The Grandeur of Judaism versus the Provinciality of Jewish Education
Published in The Canadian Jewish News
May 28 and June 3, 2004
I remember Judaism coming alive for me during my teenage years in Toronto.
It was not on Yom Kippur in the ostentatious glass-windowed synagogue, when the honor of opening the ark was given to some of the well-to-do members, congregants rose at the command of the rabbi, and the chazzan-cantor delivered his sanctimonious rendition of the central mussaf kedushah prayer. Nor was it when nostalgic family stories and heirlooms going back to Eastern Europe were shared with me.
Judaism emerged for me when I actually understood the words in the Biblical, rabbinic and prayer book texts and realized their implications regarding the choices I made. After I learned the verse, “thou shalt not put a stumbling block before the blind,” you may have seen me on the streets of Toronto carefully removing any object I found lying in the middle of the sidewalk. These words seemed to come from a world beyond the Jewish environment in which I grew up, one that my sensibilities identified as being much more profound than what was transmitted to me by my day school teachers and shul functionaries.
The more I took in the transcendental truths and ultimate concerns posited by prophets, rabbis and other spiritual heroes in our tradition, the more I became critical of everyday life in Jewish Toronto, feeling that it was missing the crux of the Jewish matter. The rhetoric and patina were there, but the substance was not. Bathurst Street did not lead me closer to the Temple.
Today I am grateful for those years. However critical I was of my Jewish educators, I somehow was able to encounter the richness of Judaism and this encounter launched me on an infinite quest through the majesty and mystery of Jewish civilization. Paradoxically, my critique of Jewish Toronto had a galvanizing effect on my Jewish identity. I attribute my decision to live in Israel and make my career in Jewish education to what I discovered back then.
Now, as I work as a Jewish educator, I am concerned that my experience was idiosyncratic. I do not assume that the fact that I was fortunate enough to connect with things Jewish means that others who are educated in the same kind of problematic educational environment will necessarily connect as well. Indeed, difficult questions persistently arise when I see what transpires in kindergartens, classrooms, sanctuaries, camps, community centers, adult education programs, travel experiences, publications and public events.
Are Jewish communities successful in transmitting the rich content and profound relevance of being Jewish? Is there a gap between the meaning of the words on the page and what is internalized by Jewish learners? Do Jewish learners take the teachings of Judaism with them as they decide how to treat their bodies, their souls, their siblings and spouses, their fellow Jews, other human beings? Does it affect what careers they choose, how they run their businesses, what they do with their leisure time?
There are too few educational frameworks in the Jewish community where such questions are discussed, let alone addressed. In institutions such as schools, synagogues, and camps, everyday demands are so pressing that they smother opportunities for deeper inquiry about the purpose and meaning of Jewish education.
Instead, the most urgent questions are operational. How can resources be found to keep programs alive and running smoothly? What can be done in light of the lack of qualified personnel and creative curricula? How can our programs compete with (or co-opt?) the stimuli of North American leisure culture and still accommodate the dictates of the job market?
Such questions are indeed pressing, so much so that they seem to render the consideration of larger issues impractical. As fires get put out and business is kept running as usual, however, the relevance of the larger questions does not recede.
We may not be asking the questions, but our programs are projecting answers nevertheless. Whether we intend it or not, learners receive our community's image of what constitutes a worthy life. To the degree that our conception of Jewish life is trivial or narrow, lacking in depth or scope, tepid or less than compelling – we ourselves unintentionally predispose students to develop a corresponding relationship to things Jewish.
Paradoxically, the concern with the organizational efficiency of our institutions might have a lulling effect on our engagement with the core of the Jewish educational undertaking. Even growing day school enrollments do not necessarily point to deeper identification with Judaism. They might be attributed equally, if not more, to dissatisfaction with public education or fears about the lure of drug culture on suburban youth.
