Yes to Judaic passing grades.Now.
Yes to Judaic passing grades.Now.
The idea that many medical schools in America started introducing pass/fail grades for their classes is deeply concerning. The lowering of academic standards cannot bring with it good news for the patients of those future doctors. The same applies to many other fields in which U.S. Universities continue to favor pass/fail to actual grades. There is, however, one place we need more pass/fail grade systems. Where? Jewish schools. 

If someone is taking a premed class in a university where students are still getting “real” grades, and see they aren’t that good at what they are doing, it may be a helpful indicator that they should be going into another field. Compare that with, say a student at a University where more pass/fail grade courses have been inducted, and you get a whole lot of people who think they can be doctors, but will not know how good they will be. A situation like this can lead to people spending years on a path they shouldn’t be taking, dropping out of school after they invested a great deal of time and money just to find out it is not for them, or less qualified individuals entering the field. The consequences with Judaic studies are just as heavy, leaning in the other direction.

The most basic and solemn goal of Jewish education is that no one should feel they don’t belong. First rule—do no harm. Sadly, students often see their grades as a reflection of how connected they are to a topic. A student who gets a deficient Chumash grade may feel like “Judaism is not for them.” We should never allow a student to feel there is a distance between their heritage, religion, and who they are, based on language or other technical skills. A child who has very poor Hebrew vocabulary or decoding skills, is just as close to God and their faith as the student who is fluent in Hebrew, Rashi reading, and Talmudical concepts. We must never allow students to feel like their academics can distance them from our faith. 

On the other hand, there should also be a way for students to challenge themselves, thrive, work hard, and reach higher levels of learning all the time. Jewish learning has been at the epicenter of what keeps so many connected to Judaism. The Mitzvah of studying Torah is at the sacred heart of Judaism. Nothing made this more evident than the recent events of the Siyum Hashas, from the thousands gathered at MetLife Stadium, Sydney, South America, Europe, to those gathered in Binyanei Ha’uma in Jerusalem—everyone felt the electrifying power of Torah study. This is the heart and soul of the Jewish people. 

So how do we balance these two? How do we make sure students are not unjustly alienated by low grades in Judaic topics while making sure others feel like they are challenged to a higher standard? I believe the answer is with a hybrid passing grade system. Students need to know that trying, being engaged in Jewish learning, and growing their Jewish knowledge will get them a passing grade. Students also need to know Jewish studies can be competitive and challenging. Jewish schools ought to allow some students get a passing grade, and others get a number grade. Each school can divide it as they wish.

My personal feeling is that anyone whose grade is going to end up above 85% should be getting a number grade, and anything below that should be a passing grade. In cases that a student did not show any interest or ability to perform on any of their Jewish studies, there can be failing grade, but those should be very rare, very unique situations. Jewish schools can also follow the model of Brown University (not a terrible institution) where students can choose if they want real grades or just pass/ fail grades.  

In general, students in Jewish schools should know their Jewish studies are a lifelong pursuit and that they belong. Students should understand that a poor Hebrew vocabulary, a difficulty with identifying the difference between the letter lamed and tzdi in Rashi font, or not understanding the difference between a Mishna and a Barayta, are no indication of your distance from God. Learning is essential, enjoyable, and a lifelong commitment.

We should never have students feel like they are “not good at Jewish.” Jewish schools need to find grading systems that work for them and their unique population. Schools must be able to find a balance that is right for them, a system that, on the one hand, challenges students for ever higher standards of learning while, on the other hand, makes everyone feel like they belong. 

Finally, to those who will respond to this article with understandable frustration declaring the need for absolute grading standards I have one request: find out how the medical school, MBA, accounting, or engineering school near you is grading their students. You may just find something more frustrating you want to be writing about.