Tradition, Light and Hope: A Vision for Jewish Education
By Bryan Schwartz
“We are committed to educating ourselves and our children about our tradition. Our legacy includes the Hebrew language and the languages of the diasporas. The words of the sacred literature have been a generative core of our secular writing, music, art, politics and science. As each of us learns more about our own culture, we can better appreciate the experiences of others. As we grow in Jewish learning, we are better able to contribute creatively in any and all fields of endeavour.” -“A Modern Jewish Credo”, Times of Israel, 3 January 2019
Judaism reveres freedom. Jews can only thrive as a distinctive people through the freely-given commitment of future generations. The nature, meaning and potential appeal of the Jewish experience grows with study. I would propose a vision for Jewish education that is based on:
Tradition: reviewing, analyzing, understanding and living the spiritual, intellectual and emotional legacy of a civilization that has endured and developed through millennia;
Light: the impact that Judaic civilization has had in the wider world on virtually every area of human endeavor, and;
Hope: how the Jewish people are still striving towards a better future for themselves and for all, including the current and expected further contribution of Israeli science and technology.
Learning should be experiential and communal; this involves not only the study of texts in isolation, but exchanges between teachers and fellow learners in an atmosphere of free inquiry. Venues can be Jewish day schools, day camps, university programs or study trips.
Israel needs to develop study experiences that replace the earlier role of the Kibbutz for both Jewish and non-Jewish visitors to Israel which are enjoyable and immersive, generating among most participants a lasting respect and affection for the Jewish experience. These educational programs – most of which could be done in a matter of weeks or months, not entire semesters or years – would aim to:
Integrate the three dimensions of tradition, light and hope; it is not enough to know that a political leader, scientist, or creative person happened to be Jewish; rather, we must ask questions, such as:
− whether, or how, did their Jewish experiences influence or resonate in their life and work?
− what, if any, were the connections between their life and adventures with the whole chain of Jewish traditions, all the way back to biblical times?
Engage the learner’s own individual interests and passions; a learner’s passion might be mathematics.
The “Priestly” passages of the bible exhibit an obsession with order, infused by an attention to numbers, e.g. the sequence of days in creation and the dimensions of sacred architecture. In Hebrew, letters also serve as numbers, and the method of Gematria explores with verve and imagination the meanings conveyed by the numerical value of words. Jewish tradition, including the work of Rav Soloveitchik, has explored the challenge of coping with infinities in both mathematics and physics; Luria’s Kabbalistic theology included tzimtzum, the idea that an infinite deity had to leave space for finite creatures – human beings, to engage their own creativity. And what are some of the current areas of focus for Israeli mathematicians? To name but a few: artificial intelligence, game theory, and the computer science of accident avoidance and autonomous driving technologies.
Introduce students to complex ideas by focusing on stories of particular individuals:
Jewish tradition tends to explore abstract ideas by telling stories. This is still a powerful means to attract interest, promote understanding, leave enduring memories and provide questions worthy of life-long exploration.
For example: a student’s passion might be music. Individuals whose stories and works might be studied could include, for instance, Harold Arlen, the Gershwins, Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, or Arik Einstein. A course on “tradition, light and hope” might begin with the earliest texts in Judaism, including their imaginings of the angels, and on praises of the eternal one.
The Levite priests in the Temples were virtuoso singers; we have the attestations of holy books, like Chronicles, and secular historians such as Josephus. The cantillation marks in the Jewish bible mean that the written word is a beginning, the radiant pulse of meaning casting out in all dimensions. One of those dimensions is musical.
Music is pervasive in the Jewish tradition; in chanting from the Tanakh, we sing narratives, poems, laws, and architectural formulae. The Hasidic movement moved beyond textual study, fascinated with melodies.
When Jews were able to contribute to secular music, they were heavily affected by those traditions; they were open to the existence of multiple systems, not just a mainstream one; to the experience of having their own musical tradition, and the experience of being outsiders. They engaged with other outsider musical idioms, such as rural folk music, African-American spiritual music and jazz. The profound Jewish connection of words to music resonates in the Broadway musical – an essentially Jewish creation. The Popular music scene is vibrant in Israel, and mixes many streams of Jewish tradition, including that which has flowed to Israel from North Africa and the East.
Educators of Judaism should actively create Tradition, Light and Hope programs in dozens of disciplines;
The government of Israel should see TLH programs as replacing and improving on the role of the Kibbutz movement, as a means of attracting visitors to Israel and to the Jewish experience;
Study materials based on TLH could be created in dozens of disciplines, for use in Jewish schools, summer camps, universities, and on the internet;
The World Jewish Museum could go beyond hosting TLH exhibits but also play a central role in encouraging the production of TLH content for wide distribution.
The government of Israel, the world Jewish Museum and other potential partners should also consider establishing a residential and study campus in Israel that would host students coming to Israel for TLH programs. Learners there might participate in a program that broadly surveys Judaism from a TLH perspective before the learner moves on to a more specific program in the learner’s area of interest.
TLH campuses might also be established in various locations in the Diaspora.