Nor does it help to point to those few charismatic educators and outstanding learners in our programs who are deeply engaged by Judaism. Through their achievements, we often allow ourselves to believe that "the system is working," but do we really evaluate the impact of our educational programs on a broader constituency of Jewish learners in our communities?
For each successful learner, how many are there who have received a version of Jewish education that taught them that being Jewish is something that constantly limits their desire to explore worlds beyond the comfort zone of Jewish middle class suburban life, or that it introduces constrictions upon their freedom to independently pick and choose the values and lifestyles that will govern their everyday lives? How many of these learners become estranged from Jewish life after they graduate our programs or grant it an accordingly limited role in their lives?
We have not yet built a system of indicators that can genuinely gauge the level of impact our programs of Jewish education make on the personal lives of learners. Research does show higher institutional affiliations and lower rates of intermarriage among day school graduates, but even these external markers do not necessarily point to the internalization of a deeper Jewish message.
Nor do we need to rely on data about the demographic crisis or the decline of widespread, individual financial support for Jewish life to be persuaded about the problematic state of affairs. The perennial ills of Jewish education provide sufficient evidence.
If we constantly lack resources, personnel, curricula, and other basic components of a decent Jewish education, these deficiencies must be seen as symptoms of a deeper problem. However successful Jewish education might appear to be, this success is obviously not strong enough to produce a viable and vital basis for its own continuity. Having served a limited role in the lives of its learners, Jewish education receives limited support and status among them when they become adults, parents and citizens.
By making this argument, I do not mean to say that what we need in Jewish education is simply more Judaism. Rather, we must admit that prevalent conceptions and practices of Jewish education are neither sufficiently reflective nor thoroughgoing enough to meet the challenges that the world now poses to a compelling and long lasting Jewish existence. In other words, we have not satisfactorily defined the foundational meaning and substance of Judaism in our lives and have not given this definition genuine expression in our educational programs.
Viewed at this level, we might see the problem of Jewish education as one of the articulation of its fundamental purposes and means. It is hard to overestimate the practical significance of basing our efforts in Jewish education on a clear and compelling answer to the question "what kind of person do we see as the ideal graduate of our efforts in Jewish education?" What is our image of "the educated Jew?"
It is critical to distinguish here between the pronounced rhetoric of Jewish education and the message that its practice actually transmits to learners.
In my own experience I often heard educators in the Jewish community speaking at celebratory events and ceremonies about the importance of being a mensch in the world, doing what is humane and morally right with no attention to what others will say or do.
Yet, many of us believed that the clearer message we were being given was that one's worth will be determined primarily according to the level of their social status and economic success.
Our frustration with the hypocrisy of this double message led us to nominate as our valedictorian a student who proudly flaunted the high grades he received through sophisticated and cunning means of cheating on exams.
The case for the articulation of a clearer, more coherent and more compelling guiding philosophy of Jewish education has been made before by educational leaders in the community. Its major proponent has been Seymour Fox, who, in various capacities over the past decades has argued for serious reconsideration of the guiding ideas of Jewish education. In 1973, he claimed that "the most urgent problem facing Jewish education today is its lack of purpose, and consequently, its blandness…until we engage in serious deliberation aimed at rectifying this state of affairs, we cannot even hope to deal with all the other issues that demand solution."
Over the last decade I have had the great fortune to work with Fox in a Jewish educational endeavor that has put the larger questions of Jewish existence at the center of its practical concerns. This effort was undertaken by the Mandel Foundation in Jerusalem as part of its larger program of activities aimed at improving Jewish education worldwide.
Alongside initiatives aimed at training a new cadre of Jewish educational leaders and at raising the status of Jewish education among community leaders in the Diaspora and Israel, the Mandel Foundation also focused its work on a fundamental rethinking of the ideas that can govern Jewish educational practice. In next week's continuation of this article, I will describe this initiative and suggest how it might inspire new articulations of Jewish education.
Part Two: Visions of Jewish Education
While Judaism offers a rich treasure of wisdom and ideas, a long and dramatic history that profoundly influenced other religions, cultures and peoples, and an ennobling heritage, our programs and institutions of Jewish education often seem bound up with narrow issues and concerns. How can this gap be overcome?
