A lesson a day will keep the grey away

I recently posted an article about the subject of messages that children get in school and how it is quite important to “monitor” those types of messages and be in tune with both child and school.

Among some of those “dangerous” messages that children get is that everything in Judaism is black and white. Not only is everything black and white, there is not even room for the color grey in the nomenclature of Halacha or Jewish life.

First, let’s be honest from the outset: Of course, there are MANY areas in Judaism that are black and white. When it comes to Halacha (Jewish Law) the rules are the rules as found in Shulchan Aruch. We must keep Shabbat, Kashrut, Taharat HaMishapacha, etc. We must put a mezuza on our doorposts and we must not charge interest on a personal loan.

The problems begin when we teach our children (both in home and in school) that EVERYTHING is black and white. When we teach them that there is NO GREY in Torah. When we deprive them of the ability to even think for themselves!

Let’s take on area that seems to always be a hot button topic: clothing. Every school has as its right to have a dress code and to enforce that dress code. The problems begin when the dress code of the school is taught as being Torah M’Sinai. And not only that, but they teach that those who do not dress “in our way” are not considered dati/frum/religious. Black and white with no room for grey.

Perhaps a message that might be a bit more appropriate is that this is the school’s haskafa (philosophy) based on their understanding of Halacha but that there are other opinions “out there.” And since there are other opinions, we need not judge others and say they are no good or not religious.

(When signing up for a school, it is important to know what their dress code is and as parents to see to it that — as long as they are in that school — it be followed. However, that does not negate a discussion at home about the family’s philosophy nor should it prevent  questions from being asked.)

Yes, there are many grey areas in the area of clothing. What about pants for girls? Many schools will invoke the idea that pants on girls transgresses the prohibition of women not wearing men’s clothing. Black and white…no grey. While that may have been true 30 years ago, it is a fairly hard case to make nowadays with clothing style changes in the world. I am not saying all girls should run out and buy pants. I am saying that when a school or family meets out its philosophy that there is no grey area here, the next step is even more dangerous: children (and adults!) referring to those girls wearing pants as not observant…leading to more and more sinat chinam.

Jewish lifestyle choices: Is one Modern Orthodox, Haredi, Charda”l, etc? We use these labels and very often these labels come at a price: WE are right and THEY are wrong. Again, it is black and white: no grey.

And if a child does not “fit the mold”? He or she can’t sit still for 7 hours a day and suddenly they are seen by others as “not like one of us” and are marginalized because you’re not “normal” like the rest. Or as one mother wrote to me: “…And even more so with the kids school. Most kids don’t fit in the box. If they were treated as individuals and not stuffed into a mold they would flourish. Every person has strengths and if they were fostered it could change the child.”  We must always remember the words of Shlomo HaMelech: ” חנוך לנער על פי דרכו” (We are to educate a child based on his way of learning)

It is high time that we begin to let our children see that there is life beyond black and white. We seem to pull the shade down and want to cover up the grey areas. Are educators afraid? Are schools afraid?
I repeat, absolutely a school has its right to express its philosophy to its students and that it can and should be presented in the proper way as being the way they wish to educate their students. But by negating all other options and ideas that do not conform to your own, you are not only stifling their brains/knowledge base/growth, you are planting the seeds of divisiveness, sinat chinam.

In addition, your are also preventing individuals from seeking Hashem, each in his own way. Finding Hashem and connecting with Hashem has no one absolute path. There are many to paths down which to travel–as long as it is B’derech HaTorah.

About the Author
After living in Chicago for 50 years, the last 10 of which Zev Shandalov served as a shul Rav and teacher in local Orthodox schools, his family made Aliya to Maale Adumim in July 2009. Shandalov currently works as a teacher, mostly interacting with individual students.