Appendix A: More Examples
A learner’s passion might be literature. A TLH program could: study Robert Alter on the art of biblical narrative and poetry and his translation of the bible; appreciate the subtle and superb artfulness of biblical writing, regardless of whether one accept its theology; read his “Pen of Iron” on the biblical influence on secular writing. It could review James Kugel on the contrast between the traditional and historicist approach to biblical texts; consider the nature of Midrash, the “fan fiction” of the Talmudic era; engage with contemporary authors, such as Philip Roth and Mark Helprin, who have exuberantly explored the tensions between traditional and modern Jewish life. How have Israeli artists like S.Y. Agnon incorporated sacred literature into modern art forms, like the short story and novel?
A learner’s passion might be martial arts. How are feats of arms portrayed in the Tanakh? Why is Goliath the only classically heroic figure? Could it be that a chronically outnumbered people in a neighbourhood were measured by celebrating physical might? Daniel Mendoza, the British boxing champion, was well-versed in Jewish tradition; how does that resonate with his writing of a textbook on scientific boxing, largely based on dialectic exercises – “if my opponent does this, I do that?” How is it that there was once a flourishing of American Jewish boxers? How did Benny Leonard out-think his opponents? Why did American Jews eventually steer away from martial sports, and emphasize more purely intellectual activities? What is the origin of Krav Maga, the Israeli combat art?
A learner’s passion might be law. Consider the holistic role law pay in the Tanakh – an emanation of the divine, a guide to conduct in all spheres of human conduct, an eternal product that needs constant interpretation and reinterpretation; a way of infusing a higher morality into human affairs; the story of Akhnai’s oven from the Talmud – a funny, moving, profound, compact and infinitely ponderable study of hermeneutics; compare the traditional approach to interpretation to modern disputes over constitutional and statutory meaning – how much is predetermined by the text? How much is a product of evolving social consensus? How much depends on the agenda of elite interpreters, such as the judges of a supreme court? What role does traditional law play in the modern Jewish state?
A learner’s passion might be sequential art. A student might be interested in comic books, graphic novels and films based upon them. Why did Jewish artists dominate the creation of the American comic book? How does Superman reflect the American Jewish experience – the reality of being an outsider, an intellectual, a survivor from a lost civilization, and wanting to be physically powerful, loved and accepted by all, a bringer of righteousness and an object of romantic desire? Who is Will Eisner? How did he help to invent the graphic novel? What are its Jewish themes of his work,and how did he become one of the first theorists and scholars of sequential art? Why did Art Spiegelman, in Maus, use the graphic novel to depict his father’s Holocaust experience?
A learner’s passion might be physics. A study of tradition might look at how, in ancient times, Jewish civilization seemed mostly concerned with the movement of planets and stars for such purposes as fixing the religious calendar; how Maimonides concerned the study of physics as a means of understanding God’s creation; how Einstein adopted a “theology” of physics that assumed that there is an intelligible and coherent order that unites all of creation; how does this view reconcile or conflict with various strands of Jewish theology?
A learner’s passion might be economics. What is the attitude of the Tanakh towards free markets, business economics, wealth accumulation and the need for social justice? The Talmud is replete with the study of business law and ethics; it adopts a balanced approach to individualism and communitarianism; Pirke Avot 5:10, and Hillel’s, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?” Pirke Avot, 1:14. Why has so much of economic theory been created by thinkers who were Jewish, or at least had a Jewish background (e.g. Ricardo, Marx)? How did thinkers from Israel, such as Twersky and Kahneman, create the foundations of behavioural economics?
A learner’s passion might be architecture. What is the theology behind the architectural plans laid out in the Tanakh for sacred buildings? Why is elevation pervasively seen as holy but descent as evil? The ten commandments are given on a mountain top; Moses descends to deliver them; Sheol lies below. How are ancient architectural ideas combined with surrounding cultures in the design of synagogues in the Diaspora? Why were Jews attracted to the modernist movement in architecture? Did it involve their alienation from their local traditions in the aftermath of persecutions, including the Holocaust? How did Tel Aviv come to be a home of Bauhaus style? How and why does Jerusalem maintain the coherence of its architecture, including white stone?
A learner’s passion might be in the culinary arts. Judaism has been jokingly called not so much a way of life or a way of belief, but rather a way of eating. The bible sets out the dietary code; various explanations – and they can overlap. They include humane treatment of animals (not seething a kid in its mother’s milk); religious symbolism (the theme of unification and completion in the preparation of the Passover meal in the Exodus story, or the notion that blood cannot be consumed because it is the symbol of life itself); semiotic theory (the idea that kosher animals tend to be those that fit clearly into categories rather than straddling them, such as sea creatures without fins), hygienic concerns (certain animals carry diseases); and economic imperatives (pigs do not produce milk as well as meat). The Talmud elaborates the application of Kosher principles to real-world practice. A study of Jewish cuisine can consider how Kosher principles were observed and adapted in different parts of the Diaspora in light of the proximity to various flora and fauna, and the food culture of surrounding communities. How has Israeli cuisine emerged in light of the coming together of the various diasporas? Why has cuisine from Africa and Asia became more popular than Ashkenazi foods? With traditional Kosher inaccessible or prohibitively expensive in many modern Jewish communities, is there room to develop some new, more flexible principles of Kashrut that are both meaningful and practicable?
