The Urgency of Teaching for Uncertainty: It’s a Sign of the Times

July 24, 2020

Source: eJewish Philanthropy


One of the most certain features of the COVID-19 period is the unprecedented level of uncertainty in our lives. Uncertainty is all around us, as the current COVID-19 pandemic has heightened uncertainty over our physical and mental health, the economy, relationships, education, employment, finances, etc. The coronavirus outbreak has emphasized that life can change very quickly and very unpredictably. The COVID-19 pandemic is changing – or has already changed – our collective understanding of uncertainty in ways that we could not have imagined a mere few months ago.

Challenges for Students

Our students are facing new challenges of uncertainty in a host of different areas: age-old dictums that oftentimes, serious sickness is associated with certain age groups or those diagnosed with certain medical issues; familiar school routines; stable social status and economic stability; clear-cut educational roles of teachers, parents, and informal educators.

Embrace Uncertainty as the “New Normal”

Uncertainty isn’t all bad. It actually has a lot of advantages too. Whether we want to or not, COVID-19 forces us to live with uncertainty. Instead of stewing in uncertainty’s negative side (stress and disorganization), we may embrace its positive potential (creativity, independent thought, and renewal). Good uncertainty provides students with the needed knowledge, skills, and confidence to navigate these unknown waters. When approached in an atmosphere of “good uncertainty,” challenges become enormously valuable as they invite young learners to think in critical ways and constructively confront uncertainty.

Practical Strategies

The following are practical ways for schools to teach about uncertainty in the current climate:

Israel Engagement

COVID-19 is dramatically altering Israel travel for Jewish students.

We could set up educational projects for high school students to prepare new models for virtual Israel travel in their schools. What alternate models would be relevant, practical, and worthwhile? How could these adolescents imagine novel and innovative ways to actively engage with Israel?

Alternative Bar/Bat Mitzva Ceremonies

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way we mark all life cycle events, including Bar and Bat Mitzva. We could invite middle school students to prepare new forms of commemoration that on the one hand reflect the values of this milestone event, and at the same time replace large public gatherings with meaningful and engaging celebrations. What types of ‘chesed projects’ (kindness and benevolence) could the students envisage? How could we create public recognition and excitement about these young people entering a new life cycle stage?

Teaching “Good Uncertainty”

Countless Jewish leaders have faced momentous challenges of historical consequence that were ridden with risk, uncertainty, and doubt. What was their deliberative process in selecting a course of action? What underlying values guided their decisions? With historical hindsight, how were these decisions judged and evaluated?
Study units could examine the following pivotal decisions that transformed Jewish history:

  • Queen Esther’s critical decision to defy the official protocol and to approach King Ahasverosh in order to save the Jews in the Persian empire. (Esther 4:16) 
  • Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai’s decision to escape Jerusalem and approach the Roman emperor Vespasian for permission to establish a new center of Jewish learning in Yavne. (Gittin 56a)


Our current challenge is to live with uncertainty. The time is ripe to openly explore issues of uncertainty in Jewish education. One of the most profound and influential pedagogues in Jewish history is Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, the eleventh century French commentator known by the acronym Rashi. Rashi writes regarding Genesis 28:5, “I do not know what this teaches us.” Rashi could have simply skipped commenting on this verse, yet, he deliberately chose to teach us the value of uncertainty. What a powerful message for our times: We can not escape uncertainty. We may and must embrace it.

Read the entire article at eJewish Philanthropy

Updated: Aug. 18, 2020