In part one of this article, I reported on the Mandel Foundation's efforts to address this problem. This decade-long project involved working closely with leading Jewish scholars, educators and researchers to develop alternative conceptions of a meaningful and compelling Jewish education. Seymour Fox and I led this project in collaboration with Harvard University's Philosophy of Education Research Center, and its director at the time, Israel Scheffler.
The results of this work have recently been published in a volume entitled Visions of Jewish Education (Cambridge University Press, 2003). This publication offers those engaged with Jewish education – educators, policymakers, Judaic scholars, researchers, or parents - six visions of Jewish education as a point of reference for thinking more seriously about their own commitments and practices.
For Isadore Twersky, the late director of the Center for Jewish Studies at Harvard University and a leading authority on Maimonides, the educated Jew is a master at applying the theological, moral and historical principles contained in halachic literature to the minutiae of every day life. Twersky showed us how each situation encountered by such a person – even deciding where to sit on a bus – would be treated as an opportunity to do something religiously and ethically significant.
On the other hand, Menachem Brinker, an Israeli secularist at the Hebrew University and the University of Chicago, seeks to liberate Jewish education from the assumption that a good Jew is someone who adheres to any particular axiom of faith or code of behavior. For Brinker, a scholar of early Zionist thought, the ideal graduate of Jewish education is a freethinking person who is deeply involved with the Jewish community, thoroughly proficient with its history, literature and ideas, and committed to activities aimed at the betterment of Jewish life.
Moshe Greenberg, a Bible scholar at the Hebrew University, posits a view of Jewish education that focuses on addressing the spiritual needs of Jewish learners without requiring them to adopt any prior assumptions about the validity or supremacy of Jewish religion. Through continuous engagement with Jewish texts and participation in the tradition of their commentary, Greenberg's learner seeks out answers to the question "what is of lasting worth?" and tries to live in accordance with them.
Michael Meyer, a historian of modern Judaism at Hebrew Union College, suggests various lessons from the past two centuries of Reform Judaism as a means to strengthen its impact in the future. Meyer's educated Reform Jew is one whose autonomous relationship to Judaism has been developed and refined over time rather than assumed from the outset. As well, the Jewish identity of this person will not rest solely on theological commitments, but will also be bolstered by ethnic awareness.
Michael Rosenak, a philosopher of Jewish education at the Hebrew University, presents a set of challenges to all visions of Jewish education. Over and above his own modern Orthodox commitments, Rosenak turns to the community as a whole to ask: how will Jews educated in accordance with one vision come to have a common basis with Jews educated in accordance with others? How will the educated Jews of various kinds learn to co-operate in solving problems that challenge their co-existence?
And finally, Israel Scheffler, a philosopher of education and consultant to the Visions project, explores topics and issues in general education and suggests their contribution to envisioning Jewish education. Scheffler's educated Jew is a person whose Jewish learning is coherent with the values that guide his or her learning in general.
Although the scholars developed their conceptions in dialogue with one another and with leading Jewish educators, social scientists, rabbis, policymakers, and federation planners, we did not assume that their work alone could make an impact. Working conditions in institutions of Jewish education do not allow enough time for the kind of thinking that is necessary to redefine the aims and methods of Jewish education. How, then, could such ideas become part of the living culture and workplace of Jewish life?
The last section of Visions of Jewish Education, entitled "Visions in Context," suggest ways to enable a philosophical educational orientation to become part of the way Jewish education is devised and implemented.
First, Seymour Fox illustrates how educators, administrators, policymakers, and others might improve their work through such an orientation, using the six visions as examples. He describes what early childhood programs based on Twersky’s or Meyer’s proposals might look like; the cooperation of formal and informal programs of education in a Greenbergian system; the questions a teacher would ask students about text, and how a principal would run her or his school according to Brinker’s conception; and how all the visions might be useful to policymakers in making their decisions.
