Sunday, December 16, 2012

Freshman Greek Week: Cougars Draw the Line

From Personal Identity to Cultural and Religious Identity

From December 6-14, Frisch ran Greek Week for the freshmen, a time when Frisch Cougars learn to draw the line between Judaism and secular culture. At the launch of Freshman Greek Week, I tied what we were about to do to the freshmen integrated theme for the year: Identity. A couple of weeks earlier, at the launch of the freshman integrated theme, each freshman had written a word that described him- or herself, and I compiled those words onto a board on (thank you to my sister, educator Smadar Goldstein for the introduction to

Freshman 2012 Identity Board

The freshmen had also each chosen a poem that revealed something about their identities and posted their responses to the poem on our school wiki. I showed the grade some of their classmates' interesting and thoughtful responses, such as these two:

Response 1:

Now if you listen closely
I'll tell you what I know
Storm clouds are gathering
The wind is gonna blow
The race of man is suffering
And I can hear the moan,
'Cause nobody,
But nobody
Can make it out here alone.

By nature I'm a worrier. I worry about peace in Israel, homelessness, the enviroment, and health issues. I realize that all of these problems can't be solved by me alone. The issues are difficult ones and can only be addressed by governments, communities, and individuals, all working together. After the most recent natural disaster, hurricane Sandy, many people were left without homes, heat, or power. My family and I spent a day in Far Rockaway distributing hot dogs and hamburgers to many people in need. At that moment I realized how fortunate I was that I belonged to a famiy and a community that was able to give back to groups of families in desperate need. It was a life altering experience.

Response 2:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth

As I begin my high school career, I now realize that I must choose an identity or "path" to guide me through not only high school but life. I know that I need to find a good path, one that can help me achieve goals, and help me become the person I want to be. Alternatively, the path I hope to avoid is the one that will take me in the wrong direction towards mediocrity and failure. Throughout the next four years I will be creating a path for myself, and I know how important it is to choose the right friends, achieve good grades in classes, be a good person, and the importance of respecting others. This poem clearly stresses this point, and how necessary it is for each person to choose their path and identity wisely.

Cosmology Myths

I then pointed out that part of their quest to understand who they were as individuals, both as people in the Western world and as Jews, included a look at where they had come from. In history, which is an integrated class of World and Jewish history, the freshmen were, during Chanukah time, studying the ancient Greeks and the effect that Hellenism had on Jewish life.

I proceeded with my slideshow, which compared Greek and Biblical cosmology stories. Here is what the Greeks believe:

Zeus defeats his father Cronos, Time, who is king of the Titan race of gods
The Titans represented natural disasters
Zeus tames natural disasters and is leader of the gods
Zeus rules the sky; his brothers Poseidon and Hades rule the sea and underworld

Once we took a look at the Greek story, I played this Disney favorite, which shows what a good job the Magic Kingdom did in conveying the Greek cosmology myth:

We then compared the Greek story to the Biblical one, which has a distinctly different feel because:

God is “eyeh asher eyeh”: He was, is and will be: timeless
God creates the world ALONE
God creates the world through words, not struggle
God rules the world ALONE

The Influence of Hellenistic Culture

The Torah does have key distinctions between its cosmology story and the Greeks', but as we know that doesn't mean the Jews were free from the influence of the very tempting Hellenized world. Here is a wall painting in a synagogue from the third century CE, in what is now Syria but was called Dura-Europos and was a place where Romans, Jews and pagans lived and influenced each other. The Jews were influenced by the art of Roman wall painting, which they copied by painting scenes from Tanakh all over the walls of their synagogue:

The Egyptians chase the Israelites through the Red Sea,
only to have it collapse on them when Moses follows God's instructions
The freshmen and I debated the inclusion of the hands at the top of the painting. Most were calm about the fact that the work showed God's hands; they reasoned that the anthropomorphism was simply a visual representation of the Biblical text. In fact, they argued that had the work NOT included God's hands, people might think it had been MOSES who had performed the miracle of the parting of the sea, something the Torah text explicitly does NOT want people to think!

However, the class was not as sanguine about this work:

The synagogue at Hammath-Tiberias.
When you visit it, treat yourself after to a meal at Deck's.
You won't be sorry!
This work is a floor mosaic from the late third or early fourth century CE, when Tiberias was the seat of the Sanhedrin. The mosaic at the top of the picture makes the ruin recognizable as a Jewish place: an ark is in the middle of the mosaic, and the ark is flanked by two menorot, which are in turn flanked by a lulav and etrog and a shofar and censer. Below the mosaic of the ark is a zodiac, a common enough occurrence in a synagogue from Late Antiquity; however, this mosaic depicts Helios the sun god in its center. Most of the students agreed the Jews of this synagogue had crossed a line, had ventured into the territory of idolatry and had not been true to Jewish values.

We then discussed how easy it is to cross a line into forbidden areas of secular culture. A good text to use to discuss this further is Rabbi Michael Broyde's letter about Modern Orthodoxy, which states that we are allowed to enjoy aspects of secular culture and use them to become closer to God, but we can only use those parts of secular culture that are not antithetical to Torah values: 


Greek and Torah Heroes

My next session during Freshman Greek Week was about Greek and Torah heroes. In short, the Greeks in their stories often succumb to fatalism and therefore heroes fall tragically, but Judaism does not have the same fatalistic view of the world, no matter what Qohelet says [for a discussion on that, see Greeks, Qohelet and Genesis]. 

