American Orthodoxy

And Even If Parents Are Present …

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Yaakov Bieler

Elli Fischer discussed Yitzhak using the frame-of-reference of a rabbi’s child and the set of overwhelming expectations that may be brought to bear on such an individual. Zev Eleff followed up with a discussion of how professionally-engaged parents, like rabbis, doctors, and lawyers, are often unavailable either physically or psychologically to their offspring. Yet another level of complexity is added by R. Samson Raphael Hirsch in his discussion of why the twins, Yaakov and Esav, turned out as differently as they did, despite—or possibly because of—receiving the same type of upbringing in the home of Yitzhak and Rivkah.

The Torah relates: “And the boys grew up, and Esav was a man familiar with hunting, an outdoorsman, and Yaakov was uninitiated (in the ways of the world), a dweller in tents” (Gen. 25:27). How might we account for the inconsistency between Yaakov and Esav? R. Hirsch insists that the educational principle stated in Proverbs—“Educate the youth in accordance with his way” (22:6)—was not adhered to by Yitzhak and Rivkah, particularly when it came to dealing with Esav. R. Hirsch states:

They paid no attention to the hidden inclinations (of their children) … a single Torah and a single type of education was provided for both of them …

The great Jewish mission is singular and unique in its essence; however, the way it manifests itself is multiple and variegated, like the multiple personality traits in people, and the varieties of their manner of living …

Requiring Yaakov and Esav to sit upon a single “school bench,” employing the same routines for educating them concerning a life of learning and thinking, was guaranteeing that one of them would be “ruined.” Yaakov drew from the spring of wisdom with an ever-increasing desire, whereas Esav only looked forward to the day when he could throw the old books “over his shoulder,” and along with them this entire approach to life, which he was led to understand in only a single-sided way to which his specific nature could not relate.

The importance of individualized instruction is usually thought to be a modern idea, so it is of note that a nineteenth century thinker advocated such an approach. But whereas professional educators are currently trained to take into consideration as much as possible the different personality traits and learning styles that they are likely to encounter in their classrooms, parents usually lack such preparation.

My wife, Joan, has often remarked that whereas one requires a license before she or he can drive, or provide complex services—there is no such prerequisite for being a parent. (Ironically, in day schools, general studies teachers must all be licensed, but this is often not the case with respect to the Judaic studies faculty!) Consequently, even if a child is fortunate enough to have parents who deliberately and self-consciously interact with him or her, whether that parent will be capable of or interested in addressing the child’s individual needs is highly questionable.

Children will experience the luck of the draw in their upbringing. Some will benefit tremendously, some will suffer, and still others will only succeed if they are capable of and motivated to overcome the limitations of the home-life and education that they will be given.

Yaakov Bieler
Rabbi Yaakov (Jack) Bieler has been engaged in Jewish education and the synagogue Rabbinate for over forty years. Rabbi Bieler was raised in Bayside, Queens, and attended local public schools. Following graduation from Yeshiva College and the James Striar School for Jewish Studies in 1969, he attended Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh in Israel in 1969-71. Rabbi Bieler then returned to Yeshiva University where he was ordained by the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary and received an MA in Jewish Education from the Ferkauf Graduate School of Education in 1974. Following graduation from Yeshiva, Rabbi Bieler served on the faculty and was Chairman of the Talmud Department of the Joseph H. Lookstein Upper School of Ramaz from 1974-1988. During his tenure at Ramaz, he was awarded a Gruss Outstanding Educator award in 1984. Concurrently, Rabbi Bieler served on the faculty of the Adult Education Institute of the Lincoln Square Synagogue between 1971-1977, and as permanent scholar-in-residence of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun from 1977-1988. In 1985, he received a Jerusalem Fellows fellowship and spent the year with his family in Jerusalem. In 1988, Rabbi Bieler assumed the position of Lead Teacher and Chairman of the Judaic Studies Department at the Hebrew Academy of Greater Washington, now as Berman in Rockville, MD. He served as the Upper School Assistant Principal in charge of Judaic Studies in 1991-2005. In 1993 he was appointed as Rabbi of the Kemp Mill Synagogue in Silver Spring, Maryland where he has served until his retirement in 2015. He has been an active member of the Rabbinical Council of America, serving on various committees over the years. In 2013, Rabbi Bieler was awarded the Rabbi Jacob Rubenstein Memorial Award for Outstanding Rabbinic Leadership by the RCA. Rabbi Bieler has published numerous articles on Jewish education and issues facing Judaism today, especially from the perspective of Modern Orthodoxy.