The final chapter of Visions describes an experiment in which I acted as an on-site educational philosopher at a non-denominational day school in North America. I write about my work with this school during its process of reformulating its purposes and practices. I describe principles that guided my work and offer a series of vignettes that tell about how I applied them in the everyday life of the school. My hope is that this chapter might offer a basis upon which to generate similar initiatives.
The publication of Visions of Jewish Education has led to an ongoing Visions of Jewish Education Project (VJEP), which I direct. The aim of our project is to enable those engaged with Jewish education to frame their guiding ideas and corresponding methods in light of profound ideas of Judaism and Jewish existence. The VJEP serves Jewish education in Israel and communities around the world through seminars, collaborative initiatives, demonstration sites, an on-line resource center and publications (see www.mandelfoundation.org/vjep.asp).
A powerful example emerged from a recent seminar for the professional development of teachers, in which we studied Twersky's vision and its pedagogical implications. Since Twersky’s vision posited the teaching of each and every mitzvah as an opportunity for character education, we decided to explore the possibilities embedded in the Jewish law of hashavat aveydah, returning lost property.
We chose this particular law because we sensed that it provides a microcosm for the beauty and power of halachah. The renowned Jewish historian Gerson Cohen once claimed that the uniqueness of Judaism in western civilization is expressed well in the difference between the common principle of 'finders keepers losers weepers' and the Jewish obligation to seek out the owner of a lost item until it is properly returned. According to Jewish law, one who does not undertake this obligation in effect becomes a thief.
Following Twersky's approach, we first delved into the philosophical ideas behind this law, studied the details of its observance and then focused on the linkage between these two aspects in the actual carrying out of the Mitzvah. Only after we had concluded this unit of study, did we then begin to think creatively about how the deeper meaning and full experience of this Jewish practice could be effectively transmitted to learners. This study process became a model as well for how teachers in schools might learn together – one that I would argue would be hard to find in existing programs of Jewish education.
One interesting suggestion that emerged from the deliberation was the possibility of replacing a school's lost and found with a hashavat aveydah station. Participants emphasized that this station ought not to be a place where the learner simply returns the lost item and lets somebody else take responsibility for giving it back to the owner. "That might be appropriate and practical at the community level," they argued, "but here the whole point is for us to enable the learner to experience the practice of the Jewish law in a way that he or she will internalize the value of respect for ownership and commitment to building a just and caring society. Only through such experiences can we hope to cultivate a just Jewish community."
Thus, a student who found a lost item would be encouraged to bring it to the station, where he or she would be greeted by a teacher who would use his or her proficiency with the law to individually "coach" them in carrying out the obligation to return the item.
If the student was at a loss concerning ways of finding the owner, the teacher would posit those suggested in halachic literature. If, after several failed attempts along the lines of this literature, the learner expressed frustration and impatience with the purpose and tenor of this law - claiming that if the owner lost the item "it's their tough luck" - the Jewish educator would philosophically challenge him or her with ideas behind hashavat aveydah:
"I see that you would prefer to live among people who are indifferent to each other's belongings over having to persist in finding the owner of this lost property…But isn't there a huge price to pay for that? Wouldn't you prefer to know that when you lost something valuable to you, someone else cared enough about it to make an effort to return it to you even without personally knowing you?...That is what this law is about and this is the kind of society we are trying to build in our school and our community."
Whatever discussion might follow this challenge, it would enable both the "coach" and the learner to engage in a profound pedagogical exchange – one that is both uniquely Jewish and sorely lacking in other educational systems.
At the end of the discussion a participant rose and angrily decried "My children have been getting a Jewish education for years and have received little experience of this kind. How can it be that Judaism offers such beautiful and compelling educational opportunities and they have never successfully been transmitted to my children?"
If this is what she got from looking at one example of one conception, imagine what might emerge if all the educators, administrators, policymakers, parents and others were to explore whole visions of Jewish education on an ongoing basis.