Admire the Picture Frame and the Painting


Dialogue on Jewish Education from The Davidson School   

Laurence Scheindlin

Shira, a seventh grader, wants to be on the varsity basketball team. She doesn't like practicing layups, but she knows that she's got to get better at them. So she makes herself practice after school every day even though she'd rather play her usual video game.

Sarah, a kindergartner, watches a classmate cry because he's been left out of a game. She approaches him and asks him to play with her.

On their way to school, Ari and Zach, second graders, find two crumpled dollar bills on the ground in front of the school building. "Great," says Zach, "let's each keep one." Ari thinks for a moment and says, "But what if that's someone's lunch money? Maybe we should take it to the school office." 

"I want to punch Max out!" Brad says to himself. "I should have gotten that part in the play, not him. Everyone said my audition was better. . . . But, like, I guess it's not his fault."

Each of these students displays a different aspect of emotional intelligence at work. Shira's determination drives her to defer gratification, instead putting in the daily hard work to fulfill a long-term goal. Sarah is truly sympathetic, feeling her classmate's hurt and trying to make it better. Ari is sensitive to the existence of a moral dilemma that Zach apparently doesn't see in the abandoned dollar bills. Brad is furious, but he stops to reevaluate his emotion.

Unfortunately, much of the literature on emotional intelligence exclusively concentrates on the type of emotional control that our basketball player exhibits, with Walter Mischel's7 now-famous marshmallow experiments8 demonstrating the power of delayed gratification serving as a locus classicus

But to extol only the ability to control or direct emotion is to admire the picture frame while ignoring the painting.

After all, it is her emotions that led Sarah, whose classmate was left out, to sense, care, and respond to another's hurt. Similarly, Ari's sensitivity to someone else's need for the dollar bills made him realize that there was a moral problem that then needed to be resolved through a logical process. This, as Lawrence Blum (1994, 198) points out, is not just a control of selfish desire, but a morally significant "self-transcending care and understanding of the other" that in such cases can make us sensitive to the existence of moral problems.

It is true that we should not simply be driven blindly by emotion. A good example is Brad, whom we see beginning to figure out whether his anger at Max is justified. When, like Brad, we evaluate our emotions, we engage in a cognitive-affective process that plays an important role in making life decisions. In addition to all of the above, an emotionally intelligent person values emotion and emotional expression in the arts, literature, and everyday human relations, and has developed skill at expressing emotions.

Schools have two natural routes toward fostering this broader range of emotional intelligence: the rich, everyday social interactions that are the texture of life in school; and the focus on language that is the meat and potatoes of the school curriculum. Much of my work has been on showing how teachers can use the latter, language, to help students value, understand, and express emotion. Helping students develop, and pushing students to refine, their vocabulary of emotional expression is to help them value emotions and to develop the emotional sensitivity that is the ground for moral and spiritual activity. Did the character in this story just feel sorry? What exactly could she have been feeling? Describe it. Students then begin to think about words like regret, shame, guilt, and sorrow, and there's an opportunity for the teacher to import the word teshuvah (return, repentance).

While language arts offer abundant opportunities, so do science, social studies, and, of course, Bible, rabbinic text, and tefillah (prayer). Use Biblical stories and carefully chosen prayers as opportunities to explore love, hate, need, joy, misery, hostility, and peace. Emphasize the emotional quality of these concepts through stories. Push students to make connections to their daily lives and to articulate them in precise, richly descriptive language. Stress the words of emotional sensitivity. Are these language exercises or emotional exercises? Both.

As a former presidential candidate liked to say, here's the beauty part: we do not need new curricula or extra time to accomplish what I have described. Nearly all teachers—general studies and Judaic studies teachers, English teachers and science teachers, PE and art teachers—can incorporate these techniques into their daily practice. I have developed a number of lessons on tefillah exemplifying this approach, and Cathleen Cohen9 and I have developed a series of lesson plans incorporating her techniques for teaching poetry and integrating them with tefillah.

Of course, authentic Jewish experiences provided in settings such as camps and trips to Israel should be a natural environment for emotional learning, but the formal classroom also offers powerful opportunities to ground our students' emotional and spiritual development.

It is unfortunate that the higher levels of the affective taxonomy, which promote deep convictions that orient a person's thinking and sensibilities, often fall off into the null curriculum. Martha Nussbaum describes lack of emotional awareness as a "moral failing," but adds, "its opposite can be cultivated." Moral and spiritual sensitivity are the opposite, and I can think of no place better situated to nurture those cognitive-emotional virtues than Jewish schools (1990, 156). Moral and spiritual sensitivity are the opposite of a lack of awareness, and I can think of no place better situated to nurture these cognitive-emotional virtues than Jewish schools. 

Rabbi Laurence Scheindlin is headmaster emeritus of Sinai Akiba Academy in Los Angeles, where he served as head of school for 35 years. During that time, Rabbi Scheindlin and Sinai Akiba participated in pioneering work utilizing initiatives of the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of The Jewish Theological Seminary, including the Jewish Day School Standards and Benchmarks Project and MaToK, the Bible Curriculum for Jewish Day Schools. Rabbi Scheindlin is past president of the Schechter Day School Network. He has published a number of articles and conducted workshops on emotional and spiritual development and education. He is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and holds master's degrees from UCLA and JTS, where he was also ordained as a rabbi.


Blum, Lawrence. 1994. Moral Perception and Particularity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.  

Nussbaum, Martha. 1990. Love's Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature. New York: Oxford University Press.