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Contemporary Jewish Education: Attitudes to the Past That Will Determine the Future

Posted on Sunday, February 03, 2019 by Eitan Chikli

The ages of modernity, enlightenment, science and secularism that have dominated the western world for the last 200 years have put the chances of Jewish survival and continuity to the test. If for the course of almost 4,000 years Jews have felt that they were different from others and required to fulfill a godly mission, the strong urge to remain Jewish and pass this sense of mission on to the next generations is now fading in the modern era. Most modern Jewish thought and most of the modern expressions of Judaism – secularism, Reform, Bundism, Zionism and Orthodoxy in its various forms – are modern-day attempts to deal with the challenge of Jewish survival and continuity. 

To be a modern Jew is to be a Jew with a crisis mindset. The nature of this crisis is rooted in the fact that the relationships which shaped Judaism in the past, especially those relationships with God and other nations, have changed fundamentally. As a result, the Jewish world has experienced, and is continuing to experience, a big bang: every person with their individual beliefs and opinions and every person with their own relationship to their Jewish past. Infinite expressions of modern-day Jewish identities have been and continue to be created on a spectrum that ranges from belief and deep commitment to observing commandments to a secularism that wants to completely detach from the past. 

To be a modern-day Jewish educator is to be aware of both the continuity test facing the Jewish people today and the fact that there is more than one way to remain a committed Jew. It is also to know how to confidently confront the educated approaches that question the necessity of Judaism for the continued vibrant existence of the Jewish people in the modern era.

I suggest approaching the different expressions of modern Judaism through a prism of attitudes to the past. I have limited myself to five approaches, but additional approaches could be added.

  1. The first approach, common among the various streams of Orthodoxy, sanctifies the past. To sanctify the Jewish past means to assign it a godly source, to give it a central place in the present and the future, and to relate to that which is perceived as God’s word as definitive and crucial in shaping the daily lives of individuals and the nation. An example of this approach can be found in the words of a central modern-day rabbinic figure in Western Europe, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks:

    “To be a Jew, now as in the days of Moses, is to hear the call of those who came before us and know that we are guardians of their story.” Relating to the modern crisis, he writes: “We have lost the manuscript of the Jewish story, that breathtaking attempt to create, from simple actions and everyday life, a piece of heaven on earth, a society that respects human dignity under the sovereignty of God, an earthly dwelling for the divine presence.” 

  2. The second approach, also faith-based in its essence, values the past and continues to give it a prominent place in shaping the present and the future of individuals and the community. However, unlike the first approach, the “sacred” and commanding tone characterizing that which is perceived to be a divine proclamation leaves room for an interpretative and dialogical approach. This, for example, is how Rabbi Dr. Michael Marmur describes his understanding of Judaism:

    “Judaism is a story of the dynamic dialogue between individuals united as one nation and our one God....Progressive Judaism is...one attempt to seek God and to understand His will in the new circumstances that have been created in our time.”

    This approach, valuing the Jewish past while attempting to adapt it to circumstances of time and place, characterizes the attitude of Jews with a liberal religious approach. 

  3. The third approach considers the past and takes it into account as part of a process for designing the present and the future, but refuses to give it decisive weight. As stated by Mordecai Kaplan, co-founder of the Reconstructionist Movement, “The past has a vote [on our future], not a veto.” 

  4. The fourth approach wants to detach from the past and its accompanying values and does not give it significant weight in shaping the present or our daily lives. This approach wants to connect to the mood and values of the modern world and to break down the walls separating Jews from other nations, to separate “the holy from the mundane.” This approach typifies many assimilated Jews in America, Europe and Israel. An astute and profound expression of this approach can be found in the words of Jewish-American intellectual and novelist Michael Chabon: 

    If Judaism should ever pass from the world, it won’t be the first time in history – far from it – that a great and ancient religion lost its hold on the moral imaginations of its adherents and its relevance to their lives. Nor will it be the first time that an ethnic minority has been absorbed, into the surrounding population....Anyway the history of the Jews, like the history of humanity and every individual human who has ever lived, is just one long story of grief, loss and fading away.

  5.  The fifth approach goes even further, viewing the Jewish past with hostility and seeing it as a burden and as an obstacle to the optimal design of the present and future. Josef Berdyczewski and Josef Haim Brenner are beacons of this approach in the classic Hebrew literature of the early Zionists. In his famous essay “Wrecking and Building,” Berdyczewski wrote: 

    "Except that through this thing we became slaves to the spirit, a people who no longer approached life or the world around them in a natural manner…[This] led us to the greatest breaking point in our sovereign and political lives, a breaking point that almost brought us to annihilation.” 
    Here Berdyczewski draws the explicit conclusion: “Our hearts, ardent for life, sense that the resurrection of Israel depends on a revolution – the Jews must come first, before Judaism – the living man, before the legacy of his ancestors.” 


So what does all this have to do with pluralistic Jewish education?

It has been observed that the Jewish people’s status has changed from the perception of “chosen people” to the position of “choosing people.” The fact that a person is born to Jewish parents no longer guarantees that they will choose to remain Jewish or to see their Judaism as an important aspect of their identity, especially outside of Israel. It thus seems to me that the central role of a quality and meaningful Jewish education – and the main criterion through which it should be judged – is its ability to help students to formulate a worldview to which they will, first, have a definitive and positive answer to the question of whether it is necessary and desirable to remain a Jew and, second, be able to explain the place Judaism should have in their Jewish identity. 

In order to ensure that students are prepared and ready to answer these questions, pluralistic Jewish education must expose them to the variety of Jewish existence today. It must offer them an in-depth and honest explanation about the advantages and disadvantages of the different approaches, a sincere and productive dialogue in which students are invited to formulate their own educated stance on this serious question. 

This educational approach is not entirely free from risk. However, ultimately, in this age of Choicism, every thinking person will need to decide for themselves whether they wish to be proactively added to the long line of Jewish people, to their heritage, or whether they prefer to give up their membership in this unique and demanding club. 

Wexner Israel Fellow Alum Eitan Chikli (Class 12) has been the Susan and Scott Shay Director General of the TALI Education Fund in Israel since 1994. He is a DHL graduate of the JTS, a former Conservative rabbi and teaches Jewish Education at the Schechter Institute in Jerusalem and Oranim Teachers College. Eitan can be reached here.