The Danger Of Lowering Our Expectations

In a recently letter to the editor of Jewish Action, Dr. Bernard H. White of Dallas, Texas, responded to an editorial by Dr. Simcha Katz, in which the OU president recounted the story of a young man who, although the product of a prominent Jewish day school and high school system, confessed to feeling “ignorant of Judaism” even after a year in Israel. Dr. White observed:

It is likely that Sam’s parents spent about a quarter-million dollars on his Jewish education, only to end up with an “ignorant” product. What a devastating indictment of the education we are providing to the next generation.

Unfortunately, Jewish schools and educators have not been immune to the lunacy sweeping the educational enterprise—suppression of competition, safeguarding students’ feelings at all costs, promoting self-esteem over academic achievement and dumbing down coursework to the level of the least-capable student. What has been lost is the insistence on excellence, an aggressive curriculum of core subjects (both Jewish and secular) and devotion to hard work.

The truth is that this is not a new phenomenon. In fact, it goes back to nearly 2,800 years ago and, in a very real sense, it lies at the heart of all the problems that have plagued the Jewish people ever since.

The Jewish nation reached its halcyon days early in the reign of Shlomo HaMelech. The kingdom was secure from its enemies, its monarchy firmly established, its sphere of influence extending as far as Babylon, its Temple the single greatest wonder of the world. The people lived according to the dictates and values of the Torah, their spiritual integrity rewarded by Hashem’s blessing for material wealth. The opportunity to usher in the messianic era seemed palpably within their grasp.

But that potential was never realized. The introduction of idolatry by Shlomo’s foreign wives eroded the nation’s merit and caused the kingdom to be split in two. And although the separate kingdoms might have both prospered, the corrosive paranoia of King Yerovom of Yisroel propelled his people into a downward spiral culminating in the dissolution of his own kingdom and the moral corruption of neighboring Yehudah.

Despite Hashem’s promise of a dynasty like that of King David, Yerovom feared that when the Jews of Yisroel returned to Jerusalem to observe the festival of Sukkos, their joy at being reunited as one people would inspire them to reject Yerovom and pledge their loyalty to the House of David. Rather than risk losing his kingdom, Yerovom placed border guards along the roads to Jerusalem, erected a pair of golden calves for his people to worship, and proclaimed the words at still echo across the ages:

“Rav lochem – It is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem! Behold your gods, Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt.”

In a single phrase, Yerovom created within Jewish society a culture of mediocrity. After the ten plagues, the splitting of the sea, the victories over Amoleik and Midian and Sichon and Og, after forty years of mann and the miracles in the desert, after nearly five centuries combating enemy nations given free reign over the Jews because they failed to live up to the standards Hashem and the Torah had clearly laid out for them – after all that, Yerovom blithely declared that Hashem would readily accept Yisroel’s service to idolatrous intermediaries in order to spare his people a few extra miles of travel up to the place where their father Avrohom had been prepared to offer his only son in the supreme act of spiritual self-sacrifice.

And the people eagerly accepted his dispensation.

For our part, we refuse to learn the lessons of the past. If only we expected less of our children, the current thinking goes, then they would love their Judaism. So we lobby for shorter school days, easier grading, less homework, accelerated and abbreviated davening – and we look the other way when they pull out their phones to text on Shabbos.

Then we see that it isn’t working, so we just keep expecting less and less. What will we say when there’s nothing less for us to expect?

Rabbi Goldson writes at
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14 comments on “The Danger Of Lowering Our Expectations

  1. Rabbi Goldson–

    What was your message? How does your analogy to Yeravam apply to today’s educational scene and system? Thanks in advance for clarifying for those of the readers (I’m one) who didn’t intuit your point as well as Rabbi Homnick apparently did.

  2. It’s true that Shlomo HaMelech was responsible for the division of the kingdom, but it is inaccurate to accuse him of “relaxing his standards.”

    Although an adequate discussion of Shlomo’s error is beyond the scope of these comments, his desire to fulfill Yisroel’s mission as an Ohr LaGoyim led him to interpret an exemption in the Law where none existed.

    Even great people make mistakes. But there is a vast difference between errors committed in pursuit of perfection and errors resulting from carelessness, sloppiness, or apathy.

    And thank you, Rabbi Homnick, for your assessment of my post. Yes, I could have defended myself, but your ability to do so successfully demonstrated that my message was not entirely off the mark.

