Ariel Picard
Ariel Picard Directs Hartman Institute's Kogod Research Center

How to nurture pluralistic Jewish learning in Israel

The phenomenon of Jewish renewal in Israel is not just a passing phase. It has been developing and growing from strength to strength for two decades now, and its presence is felt ever-more strongly in the public arena, culturally, and in the country’s different educational streams. With the start of the new academic year, and after a very difficult summer, pluralistic Jewish education in Israel stands at the threshold of four main challenges.

An inferiority complex in the face of religious knowledge and might

Discovering Judaism’s spiritual treasures can be likened to entering a sea of boundless waters. The novice learner is exposed to many and varied sources that require knowledge and mastery. Bewildered learners often face Orthodox teachers who demonstrate knowledge and self‑assurance on Jewish religious issues. They project authority and are categorical about the boundaries of possible interpretation, which is liable to confuse new learners who lack confidence and authority on their part.

Indeed, teachers of Jewish Studies in the Israeli state education system must turn themselves into scholars and inculcate curiosity and diligence in their students. But that is not enough; pluralistic learners often are bewildered not because of a lack of knowledge, but because they come with a different approach. The traditional learner views traditional interpretation as exclusive and unequivocal, and therefore has looked upon pluralistic learners seeking to encourage debate and innovation as ignorant and mistaken. State schools seeking to encourage Jewish Studies must be careful in their selection of teachers for these subjects. Jewish pluralism must be a prerequisite for Jewish instruction in the school. It is not the personal identity of the teacher that should be the deciding factor – the teacher may be religious, Orthodox, secular, or traditional; the question is, to what extent will the teacher respect other possibilities? To what extent will the teacher expose students to a diversity of opinions and not only to his or her personal opinion?

Nationalism and racism

This past summer we saw how racism and xenophobia can surge in times of conflict and war. Preoccupation with a Jewish identity fuels a positive sense of belonging, but may also engender hate and fear. It must be acknowledged that there are opinions in Jewish tradition which take a negative approach to non-Jews, but conversely there are other sources that promote tolerance and pluralism among all human beings.

It must be the task of the educator to present these various opinions and to discuss them in class, but at the same time, to take a stand and explain it to the students. We educate in the framework of a philosophy that sees the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. Therefore, we must discuss and emphasize those sources and streams of thought in the Jewish tradition that support a democratic approach, which promotes human equality and equal rights regardless of religion, race, or gender. We must choose those sources in our multifaceted heritage that are allied with our moral values and our worldview, just as others with different opinions find in Judaism a source of inspiration for their worldview. The choice is made from an understanding that to be Jewish means to choose and shape your Jewishness.

Learning as the Basis for Action

“Study is greater, for it leads to action.” This proverb from the ancient rabbis characterizes a Judaism in which the practical and existential focus on maintaining a Jewish way of life is central to the Jewish identity. The Israeli movement to renew Jewish thought and learning started out by concentrating on studying and opening the Jewish bookshelf to reinterpretation. Such learning is designed to inspire and to provide a platform for moral discussion and to address the questions of the human condition, but generally lacks their effective application in practice.

The great Israeli poet, Hayim Nahman Bialik, in his classic article, “Halakha and Aggada” (“Law and Legend”), contended that the legend, that is, the conceptual world, learning, and philosophy, are not enough to create a culture. Laws are required, as well as deeds and actions, in the real world. Educators face this challenge, too. Thus, for example, studying questions of social justice must lead to social action; addressing the relationship between human beings and nature, between human beings and the environment (in the context of shmita, or fallow year, for example) must shape hands-on environmental activity in the real world. The annual cycle, and the Jewish festivals and holidays taught in the education system must be expressed in the real world in the form of a regular and binding custom in the school, and in the realm of the family and community alike.

Prayer and the search for a spiritual experience

The Israeli movement for Jewish renewal began to engage in prayer after realizing that people and communities need spirituality, need to elevate themselves, and need sanctity. In this area too, we find creativity and innovation merging with significant segments of tradition that have not lost their vitality or their potency. This is an important realization facilitating the transition to the next stages of Jewish renewal in Israel. Many still see prayer as a phenomenon that belongs to the traditional religious world, but presumably, just as the barrier to studying Torah has been overcome, so too will the barrier in the spiritual sphere be overcome. Prayer has meaning and is important to every person regardless of issues of faith, divine providence, and divine revelation. Just as liturgy was composed and new prayers added in every generation and in every community and congregation, our generation too bears responsibility for shaping its own prayers. The language of modern Hebrew poetry, which talks to us and talks about us, can contribute greatly to heightening the emotional depth of prayer and transforming it into a shared experience for the community as a whole (See, for example, the Kabbalat Shabbat held every week in the summer at the Tel Aviv Port.). This will also give expression to the emotional and spiritual aspect of the Jewish existence. This requires more work in the school and in the community. As a complete culture, Judaism incorporates all of life’s elements in it, the practical, the social, and the ethical, but also the needs of the soul, the emotions, and the spirit. The establishment of the State of Israel created a place where Jewish culture can exist and develop as a national culture in the public space and in the community. The State of Israel also created the major challenge of sustaining a democratic and pluralistic existence in which Jews and non‑Jews live as citizens with equal rights. The opportunities and the challenges at the national level are mirrored in the vision and the aspirations of the educational system and of the men and women who lead it.

Translated from Hebrew by Katy Lavrovski


About the Author
Ariel Picard is Director of the Kogod Research Center for Contemporary Jewish Thought and a member of the Executive Committee of the institute. Ariel was for many years the educational director of the Institute's Be'eri program. Ariel has a Ph.D. in philosophy from Bar-Ilan University and conducts research in contemporary Jewish law. He was ordained as a rabbi by the Israeli Chief Rabbinate and formerly served as the rabbi of Kibbutz Shluchot.