By William Kolbrenner
Open Minded Torah
Spring time in Jerusalem, so yet once more, my wife and I embark on the path of finding a place for our son Shmuel with Down syndrome, this time in a cheder, a pre-kindergarden class in our neighborhood.
So earlier this week, we set up a meeting with the principal of a school around the block from our house. Not only was he cordial, but he had the look of someone who was genuinely interested in helping us with the education of our son. There had not been a child in his school with Down’s syndrome for a generation, but listening carefully to our description of our son, his cordiality turned into what seemed like understanding. He invited us back the following day to meet with a rebbe and an administrator to discuss logistics – and how to integrate Shmuel and his ‘syat’ or ‘shadow’ into the classroom. The teacher of the class which the principal had in mind for Shmuel put it simply – ‘my business is to teach children; and I’d do my best to teach Shmuel as any other child.’ ‘Though I am not a professor,’ he continued with a wink, ‘I do have thirty years of experience.’
As we were leaving – s’yata d’shmaya my wife said – another one of the rebbes, seeing Shmuel, stopped us, and mentioned that he had been a classmate of the boy with Down’s syndrome from years back. To the questions which reflected the principal’s main concerns – ‘will he be disruptive?'; ‘will he be accepted by the other boys?'; ‘will he want to participate in class? – the rebbe answered with reassurance. As Tolstoy might put it, no two children are alike, and no two children with Down’s syndrome are alike, but the rebbe only affirmed what we had told the principal – his classmate had been full of joy, eager to participate and imitiate, not at all disruptive. Shmuel’s affability and good cheer – traits which prompt my wife to wonder what I would be like with an extra chromosome – and his cognitive high-functioning, we explained eagerly to the principal, are what brought us to mainstreaming and his neighborhood school in the first place.
A few days passed. I left some messages at the school, but my calls were not returned. When I finally reached the principal, he suggested I speak to someone else in the school -now a fourth person – who I was told would make the ‘final decision.’ It didn’t sound good; so I pressed the principal instead.
‘It’s a very difficult decision…’ His voice trailed off. ‘Don’t take this the wrong way Rav Kolbrener, and please don’t be insulted….’
Calling me rabbi, I thought to myself, was a bad sign.
‘It’s a matter,’ he hesitated, ‘of considering the mossad.’ It was now not just an elementary school, but an institute.
‘What about the mossad?’, I asked.
I was silent.
‘We have to think of what other parents will say when they see a child like Shmuel in the class with their normal children. How will we be able to justify it to them? They also have to be respected. It simply will not be good for the reputation of the school.’
I wasn’t insulted, in fact I had heard versions of this before.
There was an undoubtable hint of frustration in his voice – likely I thought that those from whom he had sought advice had a different view of the ‘mossad,’ and were forcing him to do something against his better judgment. So I responded: ‘we both know that what you are now advocating – acquiescing to close-mindeded and sanctioning fear of difference – is against our hashgafa, indeed I continued, any Torah perspective.’ ‘It’s a chilul hashem,’ I continued, ‘a desecration of G-d’s name, to send us away to schools outside of our community – to other schools, and other communities – when you yourself acknowledged that Shmuel could find a place in one of your classrooms.’
‘And as far as ordinary children,’ I went on, filling the silence, ‘we are not children of Esau who find perfection in this world, but the b’nei Yisrael, children of Israel, of Jacob, who acknowledge that this world is a place of lack and imperfection.’ ‘I am a pragmatist,’ I continued: ‘if Shmuel is disruptive or can’t be integrated into the class room, then we will take him out immediately, but if the experience of our home is true, if that of our building is true, of his nursery school are true, then Shmuel’s presence will be a blessing for him, and for all who have the chance to be around him.’
‘Rav Kolbrener’ – again the wrong title – ‘what you say is all emes l’emiso’ – the undeniable truth, ‘k’dosh k’doshim,’ the holy of the holies, but, and I could almost see and feel his shoulders shrugging, ‘we live in ‘olam ha sheker – a world of lies.
Here it was – the olam ha’sheker excuse! I had heard people exclaim ‘olam ha’sheker’ as an expression of frustration; this was the first time I heard it as an explicit excuse. Using the olam ha’sheker excuse, not as a form of self-consolation, but justification for doing the wrong thing, turns Torah into something theoretical – ‘we can’t actually live by the words of Torah!’ So Torah ceases to be a manual for life – a handbook for tikkun olam – the redemption of the world, but an ideal to which we aspire when not in conflict with our prejudices and fears. The principal couldn’t help being honest: so he acknowledged that my words were true, even holy, but from the olam ha’sheker perspective, such truth and holiness don’t have a place in the world. So Judaism transforms into a religion of ideals only. How often is such an excuse – even if not explicitly uttered – used as a means of justifying our laziness, self-interest or even corruption?
Traditions in the West in literature, philosophy and theology – from Homer to Plato to the apostle Paul – separate the ideal, take it out of the world. But Judaism – and this was one of the reasons that I started, years ago, to begin to split my time between the library and the beit midrash – transforms the real into the ideal, elevating the world. Judaism offers the promise of a learning which is not simply theoretical – those earnest discussions I used to have in the seminar room in graduate school – but a learning leading to action and tikkun olam.
Or perhaps this is naive? too idealistic?
First published here