Deborah Klapper

Language For Teaching Torah – Modern Orthodoxy’s Hidden Curriculum

This is the first of a series of essays on the topic of “hidden curriculum” in the Modern Orthodox community. In future essays I intend to address other sources of hidden curriculum, including physical layout, furniture, architecture, and employment practices.

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“Hidden curriculum” is the term that the education world uses to refer to lessons that our students learn from everything about our school except the “curriculum”. For example, if the passing period is half the length of time that it takes to walk from one end of the school to the other, then our hidden curriculum is that we do not value promptness (or that running in the halls is okay). In Modern Orthodox shuls, our hidden curriculum is that women are incidental to the “real” community, which is constituted of the men. We communicate this message in a host of small ways, through everything from the language of announcements to the arrangement of the furniture.

Our hidden curriculum contradicts our intended message, which is that our daughters and sons make up the Jewish people together and equally. I present here some suggestions for getting our hidden curriculum back in line with what we want to teach. This is intended as a conversation starter; let’s have an open discussion and make conscious decisions about what sort of teaching we want for ourselves and our children. Let’s begin the conversation with the language we use to teach Torah.

I recently had the following experience: It was between mincha and maariv, about a week before Purim. I was in my shul, where we have a wonderful rabbi, sweet and kind in every way and dedicated to making every individual feel welcome and important. The rabbi had just instructed us that both men and women are obligated to hear parashat Zachor, and was moving on to instructions in the event that one missed hearing it in shul.

Rabbi: “It needs to be read from a sefer Torah, and ideally you should have 10 others there.”

A man in the back: “Don’t you mean 9 others?”

Me: “He was talking to the ladies.”

Everyone laughs at the absurdity of that suggestion.

Rabbi: “Yes, sorry; I mis-spoke. Ideally you should have 9 others.”

The rabbi had just taught that the mitzvah of hearing parashat Zachor is not gendered. Nonetheless, it was clear to everyone present that he was mis-speaking if he used language that could only describe women, and speaking correctly if he used language that could only describe men. Far too many of us assumed that the right way to say “You need a minyan” is “You need 9 others.” Even when speaking to a coed audience. Even from a wonderful person who would never deliberately make women unwelcome.

In the Modern Orthodox community today, when we are learning and teaching Torah, even when speaking to women, too many of us default to language that applies only to men. Language that applies equally to both women and men is used self-consciously in an attempt at political correctness. And language that applies only to women is heard as an error. Like it or not, these language choices form a substantial part of the “hidden curriculum” of our shuls and educational institutions.

But we don’t believe that women are not part of the community. And we don’t want to teach our children that women are marginal. So, it is time to change our language. We need to say what we mean, with both word and deed. Let’s be planful about this. Here are my suggestions.

When teaching about the importance of a mitzvah from which women are exempt, you are not done until you’ve explained why, when that mitzvah is so central to Jewish life, women needn’t or shouldn’t do it. We have spent far too long ignoring or sidelining the spiritual experience of women in our account of ta’amei hamitzvot. It is time we have something to offer beyond “Tzitzit are as important as all of the other mitzvot combined. Women shouldn’t wear them. Moving on….” Let’s have serious Modern Orthodox discussion of important questions like: What does Hashem want from women? Why does He want something different from men and women? What is the religious experience of women supposed to feel like?

When teaching about mitzvot from which women are exempt, do not begin sentences with “A Jew is someone who….” As in “A Jew is someone who wears a 4 cornered garment, so he will be obligated to wear tzitzit.” (That’s a real quote from a recent Modern Orthodox daf yomi shiur.) Actually, half of all Jews aren’t obligated to wear tzitzit, even when they do wear a 4 cornered garment. A better language would be “A Jew is someone who takes every opportunity to do a mitzvah. That’s why Jewish men should wear a 4 cornered garment ….”

When teaching about any halachic issue that has a gendered aspect, do not teach “the halacha” and then “but the halacha for women…”. Teach “men should … and women should…” or “men and women should both…”. Often we hear, “It is a mitzvah to say kiddush on Friday night. Women also need to do this mitzvah.” or “One must put tefilin on every day.” Those statements are the same thing as saying “Real Jews are men. Women are something else.” It is my experience that this phenomenon is actually less pronounced in older books. For example, the language the rabbi was translating above was “בעשרה”, which means “with 10 males”. That language is true of both men and women, but our modern language usage sends a language of “men only”. So say “The mitzvah of kiddush on Friday night applies equally to men and women,” and “Men must put tefilin on every day.”

When you speak to the community during shul, look into the women’s section and make eye contact as often as you do the same in the men’s section. Never turn your back on part of your audience, regardless of gender. If you think “there’s never anyone in the women’s section on weekdays,” check again. I’ve heard that said of women’s sections while I was standing in them. The mechitza often makes the very idea of women disappear. Even if the women’s section is empty, the message of speaking into it is clear – women ought to be here as part of our community, and we are missing something until we bring them in. Then we will be inspired to solve the problem of women’s absence, rather than being confirmed in our comfort with the status quo.

I hope that I have given you food for thought and discussion. Share this document with your rabbis, your teachers, and your colleagues. Talk about what messages you want to send and how to send them. Then implement those ideas, see if they work, and try again. We can improve our education if we choose, but it won’t happen by chance. It is my hope and prayer that this conversation will help the Jewish People to learn Torah and serve Hashem in a unified way. Not as “men” and “women”, but as a community.

About the Author
Deborah Klapper holds an AB from Harvard University and a Scholars' Circle certificate from Drisha Institute. She lives, learns, and teaches in Sharon, MA.
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