own voices. Here are examples of projects that allow students to remix our texts, traditions, and moral values:

  • Create a Facebook-like page for a rabbi of ancient times, identifying his rabbinic “friends,” favorite quotes, character traits, and interests. Use the Encyclopedia Judaica and one other source in your research. In your “status” (Facebook language for a combination of mood and school or job news), describe a moral issue the rabbi faces and the rabbi’s response.
  • Create a skit based on this week’s biblical reading, using a laptop or camera to record the skit. Be sure to bring to life the narrative drama, the main character’s dilemma, one classical commentary, and a new interpretation of your own.
  • Think of one behavior you would like to see change in your community; develop an advertising campaign and design and print a bumper sticker to promote your campaign based on an ethical saying of your choice from Chapters 1 or 2 of Pirke Avot, “The Sayings of the Rabbis.”

Technology has the capacity to capture student interest and focus, even in the challenging setting of after-school programs, where children are tired after a long school day. Computer projectors or — where financially able — interactive whiteboards with live Web access are invaluable resources that can help students understand and explicate the language of Jewish texts. When students visit educational websites under their teachers’ guidance, they make cross-disciplinary connections that they would not necessarily make on their own.

New efforts to remix Jewish culture and tradition do not require large-scale curricular change. Our foundational texts and values are as important as ever: We have much to learn and teach our young people about compassion and respect toward others, about the use and misuse of power; about taking care of our bodies, about making time for personal reflection, and about how to use a Jewish lens to examine the use and abuse of information and technology.

A rich moral life must remain an essential outcome of Jewish education in congregational schools, day schools, summer camps, and any other informal educational setting. Moral education includes delving into questions of meaning and human existence — including questions about personal character, behavior, ethics, justice, and even spirituality.

As educators, we must be unafraid to use new cultural idioms that might enhance our understanding and practice of our ancient culture. We have a great opportunity to teach our students to take thoughtful risks if we give them the tools to examine and then remix the wisdom and practices of our traditions. After all, soon it will be their turn to speak in a contemporary moral voice, and we hope that it will resonate with the past.

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Rabbi Judd Kruger Levingston, PhD, serves as director of Jewish studies at the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy (formerly known as Akiba Hebrew Academy) in the Philadelphia area. He is the author of Sowing the Seeds of Character: The Moral Education of Adolescents in Public and Private Schools (Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2009).

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