HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

Harnessing Lawrence Kohlberg for Tanakh Education

by Chana Tannenbaum Issue: Ethics

In every generation, religious educators face new obstacles in transmitting their belief and value system to their students. External influences serve to shape adolescents’ scope of interests as well as impact their personal moral code, adding to the challenges that religious instructors may encounter. Contemporary students are undoubtedly adversely influenced by the prevailing morality that they are exposed to in the media and on the Internet. Using Lawrence Kohlberg’s famous theory of moral development in the classroom can help educators instill Jewish morality and values in teenage students while simultaneously helping students connect to the texts.

Using hypothetical dilemmas to trigger discussions, Kohlberg presented conflict, allowed students to confront arguments on a higher level and to role play. In this manner, students had the ability to achieve advancement in moral reasoning.

Briefly, Kohlberg describes moral judgment development as proceeding through three levels, with each level containing two stages (see sidebar). In level one, the first two stages are referred to as “preconventional,” where people interpret right and wrong in terms of the egocentric consequences of the action (for example, punishment or instrumentalism). Kohlberg considers level two “conventional,” where the person focuses on maintaining the expectations of significant individuals and upholding conformity to the social order. “Postconventional” reasoning includes stages 5 and 6, where morality is defined apart from authority, is more internally based, and revolves around moral principles.

According to Kohlberg, all of mankind begins life at the lowest, “preconventional” level. Since the stages are natural steps of development, most people will advance to stage two, followed by stage three at approximately nine years of age. It is only in middle or late adolescence that individuals ascend to level four. If it is to occur at all, people may advance to stage five around the late teens or early twenties. Only 5-10% of the American population will ever reach this stage. Advancement through the stages occurs in a sequential pattern. There is no skipping of a stage. Once a stage has been achieved, one will not regress to an earlier one.

Besides the obvious need for increased cognitive ability, stage transition occurs primarily because of exposure to real life or hypothetical dilemmas which present an unsolvable conflict and makes the individual uncomfortable. In addition to this dilemma, experience with the next higher level of ethical reasoning as well as role playing will cause people to advance to a higher stage.

Kohlberg and his associates experimented and proved that deliberate attempts to facilitate stage changes in school were successful. Using hypothetical dilemmas to trigger discussions, Kohlberg presented conflict, allowed students to confront arguments on a higher level (through their peers’ or teacher’s probe questions) and to role play. In this manner, students had the ability to achieve advancement in moral reasoning.

Besides the moral benefit of the dilemma discussions, there are many practical educational goals that can be achieved through these exercises. Firstly, students can learn basic participatory skills such as listening, critically analyzing, formulating their own opinions, responding to others, clearly and cogently expressing their position and attitudes and defending their adopted position. Each student should be given an opportunity to express his/her ideas, thereby promoting self-worth and esteem. Before expressing their own ideas, the students should be asked to respond to the previous speaker’s (classmate or teacher) points. This technique encourages the student to listen and evaluate their peers’ thoughts and not just espouse their own. Generally, students feel good when they speak and everyone listens—their opinion matters.

Presenting students with dilemmas facilitates the acquisition of knowledge making the information more relevant to the students’ lives then it would otherwise seem. The reasoning ability of the students also increases in that they are forced to defend their opinions logically. Their abstract reasoning talents should improve as well as their ability to understand values.

The purpose of the dilemmas is to allow students to relate to the biblical texts and characters as role models that have real struggles, conflicts and choices.

Besides explaining the developmental nature of moral development, Kohlberg’s main contribution was the methodology that he created in order to stimulate growth through the stages. His thought provoking and engrossing dilemmas force students to become involved in the learning process. These dilemmas not only encourage moral development, they can also connect students to their Judaic studies.

There is much to be gained from introducing into the religious studies classroom discussions designed to advance moral development. Kohlberg’s methods encourage students to explore different issues and internalize them. Students are allowed to understand and relate to the ideas on their own level of moral reasoning as opposed to being force fed ideas that they can’t comprehend from their teachers. In addition, if the subject can be taught including relevant dilemmas to the students’ lives it will help make the information more meaningful. According to Dorothy Rubenstein, by presenting a variety of levels of reasoning the teacher will enable “each student [to] buy in at her stage of cognition, while at the same time he begins to hear other levels of meaning and reasoning.” There have been a number of attempts to preserve the power of Kohlberg while at the same time successfully pursue the aims of traditional Jewish education.

Although recently there has been much excitement about the inclusion of the Kohlberg model into the Judaic studies classroom, it is not without reservations. Kohlberg denies any member of a formal religion a position as a stage six thinker. He categorizes them at stage four moral reasoners. Torah living is essentially a heteronymous existence since Jews’ actions and beliefs are believed to be divinely dictated. Kohlberg’s ideal of autonomous, self-directed choices based on universal principles is perforce at loggerheads with religious dogma.

