I. Chassidic Ark Science
As you may know, there is a major lawsuit going on in New York. On one side is Agudath Israel, Torah Umesorah, Mesivta Yeshivas Rabbi Chaim Berlin, Yeshivas Torah Vodaas, and others. On the other side is the Board of Regents of the State of New York and the New York State Education Department. The subject is the lack of general education in yeshivos (ironically, the organizations and yeshivos fighting the suit are not those which suffer from a lack of general education, which is only primarily a problem in the chassidic yeshivos.)
Recently, the Agudah filed an affidavit from Dr. Adina Schick to explain why “a yeshiva's Jewish Studies curricula has substantial academic value that can satisfy many of New York's Next Generation Learning Standards.” Among the points that she argues is that the general education requirements are indeed met by yeshivos through the teaching of the story of Noah’s Ark.
Through these lessons, Next Generation ELA Reading Standards, Writing Standards, Speaking and Listening Standards, and Language Standards, as well as Social Studies standards and Science skills can all be supported. As an illustration, when covering the weekly portion of Noah, through reading, hearing about, and discussing how Noah prepared for the flood, the ark that he built, the flood itself, and the aftermath of the flood, the students gain the ability to read with sufficient accuracy and fluency to support comprehension; ask and answer questions about key details; retell stories and understand main messages; ask and answer questions to clarify meanings; describe characters, settings, and major events in a story using key details; determine the meaning of unknown words and phrases. As such, critical ELA standards can be met through these lessons.
Now, I suppose that it can indeed be argued that learning the story of Noah’s Ark satisfies requirements for reading comprehension. And students can learn its powerful messages about how society must be based on morality or perish, and the importance of preserving the natural world in the face of destruction. However, Dr. Schick takes it further:
Social Studies standards related to gathering, interpreting, and using evidence; chronological reasoning and causation, comparison and contextualization; geographic reasoning can not only be met but, in fact, at times exceeded, with Yeshiva students being expected to meet standards aligned with older grade levels.
“Interpreting and using evidence”? I’m not at all clear how parasha classes about Noah’s Ark accomplish that, nor “contextualization.” And “geographic reasoning”?! Does that include discussing how kangaroos reached the ark, and the human civilizations around the world which continued throughout the period when they were supposedly wiped out?
But it gets worse! Dr. Schick continues:
Finally, Science skills including (but not limited to) classifying (e.g., animals as kosher or non-kosher based on their characteristics), creating models (e.g., drawing a picture of the ark), and predicting (e.g., who would be saved) may also be met.
You’ve got to be kidding. Yes, classification of animals as kosher and non-kosher is a legitimate form of taxonomy, as we teach at the museum, but it has very little to do with teaching science. I understand that the new education standards place a great emphasis on skills, but it also has to be based on some legitimate content!
As for the argument that science skills are developed by “drawing pictures of Noah’s Ark,” I don’t even understand what is being claimed to take place in chassidic schools and what it is alleged to accomplish. And asking “who would be saved on the ark” is hardly the sort of falsifiable hypothesis that is the hallmark of science.
The goal of New York’s education system is not just about sharpening minds (which can arguably be accomplished with a Torah-only education). It is also to provide students with necessary foundational knowledge in the sciences, both so that they can be informed consumers and also so that they have the ability to enter science-based careers. Learning about Noah’s Ark does not provide any foundational knowledge at all.
While the story of Noah’s Ark is immensely valuable from a moral perspective, and is treasured as a motif by conservation organizations worldwide, it’s not a source of science — especially not as taught in yeshivos. If anything, it makes it even more difficult for people to learn real science. For years I’ve been dealing with the scientific challenges raised by the story of Noah’s Ark, regarding which Rav Aharon Feldman told me, when I asked him 25 years ago how kangaroos got to the ark, that I shouldn’t be bothered by such things. It’s just ludicrous to present it as a way of teaching science.
Non-chassidic Jews such as Dr. Schick are accomplished precisely because they themselves never attended chassidic schools and would never dream of sending their own children to such schools. I don’t know why they are trying to help them, and I think that it’s harmful and even dangerous. Aside from the serious problems that are caused by raising children without a basic secular education, I don’t think that it’s at all a good idea for religious Jews to try to pull the wool over the eyes of national authorities in order to extract money from them.
II. ….And You
Meanwhile, on another note: A number of people were critical of my announcement that a portion of the posts on this blog will be only for paid subscribers, with a minimum of $8 monthly. Some said that it’s not a good business decision, which is an opinion to which they are entitled and might even be correct. But others seemed to think that it is actually inherently wrong and resent it. And so I would like to clarify a few things.
First, I would like to point out that I have spent untold hours over the last thirty years studying and researching and writing, and I have given away an enormous amount of material for free. And I will continue to do so; the majority of posts will still be free to all.
Second is that the money goes to The Torah and Nature Foundation, the non-profit that supports my books and the Biblical Museum of Natural History. It’s a donation to a charitable cause that inspires and educates tens of thousands of people annually about Torah and nature, and subsidizes that education for endless school groups. Presumably, this is a mission that every reader of this website values (and that’s why there is also an option to donate at a higher level). Even people who hate this blog are happy to support the museum!
Making a portion of the posts only for paid subscribers is for several objectives. It justifies the considerable amount of time and mental energy that this website takes away from my museum work. And it serves to differentiate between casual readers (who will still be able to read most of the posts) and people who Care About The Mission. I want to be able to identify the latter, and create a closer and more exclusive relationship with them.
These are the reasons why some posts will be only for paid subscribers, and also why the subscription fee (or rather: donation) is higher than with other websites. I like to think that this will be supported by people who are troubled that an increasing number of Jews are getting their science education from the story of Noah’s Ark.
Rationalist Judaism is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Noson, this is not a great post. Of Course Dr. Adina Schick knows that Noah's Ark does not represent contemporary scientific thought, but she is doing her best to negate the NY school board from dictating curriculum to Torah schools. I personally, as you know, am very knowledgeable in most of the sciences (for a layman) and I laud the teaching of science in frum schools. But on the other hand, I'm sure you agree that Torah is more important than science, and some Chasidim (and even Yeshivish as in Lakewood) eschew extended education in the sciences. I don't agree that is the best educational profile, but as long as the schools produce Torah educated fine individuals, I think it is wrong to pressure them to change. However, I don't want the secular authorities to get a foot in the door of curriculum in Jewish schools; that happened when the communists took over Russia, and they wiped out Torah education. I don't care if they cut funding, as long as they leave us alone.
Here, I don't think the many of the applications of the Noah's ark story are actually a poor match to state standards. Here is a link to the standards, which they have for kindergarten, first grade, etc.
You can expand each, and sometimes see examples of each. How does a kindergartener accomplish the subgoal of "contextualization"? Their sub-subgoal examples is: Identify similarities between home and school; identify similarities between him/herself and others; describe an event in his/her life.
These goals each have fancy names, but break it down, and the way they suggest one meet these are things one might write a substack criticizing as too basic. In reality, these are all basic. They don't require grappling with how kangaroos got on the ark. (Midrashim asking how the re'em fit on the ark, or how Og survived could be similar.) Asking how Avraham was similar but different from Noach in terms of righteousness. Describing an event in the parsha. And so on. Yes, expectations should shift by grade, but these aren't *really* kvetches, any more than typical assignment of what is taught is matched to these standards.