What are acceptable means of teaching children about matters such as pregnancy and its potential complications? What does Judaism say about how we should teach our children values?
Former President George W. Bush shared in his memoir that when he was a teenager, his mother, Barbara Bush, showed him her miscarried fetus in a jar. Is this kind of approach condoned in Judaism?
A)Does Judaism have a position about what sorts of things are appropriate to show children for educational purposes, specifically about things that are seen as grotesque?
B)Does Judaism have a general theory as to how to engage in values-educatiom
C)Does Judaism have a position about the proper treatment of miscarried fetuses?
With regard to the first and second elements:
Both the Tanakh and Talmud contain numerous stories with strong elements of the grotesque, so I think there is no intrinsic Jewish objection to such educational techniques.We do, of course, emphasize that values education should be effective and psychologically healthy, and I suspect that the effectiveness and effect of such techniques are heavily dependent on cultural context.
Traditional Jewish values education involves both adult role-modeling and training children, through both incentives and disincentives, to follow both broad principles and a highly detailed set of regulations.Most of this is, I presume, fairly standard crossculturally; the distinctly Jewish aspect here is the detailed set of regulations.I think it is fair to say that according to Jewish tradition children should be taught values concretely as well as abstractly, and through ongoing practice as well as study.
With regard to the third element:
The standard position in Jewish law is that miscarried fetuses should be buried.Accordingly, one could justify keeping such a fetus in a jar for educational purposes only if it was clearly a uniquely effective way of making a vital educational point.Not having read the memoir, I can’t say whether Mrs. Bush’s purposes were vital or that this means was uniquely effective.
In his extensive four-volume Hebrew study of the history of Jewish education, Simhah Assaf cites hundreds of sources from a wide variety of Jewish communities that show just how important it was to inculcate Jewish children with the means of living their lives as knowledgeable and committed Jews.These sources include the syllabi and curricula of Jewish schools, teaching standards, evaluative techniques and more.The reader will notice, however, that the goals in formal Jewish education were to convey information (i.e. teach texts and their meaning) and to provide the practical means for earning a living.Jewish values were not taught apart from texts and skills but were incorporated in them.For example, students learning texts about returning lost property will ineluctably learn about respect for another’s property, conflict resolution, personal responsibility, etc.And students learning about how Moses instructed Joshua to carry out God’s command to attack the Midianites and destroy them rather than do so himself because Moses took refuge in Midian, would also learn the principle that one never forgets a favour.Yet, there is evidence to suggest that values were not always successfully learned or that the subject was too sensitive to teach.For example, the Talmud (Berakhot 62a) reports how a certain student hid under his teacher’s marital bed to learn about sexual intimacy.Clearly, sex education was not part of formal rabbinic studies.
Parents share in teaching their children.In fact, according to the Torah, parents are the primary educators.But not every parent is equipped to succeed in the endeavour and not every method is going to work.Object lessons are sometimes useful and so are physical exhibits.However, care must be taken not to cancel the promotion of one value at the expense of another.Judaism advocates a strict observance of the principle of respect for the dead.So displaying a miscarried fetus may have some educational value in teaching about child development and even sexual responsibility, but it comes close to undermining the value of respect for human remains.Jewish parents may avail themselves of the many books on the market that are less graphic yet equally efficacious in teaching about fetal development.More importantly, Jewish parents should verbalize that sexual activity is not simply a matter of knowing the “plumbimg” but in having self-discipline as well as respect for others and the sanctity of human relations.
Since I have not read this memoir, I cannot comment on whether this was Barbara Bush's way of teaching him “about matters such as pregnancy and its potential complications”. I don’t know whether it was her intention to teach him about the development of the fetus, or the effects of miscarriage or abortion, or some other area. If it were her intention to teach about the complications of pregnancy, I guess I would question whether any parent should take tissue from her/his own body and display it for that purpose.
In my opinion, there are far better methods for teaching learners at various ages about human reproduction; issues surrounding miscarriage, both medical and religious; abortion; birth control; sexually transmitted infections and diseases; and the like. Age-appropriate materials are available from the Reform movement of Judaism, as well as from the United Church of Christ. Both of these organizations have well thought-out curricula for these subjects and people involved in religious communities should definitely be involved in learning and teaching these subjects.
Judaism has always believed that teaching young people is done case-by-case, example by example. What this means is that each child is different, and therefore the manner in which you teach one child is unique, and unlike the next. The midrash surrounding the Four Children of the Passover Seder is a prime example of this:
The Wise Child is taught carefully the laws of the seder, because s/he is ready to receive all of the wisdom and knowledge of the Torah. The Wicked Child is taught, literally, by “blunting his/her teeth", that is, giving a blow to the face (see a literal translation of the Passover Hagaddah for the details). The Simple Child we teach simply and straightforwardly, and for the One Who Does Not Know How to Ask, we simply say that ‘we were freed from slavery’ and then we listen to the child to guide us to the areas about which s/he needs to know.
Another way of teaching is by example. As parents perform their daily duties and actualize their values, so, too, children will learn and come to emulate their parents.
Finally exposing young people to notable authorities, male and female, old and young, from various streams of Judaism and covering different philosophies, this demonstrates to young people that there are many different ways to approach any issue, that there is not only one solution to any problem.
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