Barry Kislowicz suggests that Kohlberg’s philosophy can be compatible with traditional Jewish thought, if we do not demand that a traditional Jew use autonomous reason to create morality but only act as if he/she had created that morality. A rational Jew can accept G-d’s moral will as one’s own without obviating autonomous moral judgment, because one believes that G-d by definition commands the good (according to the natural morality to which he, as it were, is bound). A number of different approaches have been developed to integrate Kolhberg into the Judaic studies classroom. Some choose just the technique (Norman Amsel), some choose the whole package (Earl Schwartz) while others adapt the method (Morris Sosevsky).

A more universal problem with Kohlberg’s stages is that he is not interested in how someone should act but rather why an individual would respond in a certain manner. Moral thinking does not necessarily translate into moral behavior. Jewish education provides an initiation to a specific lifestyle, including specific behavior patterns as well as a worldview, while Kohlberg is interested only in patterns of moral thought.

Within Jewish education, the dilemma situations have been used in the teaching of Jewish history and Halachah. I would like to suggest that we can incorporate these dilemmas into the Torah curriculum as well. The purpose of the dilemmas would be to allow students to relate to the biblical texts and characters as role models that have real struggles, conflicts and choices.

The students should be asked why would someone lie. Is a lie ever justifiable? This discussion brings to life Genesis chapter 21, when G-d changes the truth and acts as a role model for humanity. The story of Jacob deceiving his father is on the same plane.

Using Moral Dilemmas in Teaching Torah

When approaching Genesis 14, the war of the four and five kings, one might see little relevance to the life of the fourteen year old. In order to make the information come alive, one might begin the lesson with the story of Entebee or Nachshon Waxman, raising the question, should an individual jeopardize his own life in order to save another’s. Probe questions would revolve around the number of people being saved, the relationship of the savior to the hostages, the likelihood of success, etc. When the discussion shifts to Abraham, students can explore his own reasoning and calculations in his willingness to save Lot. The story also helps the reader to understand his character, his dedication to acts of kindness and why this is considered a test.

The story of baby M and the issue of surrogate motherhood provide marvelous dilemma material for the story of Sarah. Can one sell a baby, can you make a legal contract over a life, who is the mother of a child, why would someone use a surrogate, are all situations the same, etc. After the students explore the concept of barrenness, the desire for children and definition of motherhood, they see the actions of Sarah with Hagar in Genesis 15 in a different light.

An issue of major importance in a high school classroom is lying. A dilemma can be presented where the main character lies. The students should be asked why would someone lie. Is a lie ever justifiable. This discussion brings to life Genesis chapter 21, when G-d changes the truth and acts as a role model for humanity. The story of Jacob deceiving his father is on the same plane.

To establish the expulsion of Lot (Genesis 13) or Ishmael (Genesis 21), one could present the dilemma of a principal having to decide whether to expel a student. Is expulsion ever appropriate? For what offenses? What if the school is a Jewish school and the alternative is a public school? The biblical stories suddenly become very relevant to a teenager’s life.

Introducing stories where a biblical personality sinned can also lead to important learning outcomes. Is it morally justifiable to put someone else in danger to save yourself? What if the person agrees to it? Was Abraham correct in putting Sarah in danger when going to Egypt in Genesis 12?

The midwives in Exodus 1 provide an opportunity to explore the question of whether one can or should refuse a direct order. This story can be introduced with the dilemma faced by Israeli soldiers in connection with the disengagement from Gaza (or earlier, Yamit). Is it right to defy and order? What if it means risking your life? Risking your job? What happens if no one follows the rule of the authority?

Even a small biblical story can be used to discuss and develop values. The story of Eldad and Medad in Numbers 11 can be taught with an opening dilemma of freedom of speech. Can people say whatever they want, whenever they want? Can one yell “fire” in a crowded movie theater?

The most problematic dilemma in Genesis is the binding of Isaac in chapter 22. This chapter provides a wonderful opportunity to discuss what is morality and how do we combine moral reasoning with G-d’s word. As we use dilemmas, there are times when one can accept G-d’s will as one’s own, when one can understand the good in G-d’s commands, and when one can only attempt to do so. When one cannot, as in the case of Abraham and the binding of Isaac, one may choose to allow, in the opinion of Rabbi Walter Wurzberger, the “prescriptions of an omniscient and omnibenevolent G-d [to] override those deriving from [one’s] more limited intelligence.”

Once a teacher starts thinking in this direction there are many useful dilemmas that can be successfully introduced to the Judaic studies curriculum in general and the Chumash curriculum specifically. Through this technique, firmly grounded in Kohlberg’s work, students will develop moral reasoning and behavior and see that Torah does relate directly to their life experiences.♦

Dr. Chana Tannenbaum teaches Tanakh at Bar Ilan University; she has taught Tanakh, education and psychology at the high school and university levels in Israel and the US. She can be reached at chanmosh@gmail.com.

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Jewish law and practice mandate a society based on strict ethical standards and principles, tempered with great sensitivity to the complexity of real-life situations. This creation of the mentsch that emerges from these ethical practices resonates with many day school families. Jewish ethics offers day school leaders and students tools and approaches to confront daily challenges and dilemmas and guide decision making. 

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