Here's the slideshow in which I compare Greek and Torah heroes who are on the DL with foot/leg injuries:

The Wrap Up

This year I decided to experiment with the wrap-up presentation and use juniors and seniors to speak to the freshmen about where the freshmen would draw the line between their Judaism and secular culture. After planning the wrap-up session with a fellow teacher, I prepped a group of juniors and seniors, mostly students from RealSchool's Religious Identity team, and then sent my religious SWAT agents to do their work. They were fantastic. 

The juniors and seniors, about ten of them, took groups of about 13 freshmen each. Each freshman received a flashcard on which he/she wrote five things he/she considered inviolable about Judaism, five things the freshmen felt truly and profoundly defined them as Jews. They were then asked to imagine a scenario in which those five or at least one might be threatened. Lively discussions ensued.

A group of freshmen and the senior moderating their session
write their five inviolables of Judaism on a flashcard
Students discuss what's essential to their Judaism
As my colleague and I had hoped, the freshmen felt much more comfortable talking about their religious conflicts and plans for spiritual growth with their peers as opposed to with their teachers. The session left me convinced that using upperclassmen to "teach" the underclassmen was a good idea, and when I asked the juniors and seniors what they thought, they said they loved the opportunity to speak with the freshmen and find ways to challenge them to grow as Jews. I think the exercise also forced the upperclassmen to think more deeply about their own Judaism, though the group was one that was already inclined to do so. 

The wrap-up went so well that I not only would ask the upperclassmen to be part of future religious discussions, but I also want them involved in presenting sessions in secular subjects during Frisch's integrated days of learning. I love the idea of peer teaching and think it will become an important part of my student-centered initiatives.  

Notes for the Wrap-Up Session

If you want more detailed information about the wrap-up session, here is the email I sent the juniors and seniors in order to prepare them for the discussion. They told me they did use the information:


Thanks for moderating the Greek Week wrap up tomorrow. 

Here is the outline of the session. 

I'll introduce and reiterate the need to draw lines in our lives, to let in from secular culture what is aligned with Torah values and to reject what is not. 

We'll then divide the kids into ten groups. Once in the group, hand out the flashcards and tell the kids to write down 5 things they consider inviolable in their practice of Judaism. In other words, what means the most to them about their Judaism; what acts or values do they consider indispensable to their practice as Jews? Ask them also to consider a scenario where that practice or value might come under attack. Example: their friends are texting on Shabbat about where to meet up, so the only way to know where everyone is hanging out is to text friends. (You can think of other examples as well.)

When everyone is done writing and brainstorming, first get myriad examples of acts and values that are the inviolables for each person. Then have kids share examples of what might threaten the inviolables.

If your group isn't forthcoming and the discussion seems to be lagging, use the Rambam about the obligation to die "al kiddush Hashem" rather than violate the "big three," the "yehareg v'al ya'avor": murder, illicit relations and idolatry. Here is a summary from the Chabad of Oxford (yes, as in the University) about the Igeret Hashmad, the Letter of Apostasy in which Rambam defends Spanish Jewry for not converting to Islam:

Two central dilemmas Igeret HaShmad addresses are as follows: should one give up ones life when faced with forced conversion to Islam? The question has immense implications. By sacrificing their life, they allow their children to become orphans who will almost definitely be abandoned to Islam. Conversely, by submitting to Islam in public, the Jewish identity of the children can be retained  for generations to come.

Another question is whether a person can be considered a hypocrite in Judaism.  If the person converts to Islam but continues to observe some commandments and pray the Hebrew liturgy of the Siddur, is this hypocrisy?

Maimonides, as in the Mishne Torah[5], explains the Jewish law related to abandonment of Jewish practise under duress[6]:

A person who is forced to commit one of the three cardinal sins - idolatry, adultery, and murder - in any circumstances should rather die than capitulate. This applies whether the threat was to transgress in private or in public, during a time of oppression or freedom, and whether the threat is for personal motive or in spite of Jewish belief.

If the sin, however, is other than the three mentioned above, there is a difference as to whether the oppressor is out for personal benefit, or acting out of spite towards Judaism. This is one of the reasons why Esther was permitted under duress to marry the Persian king, Achashverosh[7], against Jewish law, since the motive of the king was for personal benefit, rather than out of spite[8].

If the oppressor has religious motives, there is a difference whether it is a time of persecution or peace. If the circumstances took place during a period of peace for the Jews, one is only permitted to transgress if it is done in private.

In addition to the laws of keeping the Jewish faith when threatened by death in certain circumstances, Maimonides discusses the need for a Jewish person to live to a high moral standard. A person who behaves in an anti - social manner causes a desecration of G-d’s name. If a person is held in high esteem, they are expected to live up to an even higher moral standard[9]. It is more problematic when someone abandons Judaism when not under duress, but for reasons of indulgence.

