I was live-tweeting the Tablet sponsored Beinart-Gordis debate last night.
If you like, you can search #beinartvgordis on twitter and sift through the madness or just watch the debate here.
I might have blogged about the exchange itself but, well, we all know better than to do that… but I digress.
Toward the end of the debate, someone posed the following question to both interlocutors: If you were in an elevator with a Jew totally disaffected with Israel and Jewish tradition, what would you say to her?
I should say that, generally, I am not a fan of Daniel Gordis. But something he said really resonated with me, especially in light of the piece forwarded to me by Chuck English – which I will address later.
Dr. Gordis recounted the story of the ger (lit. “stranger” although some translate it as convert) who came to Shammai then Hillel and asked each to explain the whole Torah to him “on one foot”. In the Babylonian Talmud (Shabbat 31a), as the story goes, a cheeky ger decides to have some fun with the two greatest luminaries of his day. So he goes to Shammai’s house first, pounds on the door, rouses the elder to pose the question: “Explain to me the Torah on one foot.” Shammai chased him away angrily. (Shammai always was a bit of a hard-ass.) Hillel’s reaction is less hard: “Do not do unto others that which is hateful to you. The rest is commentary. Now go and learn.” And the ger did.
Gordis explained that the ger’s question was obnoxious and insulting:
I wouldn’t take two minutes to try to convince someone to be a moral human being … I wouldn’t try to explain why loving someone is more complicated, but worth it. Two minutes isn’t enough to take the place of years of upbringing. We are too used to trying to fit big ideas on an iPhone screen.
To ask anyone to sum up in two minutes or less everything that gives one meaning in life (and then try to convince someone else of its meaningfulness) can only reduce that thing to meaninglessness.
In other words, (and gird yourself for a leap) marketing is the apogee (or nadir?) of superficiality. Furthermore, reducing complex, human experience and feelings into anodyne soundbites is nothing less than soul crushing. (Unless it is on an iPhone … then, it may be soul crushing, but still wicked cool.)
Was that a bit strong? Then how’s this, toned down from eleven?
Marketing has the potential to suck the life out that which it is trying to sell – and it generally does. Perhaps, then, we should not use marketing techniques to “sell” Judaism…?
And the story makes that point too… sort of… because, the tale, as generally recounted, makes for a nice sermon about being nice and welcoming (it’s how Chabad rolls…) – but it is a corruption of the story as it appears in the sources. There is not one ger but three. The first came to Shammai and said he would convert to Judaism but only on the condition that he be taught only the written Torah. “I believe you with respect to the written,” the ger says, “but not with respect to the Spoken Torah.” (As an educator of pre-adolescents, I cannot bring myself to say ‘Oral Torah’.) Shammai “scolded and repulsed him in anger.” Hillel used a different method: trickery. He taught the ger with one method on one day, then used a different method the next. When challenged, Hillel replied (and I am paraphrasing): “As your teacher, I guess you trust me as to what these letters are – so why not trust me on matters of Torah?” The second ger was the Torah-on-one-foot guy. The third ger, an ambitious fellow, came to Shammai and asked to be converted so he could, one day, become the High Priest. Shammai “repulsed him with the builder’s cubit which was in his hand.” Hillel agreed to teach him. Eventually, the newly minted Jew realized that not only he could not be High Priest but neither could King David – so he was in good company. The happy ending: Some time later, the three converts met up and agreed: “Shammai’s impatience sought to drive us from the world, but Hillel’s gentleness brought us under the wings of the Shechinah.”
So perhaps a pithy rejoinder is enough to make a difference … if only Daniel Gordis had a really good copywriter with him in the elevator… (Peggy, where are you when we need you?)
However, what sermonizers tend to elide in their telling of this tale is that after the quick-witted Hillelian quips, the gerim actually sit down and learn. (Perhaps they do so under false pretences as Hillel does resort to trickery in two cases, but that is a blogpost for another time.) The tale obscures all the hard, oftentimes mundane work – but does acknowledge that, after many years, the gerim accumulate enough cultural capital (if I may wax sociological for a moment) to be literate, functional Jews. Hooray!
So what else might be learned from this oft-cited tale besides the need for a sexy quip? A sexy quip might attract you (or at least not repel you) but it is merely the opening sentence of a longer, millennia-long epic. And this epic, if it is to be engaged-with seriously, demands commitment – and, as in the case of Jewish education today, a lot of money.
So here comes Chuck English with a new marketing widget for 21st century education: Parents still want 20th century metrics so give them what they want. Perhaps I am reducing his argument to a sexy quip, flattening out its complexity and sucking the life out of it. But I re-read his piece again. And, really, there is very little more to it. Yes, there is some acknowledgement of the value of 21st century educational goals, to create learners nimble enough to contend with challenges as of yet conceived. But, as he quotes Seth Godin from Stop Stealing Dreams:
Parents don’t ask their kids, “what did you figure out today?” They don’t wonder about which frustrating problem is no longer frustrating. No, parents have been sold on the notion that a two-digit number on a progress report is the goal—if it begins with a 9.
So rather than try to educate parents and encourage them to transcend the old tyranny of the two-digit number, English advises (Jewish or independent school) educators to ostensibly give in: “We can’t be deluded by our own marketing material.” Tell parents what they want to hear about the school and their kids… just get them in the door. And then, like Hillel, do the ol’ bait and switch.
Where Shammai would chase away the disaffected with a stick and Daniel Gordis would not attempt to engage in light breeziness, Chuck English espouses Hillelian pithiness, empathy and… duplicitousness (?).
Is there a fourth path? Could we conceive of campaign where a well-crafted, blingy tagline attracts parents, but does not obscure or hide the school’s core Jewish values and pedagogical approach? Do tell – in the comments section below.