  3. We forget something in this narrative: Had the member of the House of David been acting appropriately, these events would not have happened. It was the designated leader relaxing HIS standards that the problem was triggered.

  4. Re #10: “…having or not having Gelt, or money, sadly affects too many decisions made in the frum velt.”

    I think this is prevalent throughout Judaism, not only in the frum/observant segment. Maybe it would be interesting to have an independent topic about this.

  5. To Yisroel Homnick #8: IMHO, the central question of the article was, “Why are some yeshivos producing graduates who are ignorant and uneducated?” IMHO, my own answer to that question was that SOME schools are being run by individuals whose primary concern is regrettably not providing a quality education. I didn’t view my answer as a non sequitur, and certainly not as a “total non sequitur.”

    On this blog, we generally agree to disagree, without ad hominem attacks. I was shocked by your assertion that I “bring [my personal prejudice] to bear on every unrelated issue.” That’s what arrow buttons are for: if you don’t like having to read my opinions, scroll past them. Or shoot down the message itself rather than the messenger, or the creator of the message.

    I have a rather cynical viewpoint that having or not having Gelt, or money, sadly affects too many decisions made in the frum velt. This is just my own analysis. It’s not my own attitude. I don’t agree with at all that having or not having Gelt should be any kind of a factor in either obtaining quality shidduchim or in obtaining a quality yeshiva education. If there does exist a sad situation where money is too much of a factor when it shouldn’t be, well let’s try to work to change that rather than accepting it, or denying it.

  6. R’ Homnick,

    In your own view, has there been erosion of academic standards in our schools? If so, is it for reasons given here or other reasons you can discuss?

  7. Not sure why I feel obliged to defend Rabbi Goldson when he’s a big boy and can defend himself admirably, but here goes:
    First, Judy: Total non-sequitur. You obviously have a bee in your bonnet about this one issue, and you bring it to bear on every unrelated subject. In most yeshivos, there are 2 guys in the building worrying about how to get the bills paid, everybody else is focused on education. I’m sure you’d be happier if the compromises made were to take in mediocre students who could afford tuition over excellent ones who can’t, or to not punish the outrageous behavior of the rich man’s child so as not to lose support. Compromises are always made – you just try not to lose your soul in the process. (Yes, with gov’t programs, it’s easier to lose one’s soul, but you tend to lose your students soon afterwards as well.)

    Back to Rabbi Goldson: His point is both obvious and important. We can laud having 50,000 people run a marathon because even the 40,000th finisher is getting health benefits that make his efforts worthwhile, but we’re afraid that if #24 in a class of 30 doesn’t get an 80 on his test, he will be traumatized for life.

    The Rabbis of the Talmud gave a “kallah” lecture to the entire community for Shabbat & Yom Tov. While they added stories, parables and wit to engage all, they aimed the depth level to their students, and let the ignorant know that even being part of the surging Torah-thirsty crowd was worthy of their time.

    It was not Rabbi Goldson who leapt to the conclusion that our protagonist Sam was correct in his self-assessment of Judaic ignorance, it was Dr. Simcha Katz followed by Dr. White. Why does Rabbi G have to assume that Dr. Katz misread or misstated the situation?

    Nor did Rabbi G state that safeguarding our children’s feelings causes them to learn less, or that we should ignore those feelings. He did imply that standards and expectations have been lowered using, among other rationales, the rationale of protecting feelings so as not to harm self-esteem.

    If, for [a rough] example, I let my child sleep through his first day at work because I believe he needed the sleep, and you respond, “It’s a big mistake that you’re trying to protect your child’s health at this moment!” Would you consider it reasonable for me to say, “So it’s wrong to protect a child’s health?” or “You want me to give my son the impression that money is more important than health?”

    Let’s give our children helmets & knee pads, not put them in a germ-free gas-filled bubble. Real Life doesn’t allow for that, and our children must be ready to enroll in the College of Hard Knocks.

    Finally, I suspect that Rabbi Goldson would not pretend that the Dr. White letter was anything but a springboard to air a pet peeve. Sam may be a Judaic sage & a paragon of humility, but it’s still important that Rabbi G inform us that all of Israel needs to be standing at the foot of the mountain, looking upwards with a powerful urge to surge…

  8. Judy, aren’t you touching on only one aspect of community dysfunction? Maybe the whole idea of picking community leaders by heredity/connections and not merit has exacted a toll. How many “dynasties” have gone downhill?

