Thursday, November 10, 2016

Pavlovian Conditioning as a Means of Religious Indoctrination

My brother recently remarked that the putatively higher OTD rate, rachmana litzlan, in the Litivishe/rationalist community as compared to Chasiddishe/Kabbala oriented community is evidence of the latter's greater authenticity.  I responded that the OTD rate says nothing about validity of the mesorah.

(It was brought to my attention that the flow from the previous to the following paragraph is obscure. The connection is as follows.
 I believe that a child might go off the derech for many reasons. For example, in some communities, a premium is placed on independent and creative thinking, on questioning and seeking answers.  If a child's independent thinking is discouraged or broken early enough, it will help him stay frum, I suppose, but it doesn't prove that his mesora is any better. Also, if a child is brainwashed early enough, he will be much less likely to break through his conditioning. Does that prove a better mesora? And thinking about indoctrinating children led to the following paragraph.)

Which brings me to this question. What is the place of conditioned response in religious education/inculcation/indoctrination?  When I say conditioned response, I mean Pavlovian training and its less offensive but fundamentally the same other forms of indoctrination. (I don't mean indoctrination in its original sense, namely, teaching doctrine as distinguished from teaching empirical and universally accepted fact. In this discussion, I use it in the sense of communicating a belief system in a manner that is intended to result in the student being incapable of questioning what he is taught.) Or call it brainwashing.  There's no getting away from words with negative connotation.

I remember hearing of a scene in a movie about communists going into children's classrooms and telling a child to pray to God for candy, and of course, nothing happened. Then the children were told to pray to Stalin, and handfuls of candy were showered down upon them. The children would then associate the sweet reward with putting their faith in comrade Stalin. This is a fiction, of course, but I use it as an example of how children can be conditioned. I found it, of course, on Youtube.  This is the scene from the movie, "Europa, Europa"

We find such such devious manipulation horrible, planting a conditioned response in people as if they were animals, tricking them into "believing" by throwing candy. But....

Putting honey on the letters of the Aleph Beis for a child is not the only example. The song is about "Ve'ha'arev na," and sometimes, you need a little help to feel that areivus, that joy and pleasure. So is it right or wrong? Should our schools be phlegmatic stoa of reason?

And the truth is that all reward and punishment is a form of conditioning. Are all forms morally defensible? Do we draw the line at some arbitrary point?

I sent this question to three people whose opinions I respect. Each of them is a talmid chacham of very high standing far beyond mere rabbinic certification, a scholar, a decent person, and a PHD.  One said something absurd, which I'm not reproducing.  Here are the others.

I'm sure you are correct that the OTD rate says nothing about the validity of the mesorah. In addition, I highly doubt that the Chassidishe community has a lower rate. Not long ago I read an article which approximated that 1,300 adults leave Orthodox Judaism in Israel each year; the individual cases portrayed were all Chassidic. ( Think of the multitudes of Russian and Polish Jews who arrived in America during the first quarter of the last century who came from Chassidic backgrounds and whose children cast off their ancestral past with lightning speed).
 I shall answer your second question first. No, our schools should not be phlegmatic stoa of reason. One of the main problems within the orthodox world is the lack of any sense of personal religious experience and inner feeling. As adults, our emotional depths are barely, if ever stirred  during much of our religious observance.  Most of us soldier on like automatons, going through the motions and all the while feeling quite cold and detached from what we're doing. Orthodoxy is thus redefined as "Orthopraxis" and its' adherents are viewed as soulless bodies. It is to avoid such a situation, that Rav Kook z"l sought to incorporate a full program of instruction in poetry, music  and art in his yeshiva. He wanted his students to give expression to their souls, to cultivate their inner depths through those human arts which he thought  nourished refinement and sensitivity.  ( Alas, these plans were never carried out.)  
 Which brings me to your first question concerning the role of conditioned response in religious education. I am against it for the reasons you mentioned; it is devious and manipulative. Even more basically, it offers a false picture of reality which will be realized as such when these children grow up and lead them to abandon Judaism which they will now identify as a web of lies into which they were entrapped. Conditioned response is different though from other quite legitimate methods of encouragement and motivation which form a natural part of the educational process, e.g. awarding praise and prizes for academic excellence, ( candy for memorizing bentshing, a sefer for learning ten blatt gemara ba'al peh , etc. etc.).  In addition, it is absolutely appropriate to make the school  environment as pleasant and beautiful as possible so that the child will associate learning with things delightful and pleasing to all the senses. ( Just as we all remember and identify the shabbosim and yomim tovim of our youth with the sweet smells and tastes of our mother's cooking, of the flowers on the table and lovely appearance of the table settings, etc. )

