Enough Identity Already
This piece was originally published on Learning About Learning, the blog of the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education at Brandeis University.
In the blizzard of articles, reactions, and blog posts about the Pew
Research Center study of American Jews, the most unexpected came from
the prominent public intellectual Noah Feldman.
Writing in Bloomberg,
Feldman’s column jumps from the Pew study to some observations about,
surprisingly, the Lakewood yeshiva. He explains that Lakewood is a
massive ultra-Orthodox educational institution (6500 students embedded
in a community of 55,000) focused almost entirely on the study of Talmud
and exclusively for male students, that its educational model is
“astonishingly egalitarian and democratic,” that it demonstrates that
“one kind of authentically Jewish experience is flourishing in America.”
“[Lakewood] matters. It matters for the future of Jews in
America precisely because it matters for the future of Judaism in
America. By privileging ideas and thought over identity, it proudly
stakes out a position of genuine durability.”
Feldman is no apologist for traditionalism. What he notices about
Lakewood, astutely, is that they have identified a particular cultural
practice that they value above everything else, and they have set up an
educational system to pursue that cultural practice with single-minded
focus and discipline.
That’s what makes Lakewood admirable, even for those of us who do not
particularly admire their ideology, who do not believe that educational
systems should be so narrow in their curriculum, and who, especially,
are skeptical about what the “Lakewood model” produces and contributes
to the world.
That focus and discipline is the quality to which Feldman was
pointing in his phrase “privileging ideas and thought over identity.”
What he really meant to say, I think, is that Lakewood does not worry
about the Jewish identity of its students, and does not believe that
vacuous phrases like “strengthening Jewish identity” – the phrases that
populate so much educational discourse in the broader Jewish community –
are sufficient to inform an educational vision.
Instead, Lakewood wants students to learn Talmud, and to do so in a
particular way that they value. It doesn’t matter that that particular
methodology is only a couple of hundred years old; they’re not
interested in history. Nor, for that matter, are they particularly
interested in “ideas and thought,” if we take that phrase to indicate
philosophy or theology. That’s not part of the curriculum either. It’s
all Talmud, all the time.
The rest of us in the Jewish community, who are not about to mimic
the Lakewood model for any number of good reasons, ought to ask
ourselves how our educational visions might achieve the clarity that
Lakewood’s seems to have. This is not about theological clarity. It’s
about focus and discipline, about identifying the cultural practices
that we value most, and then figuring out what we are doing to help
students achieve the capacities to pull off those cultural practices.
What do we want students to know and be able to do? Read texts in certain ways? Speak certain languages? Enjoy Jewish culture? Produce Jewish
culture? In what ways do we want them to be engaged with their local
Jewish and non-Jewish communities? Who do want them to be, as
interpreters of Jewish history and tradition? How do we envision the
connection of Jews to other Jews, locally or globally? What is our
picture of engaged citizenship, and in what polities? What are our
aspirations for the inner, spiritual lives of Jews? What does it mean to
live a life on behalf of others, or to pursue justice, or to create
beauty in the world, or to serve the Divine?
The Pew study confirms what we have seen in every other study in
recent years. American Jews today are perfectly comfortable with their
Jewish identities. Jews are happy and proud to be Jewish. They are happy
for others to know that they’re Jewish. They are not running away from
their Jewish identities in any sense. If they marry another Jew and have
children, they inevitably raise their children as Jewish. If these are
our metrics for success, then we have to conclude that Jewish education
has been successful beyond anyone’s wildest imagination.
But if these are not our metrics of success, then we have to
stop focusing on Jewish identity. We have to stop talking about
“building Jewish identity” and “strengthening Jewish identity” and
“transmitting Jewish identity.” Instead, we have to articulate to
ourselves and to the community what cultural practices we really value,
what we want our students to know and be able to do, who we want them to
be in a deep and substantive way. Enough identity already.
Dr. Jon A. Levisohn, a Wexner Graduate Fellowship alum (Class 10) is a tenured Associate Professor and the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Chair in Jewish Educational Thought at Brandeis University. Jon will be co-chairing (with Ari Y. Kelman of Stanford University) a conference at the Center on“Rethinking Jewish Identity and Jewish Education,” March 30-31, 2014. He also serves as Associate Academic Director of the Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education, and will become Director in July 2014. A native of Boston, Jon came back to town in 2002 after completing his graduate studies at Stanford University. Jon has also studied at the Hebrew University, the Shalom Hartman Institute, Harvard University, and Yeshivat Sha’alvim. Jon lives in Newton with his wife Emily Beck and their three children, and is an active member of Congregation Shaarei Tefillah. He teaches in the community, consults to Jewish educational organizations, and has served as a lay leader at JCDS, Boston’s Jewish Community Day School. Jon can be reached at email@example.com.