In this year-long elective for seniors, we study the basic topics of psychology as any college-level introduction to psychology course might. On an almost daily basis, we provide lesson extensions (class discussions, opportunities for student reflection, and direct instruction) about how these lessons integrate with the discussions found in the discipline of Jewish Thought.
As a Rabbi teaching in a Jewish School, I find that I have the greatest impact on learners when I teach them General Studies and Science – and integrate Jewish Thought within the course – than when I teach them Judaic Studies directly. Students often enter the classroom with the false dichotomy that religious studies are speculative, subjective, and not research-based, while secular studies are rigorous, truthful, and based on research. And consequently, it has a great impact on them when I highlight how some central questions of Jewish Thought and Jewish Law are debated by scientists in psychological research as well.
This integrated model has impact on students who walk away seriously considering issues in Jewish Thought and the relationship between science and faith. It is eye-opening to them to see how truths about Judaism that they may have rejected rest on firm footing, or how pieces of dogma should be reopened and reevaluated based on science. Teaching Grade 12, students often come back two -three years later while in college, sharing how our integrative approach helped them think deeply about the same issues when they are studied from the purely scientific (and not faith) prism while in college. When we think about cultivating religious personalities, we never know what impacts our kids most, but talking about issues of religious thought within a science class can be critical.
One of the costs of interdisciplinary integration is that when a course is focused around one discipline (psychological science), with extensions into another (Jewish Thought), some students devote energy only on the primary focus and not the extensions, which also sometimes get lost in the midst of larger units. It is for this reason that our school also offers a stand-alone Jewish Thought class. However, the power of integration is so great that in my view, it outweighs the fact that sometimes the extensions might be lost.