Dear R' EliezerThank you for your interesting note/query. It's never an imposition but I have no clue why anyone would think I'm qualified, not to mention uniquely qualified, to address it. 
There are several questions here, and I can't quite follow the logic of the whole. Regarding OTD: I don't know where the statistic came from. I don't know anyone who keeps statistics about OTD for either of these religious communities. Certainly, dubious numbers could not lead to any claims about a phenomenon that has been part of our history since antiquity. It is structurally a case of a tiny minority in a large and alluring culture; there is always attrition and always has been. (remember the Hellenistic Jews of bayit sheni, the converts to Christianity in medieval Europe--all were OTD in their own day) The reasons that any individual has for choosing a different life path from the one they were born into are too many to list and only a small percentage are based on the perception of greater rationalism. Personal conflict with the parental home, social or psychological issues, lifestyle choices, partners from another community or disillusionment with religion are just some of the reasons--no two people leave for the same reason. I don't believe it has to do with "truth" of the society they are leaving.
All people are raised with a view of the world that is inculcated in many ways. Knowledge imparted can leave a greater impression when other senses are called in: we sing the ABC's, enact historical events and wars-- historical traditions need ritual, narrative, etc to be transmitted and remembered over generations. This is a technique that every teacher and parent uses, and the teachers and parents who inculcate Torah are using the best available. It is only brainwashing when the adults doing it know it to be false or dangerous, and they persist because they need their jobs (or afraid for their lives). Tricking children for Stalin is to knowingly perpetuate a lie; lovingly admitting children into the mystery of literacy is not on the same plane in any sense that I can think of.That's my two cents worth.

In any case, I think the common denominator is that a just and moral society has the right and even a moral obligation to propagate its fundamental beliefs, and if conditioned response training does it, that is fine. I guess that's true. There are things that children simply will not pick up on their own, from manners to toilet training to any physical or mental discipline, and you have to impose these thing upon them.  If Pavlovian conditioning does it, so be it.

I know this is not a new question for educators, but it's the first time I'm thinking about it seriously. Here are some papers I found online on this topic: I only glanced at them, but they did not immediately strike me as absurd, so maybe they have something to offer.


  1. 1- I find the assumption that every bachur had an upsherin funny, since for the vast majority of us, it's not our minhag. Has it been "minhag America" long enough for the majority of yeshivish bachurim to have had one?

    2- Would you have had the same need to think your way past a visceral reaction if the indoctrination was for a different religion. You compare frum indoctrination with Stalinist, which makes me think part of the problem is the mindset being inculcated.

    The example you gave was a learning-centered frumkeit. I am using "frumkeit" in the original sense of ritual observance in particular because I believe that deep down the meaning hasn't changed. We might so, "Oh, that money launderer isn't frum." But when we actually use the word, we do end up calling the Shomer Shabbos ganif "frum", and not the treif-eating but ehrlicher philanthropist.

    So I ask, if the song were about Torah observance, all four Turim and Chovos haLvavos, rather than learning in particular and a life of frumkeit, would your mind have even gone in this direction?

  2. 1. Lots of people do it now. I would say the majority of yeshivaleit do. My kids, some do some don't. It just doesn't matter, so if they want to do it, it's fine with me. Ranks about the same as "Do you stand up for Lecha Dodi."
    2. You're right. It's practically universal. I think it's just a reality of life, we just demonize it in cults/political systems/religions we disapprove of.
    3. Yes, I would have. I'm asking, is it moral to perpetuate our culture and religion through conditioned response. I guess it's a simple Skinnerism argument- if not for the conditioning in our homes and schools, religion, or at least any religion that impinges on personal choice, would disappear.

  3. How is the first answer (which I really liked if I understood it correctly) differentiating between conditioned response and encouragement? Is conditioned response when you are making something up and playing around with reality (for example in case of Stalin when they are showing a cause and effect which is a lie?) whereas encouragement is where the reward is not intrinsically linked to the action that the child did but is just a response showing that you approve of or respect what the child did?

  4. A psychologist friend was frustrated by your conflation of various types of conditioning. I don't know what he's talking about. But apparently different kinds of conditioning would elicit different responses from him. I'm going to email him this comment, and see if that cajoles him to contribute.

    Even if not, something to research.

    1. I had a suspicion that the issue was not well formulated, that I was missing something. I assumed the differences were in degree, not character, but apparently I'm wrong. I would be grateful if a scholar of the subject would enlighten me.

  5. I don't know that Charedi/Yeshivish schooling is all that much different from Chassidic. There are superficial differences but the two have become quite similar over time. There are all kinds of people in this world and I'm not going to tell people not to be Charedi but I do think there should be other choices readily available to young people who naturally don't fit there. But there really aren't because the Modern Orthodox schools are too radically different for many (mixed classes). There's just no in between anymore and that's a big cause of the OTD problem.