06/01/2012 10:57 am ET Updated Aug 01, 2012

Ten Commandments for Education Reform

Last weekend, the Jewish people marked the anniversary of the first uttering of perhaps the most famous words in human history. We celebrated Shavuot, the festival commemorating the giving of the Torah at Sinai, and of course, the proclamation of the Ten Commandments.

Whether the separation of church and states renders you nauseous or relieved, it is undeniable that for the past two millennia, the basic declarations of the Decalogue have served as a source code for our collective conscience, for our fundamental notion of right and wrong. Therefore, it is unsurprising that our religious leaders, the keepers of that collective conscience, are among the most outspoken when they see widespread violations of those sacred laws. America has a grand tradition of this, recalling names like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.

Yet, our current faith leaders have remained curiously silent on what I consider to be the most pressing social justice issue of our time: the crisis of educational inequity. There is, of course, good reason for their restraint, namely our national squeamishness with the mixing of religion and public education.

Still, as I consider the possibility of one day applying to rabbinical school, I can't help but believe that people of faith have a role in this effort, something beyond Suburban Synagogue Tutoring Day at Inner City High School. So, with the hope of rousing their resolve, I have used the framework of the Ten Commandments to offer 10 thoughts for spiritual leaders as they ponder their part in the education reform movement.

Please don't mistake this as an exercise in hubris: I'm not calling these the Ten Commandments for Education Reform. But they are a place to start, and I pray that others will join me in completing them.

  1. I am the Lord, thy God. Education reform must be a priority for you. Not the priority, but a priority. Of course you must continue your work in other areas of social justice that stir your passions, but you can no longer ignore the sorry state of our schools.
  2. Thou shalt not commit idolatry. Do not throw your gravitas behind a person or an idea without first ensuring that its foundation is solid. Understand the issues, the players, and their agendas and be wary of false prophets offering silver bullets, silver scapegoats, or easy answers. The challenge is complex but the prize is simple: an excellent education for all. Keep your eyes on the prize.
  3. Do not take the Lord's name in vain. Do not indulge the blame game. Every grown-up in this nation is at least partially at fault for the Egypt that our school system that has become for our kids. The path to their freedom is too long and too hard to worry about spearing every fish in the sea.
  4. Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. Find spiritual meaning in this work. The Sabbath is about setting aside time for sacredness in the midst of a chaotic world. Bring your energy from this holy place -- it will make your voice all the more powerful.
  5. Honor thy mother and father. Respect educators in general and teachers in particular. Your appreciative posture will serve as an example to all. I would be remiss if I didn't applaud my own rabbis, Rabbi David Straus and Rabbi Ethan Franzel of Main Line Reform Temple just outside of Philadelphia, for honoring our community's teachers at last year's High Holiday services.
  6. Thou shalt not murder. Speak out against educational inequity now. Don't waste time. Time lost is minds lost -- is lives lost.
  7. Thou shalt not commit adultery. Do not use education reform as an opportunity to proselytize. Remember Thomas Jefferson's "wall of separation between church and state." Morning prayers may save your soul, but not our schools.
  8. Thou shalt not steal. Do not use your influence to crowd others -- in particular parents, teachers and students -- out of the conversation. This pulpit does not belong to you alone. Yours is not the only voice that matters.
  9. Thou shalt not bear false witness. Don't lie to our children. One of the most pervasive problems in public education is our dishonesty with our kids, our unwillingness to share with them hard truths about the realities of a system that has failed them. You must be willing to share those truths.
  10. Thou shalt not covet. Engage in this work with other people of faith. This must not be a selfish effort by one religion or one religious leader. Everyone has a stake in the future of our children, regardless of the god or gods that they do or do not worship.

Just as the original Ten Commandments sought only to codify the simplest rules necessary for a just society, these Ten Commandments for Education Reform seek only to initiate a broader conversation about the role that people of faith can play in the struggle against educational inequity.

But remember the Sixth Commandment -- now is the time. At the very least, faith leaders should begin by exploring the particular challenges faced by the schools in their communities. Furthermore, they should start preaching about this issue in their sermons and they should initiate interfaith dialogues with other local religious groups to advocate for our kids.

But at the end of the day, this will not be enough. We must dream bigger. We must never forget that there is no task more sacred than teaching our children, and for this reason, people of faith can no longer stand idly by as our education system betrays our kids. In the Jewish tradition we have called Moses many things, but his most significant honorific has always been Moshe Rabbenu: Moses, our teacher. Let this be a lesson for all of us whose souls are stirred by the sight of our failing schools: our movement needs a Moses or two, and I know you're out there somewhere.

Special thanks to the Reverend Chaz Howard, the Chaplain of the University of Pennsylvania, who inspired this piece.