Imperfect Interpretations: Wrestling with Truth

April 1, 2012
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Laura Shaw Frank

We need to talk about Beit Shemesh,” clamored my tenth-grade Jewish history students a few weeks ago as the story of the Haredi extremist assaults on non-Haredi women in that city took the headlines. I had expected their request; my Jewish history classroom is a place of debate and discussion about the issues of the Jewish present as well as the Jewish past. But, inside my heart, I felt the multiple facets of my identity begin to wrestle with one another. I am an Orthodox woman who covers her hair and wears skirts. I am a passionate feminist who has spent the past 25  years speaking out for women’s rights around the world. I am a teacher at Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School in Baltimore, a community day school that is run under the auspices of an Orthodox synagogue. My students range from the relatively unaffiliated to Modern Orthodox. Some of my fellow teachers are Haredi. I worried about my ability to honor all these parts of myself and my community in this conversation.

As a feminist, I see all too plainly how this group of Haredi extremists has used Jewish law as an excuse to legislate misogyny. I felt I had to share with my students my thoughts that a man who claims that 8-year-old girls must dress modestly because he is “a healthy man” is normalizing pedophilia; he is saying that even a prepubescent girl has no identity other than as a sexual being. And while, as an Orthodox Jew, I believe ardently in the Jewish value of modesty in behavior and dress for men and women, would I be able to articulate where modesty ends and misogyny begins?

As a teacher in a Jewish community day school, at the core of my agenda is teaching my students to respect the viewpoints of all Jews while still remaining true to their own beliefs. This group of extremist Haredim is a perfect example of what I rail against: refusing to listen to any perspective other than one’s own. Several questions swirled in my head: Am I doing justice to my belief in klal Yisrael, the unity of all Jews, by placing this group of Haredi Jews outside the pale of acceptable discourse? Could I carry on this conversation in my classroom if one of my Haredi colleagues were in attendance? How would I provide the opportunity for my students to express their justifiable anger at a group of extremist Haredim while ensuring that they do not condemn all Haredi Jews? How do I teach the balance between accepting difference and remaining true to one’s own value system?

As I discussed the situation in Beit Shemesh with my students, I began to realize that my inner turmoil held within it the answer to why this group of extremists has gone so wrong. In our diverse school community, we have all learned not only to humanize others, but to question ourselves. By forcing ourselves to confront perspectives that conflict with our own, we engage in introspection and refine our own beliefs. I do not believe that a Beth Tfiloh student would ever claim a monopoly on truth. As our students forge relationships not only with their Orthodox Judaic studies teachers, but also with classmates who represent a wide range of beliefs and practice, it becomes obvious to them that there is more than one way to be a good Jew. And, just as important, they see that it is unnecessary to compromise their own belief systems in order to respect the different values of others.

I wish for the impossible: for the Haredi extremists to visit our school’s Room 228 on a Monday morning during second period, they might think differently. It is their sequestering themselves from anyone who believes differently that allows them to think they are the only ones who know the truth — the only ones who know what God wants. But, being truly religious should mean being humble enough to entertain the possibility that maybe, just maybe, we do not really know the will of God. And true awe of the divine should prevent us from imposing our possibly imperfect interpretations on anyone who disagrees with us. As I discussed and debated these issues with my students, it occurred to me that we should all strive to define ourselves as Haredi, for true haredut, trembling in fear of God, means acknowledging that we are all fallible and human — and that only God knows the real truth.

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Laura Shaw Frank is the chair of the Jewish history department at the Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School in Baltimore, Md. She is pursuing a doctorate in modern Jewish history at the University of Maryland, College Park. A graduate of Columbia College and Columbia Law School, Shaw Frank was a corporate litigator for ten years before becoming an educator. She lives in Baltimore with her husband, Rabbi Aaron Frank, and their four children.

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