    At any rate, don’t hold your breath for government to fix this. Cooperative voting blocs are important to politicians.

  9. Here’s where I am going to get more bricks thrown at me (from those who haven’t already exhausted their supply from my previous comments about other topics).

    I strongly believe and this is IMHO only, that there are SOME schools within the “ultra-Orthodox” community where the goal of providing a decent education runs regrettably second to the goal of procuring as much government funding as possible. Maybe the school is getting XYZ govt dollars for reduced cost meals, or textbooks, or bus services, or early intervention, or asbestos abatement, or security systems, or noise proofing, or greening its energy use; but perhaps a significant percentage of that govt money is not really being utilized for improving the educational experience for the students.

    I am not an expert in pedagogy, nor am I an economist, but it takes neither to comprehend that schools are loci of money: funds from various sources are taken in, and funds are spent on various school needs. In the best run schools, there is strict oversight over how every penny is accounted for. In the worst run schools, one finds cronyism, embezzlement and other financial embarrassments.

    This is not a problem only for our own community of course: there have been crooked and self-serving public and private school boards across the country, where according to the words of one writer, “two minutes would be taken at a meeting of the school board to discuss the curriculum, and then they would take two hours to discuss who would get the job of bus driver on Route 1, because that paid X dollars a week.”

    There were two groups in our community where the succession following the death of the group leader was fought over bitterly, and one suspects that the issues of power and control centered on the financial accounts of each group’s schools: the ability to dole out jobs, award contracts and choose vendors.

    In the meantime, students suffer if and when their schools are deliberately staffed with people willing to accept meager paychecks, which are often delayed or never paid at all. It is not uncommon to encounter young people from these schools who are virtually illiterate and innumerate: even those who hold high school diplomas can barely fill out an application or prepare a 1040 EZ tax form.

    Government both here and in Israel is reluctant to intervene in the running of these “charedi” or “ultra-Orthodox” schools. Yet until control of those schools is wrested away from the iron grip of individuals who are self-serving and only interested in money, their students will continue to receive only a substandard education.

  10. I don’t see the connection the author is trying to draw between Yeravam and his critique of current education.

    On the broader point: I assume that the author must be talking about only a subset of schools –or is the contention that Jewish education is totally watered down today?

  11. Anon made good points above. Writers (and sermon presenters, too) should try to build a well-supported case that connects all the dots. All the necessary elements for a good halachic argument would basically apply here, too. .

  12. “So we lobby for shorter school days, easier grading, less homework, accelerated and abbreviated davening – and we look the other way when they pull out their phones to text on Shabbos.”

    Re. homework, this is a quote from R. Solomon, from a discussion in the Baltimore publication “Where, What and When”(“The Homework Dilemma”, 12/1/11):

    “Rabbi Matisyahu Solomon, mashgiach of Bais Medrash Gevohah in Lakewood, writes in his book With Hearts Full of Love that homework can be detrimental to the child and family:

    “Any more than a limited amount of homework is not necessarily a positive contribution to chinuch…Most children simply cannot complete such homework assignments without the help of a parent…Besides subjecting the children to undue pressure and tension, such homework assignments can be unwelcome intrusions into the world of the home…How are parents with six children supposed to get anything done at home if they must spend hours and hours every evening doing homework with their children…The school is a place of pressure, and the home is where he is praised and rewarded for having made the effort in the pressured learning environment of the school. “

  13. What a collection of leaps of logic!

    (1) The student “feels” ignorant, and this is not because of the student’s humility, but because the school has given the student a poor education.

    (2) The education is poor because the school has supressed competition, safeguarded feelings, and dumbed-down coursework.

    (3) This is substantially the same as the argument of Yerovoam.

    (4) To safeguard our children’s feelings is to ask them to learn less.

  14. Yerovom promoted mediocrity where it could help him compete with his archrival king of Judah. I doubt he wanted any of his government’s functions to be mediocre.

    The PC values of target parents drive our schools to apply at least some PC values, too, in order to help the schools enroll and retain students.

    Sam’s problem was not that his school was mediocre across the board. His school likely focused its rigor and elitism towards secular studies in line with the host community’s values. Some Jewish schools focus on Torah studies and let secular studies be mediocre or pitiful, because that’s what their communities want.

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