The spiritual stagnation of Jewish education

The problem of secularization is much discussed at educational conferences. Most educators think the problem lies with young people who prefer a secular way of life, abandoning religion and belief, giving up Judaism and its demands, whether it is halakha for observant Jews or commitment to Jewish particularities for others. I would like to pinpoint the problem secularization creates within the religious community itself.

The secular option provides an easy escape route for anyone uncomfortable with religious society, due to certain norms, beliefs, ideas, or any other reason.

Yet discomfort can be a positive thing: it generates religious creativity, social reform, and updated Jewish thinking.

In the past, choosing to remain Jewish meant remaining religious. The great reformers had to transform their discomfort into inner Jewish activity, such as wording new concepts and emphasizing new religious values. This is how the Bible’s “Divine symphony” was created – the biblical ethos of heroes and kings vs. the prophets: Isaiah’s social prophecy, Jeremiah the pacifist, the romanticism of Song of Songs vs. the sober wisdom of Ecclesiastes, and the protest against theodicy in Job.

This is how the Jewish “culture of dispute” emerged in the post-biblical era: Beit Hillel v. Beit Shamai, R. Akiva’s school v. R. Ishmael’s, Maimonides’ rationalism v. Jewish mysticism, Hassidim vs. Mitnagdim, Jewish Enlightenment v. Orthodoxy, Bundism v. Zionism.

All Jewish thinkers were deeply committed to rigorous engagement with Jewish tradition, and yet at the same time were discomfited by the manifestations of Jewish culture in their time. Thus Judaism turned into a diverse culture of values-based disputes that provided different ways for self-realization and tikkun olam.

Nowadays, secularization is changing the Jewish world in both Israel and the Diaspora, and one of the outcomes is religion’s depletion. The need to reform Jewish society does not exist anymore. Whoever is discomfited, is free simply to leave. Moreover, he is encouraged to leave. This solution fits both the new secular and the old religious. The new secular (mostly young) finds a new society and frees himself from the trouble of reforming the world he comes from — even if the new society does not always have the right answers for the flaws he has found with the old.

On the other side, the old religious order does not have to cope with criticism and seems to prefer to keep the skeptics out of his life. It may be that among those who have left, we could have found the new Maimonides or Mendelsohn, Buber, or Heschel. Thus, Judaism remains intellectually stagnant, outdated, and boring.

Once the newly secular Jew is out, the challenge left is social only: how to guard children from secularization, how to promise devotion to the Jewish community. The driving force of the educational enterprise is fear of losing numbers of Jews, not of losing Judaism.

Traditionally, education is regarded as a social agent: it provides belief, knowledge, values, and traditional ways of life. The progressive view sees it as a change agent, a platform from which students will take off, thanks to the knowledge, skills, values, and critical and judicial tools they acquire, helping them develop a personal, independent identity.

Today, we can distinguish between two types of Jewish education, which may generally be called, Orthodox and Liberal. Orthodox education is more intensive and emphasizes Hebrew reading skills, familiarity with canonical books, memorization, and halakhic compliance. Liberal Jewish education highlights progressive values within Jewish sources and initiates children into the basics of Jewish culture. The common denominator of both is that in most cases, Jewish education is “traditional,” seeking to fortify Jewish concepts against criticism and secularization. In order to defend itself, Jewish education depletes its own spirit.

Research by the study group Atid shows that students in Israel feel “Jewish thought” studies in religious schools are almost totally irrelevant to their identity. In their conclusions, the researchers focus on the lack of relationship between intellectual studies and the question of identity.

The problem lies also in a different place – the curriculum’s rationale. The formal curriculum is based upon informative study of a censored Jewish philosophy. It contains only the thought that supports uniform religious concepts and omits philosophers’ bold innovations.

Maimonides is a good example. Students learn the parts from the “Guide for the Perplexed” in which Maimonides provides the reasons for the commandments. But they do not learn about the implications of his rational thinking. They learn the reasons for the sacrifices, but do not arrive at Maimonides’ argument that there is no positive purpose for sacrifice, and that its real purpose is to lead the inclination for idol worship into a monotheistic route, not to mention his distinction between essential beliefs and true beliefs, or the inner contradictions in “The Guide,” which are the key to the criticism of his work.

Modern philosophers like Abraham J. Heschel, Yeshayahu Leibowitz, and David Hartman are not taught at all. Thus, Jewish thought is studied as a sort of hilkhot deot — the acceptable ways of thinking in the Jewish community. The study marks the borders of traditional thinking. The curriculum is not supposed to surprise the student and challenge him to think anew about discomforting issues, or to provide him with the tools to improve his religious worldview.

Instead of teaching Jewish thought from a philosophical standpoint, out of love of wisdom and quest for truth, we are trying to teach tradition. Critics are taught without their criticism. The quest of the philosophers from the Middle Ages and later eras for a personal religious response is transformed into dogmas the student is supposed to memorize without any reflection.

Jewish education in Israel and indeed even in the Diaspora needs to undergo two revolutions. Its goal should be twofold: initiating students into traditional society with love and sympathy, and at the same time, changing, developing, and updating this society. We should be more fearless and daring; we should believe more in our students and in our religious tradition. By a challenging and questioning approach, students will reclaim the Jewish tradition and merge it into their identities.

The Bible should be taught as the foundation-book of Jewish identity. The teaching must convey the passionately critical belief of the biblical heroes who dared to make a tikkun olam covenant with God, to walk together with the Bible in the paths of our forefathers, to discuss the fate of the people of Israel through the prism of today’s politics and ethics. They should learn hazal-ic and halakhic literature as a project of renaissance, to try to solve the halakhic problems that students encounter, to engage in healing and interpreting painful and aggravating sources – and not to censor them.

Jewish thought should be taught as a selection of brave religious confrontations of our sages with the problems evoked by the encounter between tradition and the outside world. We should willingly listen and even encourage criticism from the inside, and together make the endless journey of raising questions and finding answers.

This journey will replace the old anxiety about young people leaving religion, with a new, exciting, positive anxiety – about the unknown, the unexpected, and the challenges we’ll meet on this journey. The new educational ethos will encourage the doubting and inquisitive students to use their abilities and creativity to stay and to cope with the challenge. New spiritual and intellectual paths will be open to them and to us, and the Jewish religion will regain its ebullient and vital essence.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Shraga Bar-On is a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute and the director of the institute's David Hartman Center for Intellectual Excellence. He co-heads the Beit Midrash for Israeli Rabbis and a faculty member at Shalem College in Jerusalem, Israel.
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