On the other hand when a person behaves in a manner that is of a high moral standard, this sanctifies G-d’s name: A person who is genuine, altruistic, commands respect, has a good reputation and is disciplined, sanctifies G-d’s name. These qualities, according to Maimonides, sanctify
G-d’s name more than religious practice.

When a Jew is indeed killed for being unwavering to the Jewish faith, it is the highest virtue in Judaism, as was merited by Rabbi Akiva and his colleagues, who were killed by the Romans[10]. Even  one who is not actually killed but was prepared to die and was miraculously saved, is also called a Martyr. The four Jewish advisors to Nebuchadnezzar, Chananya, Mishael, Azarya and Daniel experienced this. They were thrown in the lion’s den for not prostrating themselves before Nebuchadnezzar’s idol, and miraculously survived[11].

Similarly, the seven sons of Hannah refused to prostrate before the Greek ruler, Antiochus, and as a result were all put to death in front of their mother[12].

Maimonides writes, even one who is not observant but was killed for maintaining faith in Judaism merits a portion in the World to Come. This is illustrated in the story related in the Talmud, when the entireJewish population of the city of Lod was accused of killing the daughter of a Roman king; all its inhabitants were threatened with annihilation. Two brothers, Papus and Lulinus, came forward and falsely confessed to the killing in order to spare the lives of thousands of Jews. The Talmud says that this was an act of martyrdom and the brothers ascended to the loftiest level in Gan Eden where ordinary people cannot enter[13].

Returning to the subject of Spanish Jewry, Maimonides maintains that it is not incumbent upon a Jewish person to sacrifice their life not to convert to Islam. This is because conversion to Islam is purely a verbal declaration. One who does give up life, however, receives great reward and is indeed considered a martyr.

Conversely, Maimonides concludes, even one who is obligated  to sacrifice life not to convert to Islam, but does not rise to the challenge of martyrdom, and abandons Judaism under duress, is not considered an apostate and does not deserve any degradation or punishment. This is similar to a woman who is bethrothed to a man and is raped by another. The woman is not held accountable although she could have given her life and been spared the act of adultery[14].

This is very different to the Talmudic discussion concerning idolaters who abandon the Jewish faith willingly. The Jews of Spain are all in the category of forced converts and are not considered responsible for their actions. They are permitted to testify in a Jewish court of law and may be a witness in a marriage or on a bill of divorce.

Maimonides proceeds to enter into a diatribe towards the rabbi. He writes that the rabbi is sinful by expressing his opinion that Jews in Spain should die for their faith. This is compounded by the irony that this rabbi is expressing this view when he himself is living a life of religious freedom and comfort.

With regard to keeping Judaism under such difficult circumstances, Maimonides says, there is no reason for concerns of hypocrisy. If when under duress, certain Jewish practises are abandoned and others retained, it should not be said that the transgression overwhelms the observance. This rule only applies in a civil court of law; however, G-d rewards a person for each individual action notwithstanding other conduct. Therefore, a person should endeavour to keep theMitzvot as much as circumstances permit and will be rewarded for what is kept. Furthermore, a person should realise that a Mitzvah is of great value when done under difficult and life threatening conditions

. Although Maimonides defends Spanish Jewry for converting to Islam under duress, he nevertheless considers Jews who remain in Spain under such circumstances to be bordering on negligent abandonment of the Jewish faith.  If Jews feel they must remain in Spain, they should live covertly and stay as much as possible indoors, to avoid total assimilation.  He concludes by strongly advising that Jews should flee countries that prohibit Jewish beliefs and escape, even under dangerous travel conditions, to a country where to be conspicuously Jewish is permitted. He adds that they should not be distressed for leaving behind beloved family members, nor should they feel concerned that they are forfeiting their possessions by fleeing the country, as these matters are insignificant when considering the importance of retaining ones Jewish belief. 

Here is a link to the website: 

In addition, in Perek 5 of Hilkhot Yesodei Ha-Torah, Rambam writes that in a time of "tekufat ha-shmad," religious persecution, the injunction to die rather than violate the "big three" is suspended. I've attached an interesting shiur on Kiddush Hashem by Rav Lichtenstein. (It's always good to go into something like this with MORE info rather than just enough, y'know?)

Wrap up your part of the session with the quotation from The Catcher in the Rye, said by Mr. Antolini to Holden:

"The mark of an immature man is that he wants to die nobly for a cause, while the mark of a mature man is that he wants to live humbly for one." 

It's easy to make the grand gesture and say "I'll be a martyr for God" (OK, maybe it's not that easy, but it's easy to talk that talk.) It's much harder to do what Judaism asks us to do, which is to live humbly day to day, doing the small but necessary things that Judaism is comprised of. 

Then get the kids back to me in the front of the auditorium, and I'll end by saying that living at the line is hard, we have to feel the tension because that means we care, we should even enjoy the tension, and we should realize we have to own our Judaism because if we compromise and keep giving parts of it away, we'll be left with nothing. Therefore, as you forge your identities, you have to make sure you really own your Judaism and own your own religious growth in the same way you own your academic and extra-curricular life.

Happy Chanukah!

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