A learner’s passion might be chess. Why have most of the world champions been Jewish? When chess emerged as an organized sport in the 19th century, among the traits of outstanding Jewish players was a scholarly approach to games, including analyzing openings, annotating plays and developing the scientific principles of Wilhelm Steinitz, the first world champion and a founder of the theory of positional, rather than romantic, play; Aron Nimzowitsch was the pioneer of the hypermodern style. Another feature of the Jewish prominence in the early days of professional chess may have been that of necessity; they could not adopt the “amateur gentleman” approach of some of their counterparts, but had to find ways to make a living by playing or writing about the game. It might be that, deprived of physical and political power in their societies, many Jews found chess to be a means of expressing their competitive and combative instincts. While the Nazis condemned an allegedly “Jewish style” of chess, Jewish champions developed many different styles, including the pragmatic approach of Emanuel Lasker, the wild attacks of Rudolf Spielmann, the imaginatively contrarian style of Nimzowitsch, the exquisite subtlety of Akiba Rubenstein, and the rigorous professionalism of the “Soviet” school of chess, developed by figures such as Mikhail Botvinnik. The Holocaust took a terrible toll on many Jewish chess players; the story can be told of those who were murdered, those who perished in exile, and those like Miguel Naidorf who were trapped abroad and stayed to develop their local chess cultures. How in modern times did the Polgar sisters all become excellent players, with Judit being the first woman ever to become a world top ten? Was their father’s idea correct that any child could be trained to be a genius, with no natural talent required? How did Bobby Fischer, Jewish by descent on both sides, eventually turn into a paranoid anti-Semite? What is the chess scene like in Israel today, and how much has it been nourished by the influx of players from the former Soviet Union, like Boris Gelfand?
A learner’s passion might be psychology or psychiatry. Sigmund Freud was proudly Jewish, and some of his writings overtly express that affiliation; he once said that his book about humour was just a means to tell Jewish jokes; in Moses and Monotheism he developed an extravagantly speculative theory about the origins of his people, including the contention that Moses was not Jewish by birth. Some biographers of Freud have contended that he drew extensively on other aspects of Jewish tradition, including dream analysis. The psychoanalytic movement is replete with Jewish figures; how did their distinctive backgrounds weigh on their thoughts? How did Jung’s non-Jewish background lead him on a different path, and to what extent was he reckless in the emergence of Nazism? Other forms of psychology have been developed by Jews. Mordechai Rotenberg argued for a Midrashic approach to psychotherapy; the therapist and patient should be inspired by the Jewish technique of weaving a redemptive interpretive story around the raw facts of experience. Abraham Pais has written about the resonances between Rabbinic Judaism and the Cognitive Behavioural Therapy movement, which was largely created by Jewish therapists – although, as in some other cases, the extent of the causal link between their Judaism and their creative work is not always clear.
A learner’s passion might be politics. The Tanakh has been portrayed, in part, as a political treatise; it explores the need to find balance among people, their leaders and higher principles. The exodus story is an exploration of the paradoxes of freedom; Moses rebels against Pharaoh, the people are leery of Moses’ authority and Moses and the people sometimes resent and resist the authority of a demanding God. The rule of law is introduced to mediate between the divine and the human; the immediate presence of a God of righteousness would weigh too heavily on a fallible people. From Judges through the stories of David, Solomon and their successors, the Israelites struggle is to find a workable balance amongst the need for central leadership, the risks of monarchical tyranny and the authority of a powerful and righteous God, who sometimes sends prophets to rebuke both the people and their king.When denied their own state for two millennia, how and when did the Jewish communities carry out a measure of community self-rule? How did they manage to maintain some common identity and legal order in situations where they were both dispersed and utterly powerless? The bible had an enormous impact on European and on American political thought. Eric Nelson argues in The Hebrew Republic that the revolt, in England and elsewhere, against the “divine right of Kings” had biblical inspirations. American democracy was inspired by the model of ancient Israel, a people that freely chose a moral order based on freedom and individual equality. The abolitionist movement against slavery had inspirations from Exodus.
The Jewish state has been struggling since its inception to find ways to reconcile traditional Jewish law and values with the practical necessities of operating a modern state. Why is the Israeli political system fragmented into so many parties? Does providing a voice for all in a pluralistic society ultimately promote cohesion? Is the Jewish character of Israel helped or actually hurt by the power given to the official Rabbinate in matters such as performing marriages and recognizing conversions? Jefferson argued that the separation of “church” and state benefitted both.
A learner’s passion might be history. Thomas Cahill, in The Gift of the Jews, argues that Jewish civilization broke free of the cyclical worldview of its neighbours (earthly events are an endless replay of a divine pattern) and invented a processive worldview: time has a beginning, historical choices affect the future, and progress is possible. The Tanakh is devoid of hagiography; its greatest figures are flawed, the choices of leaders and of the people have consequences that bear on today. Baruch Halpern has written of Jews as the “First Historians”. A lively, albeit sometimes bitter, controversy exists about the extent to which the bible reflects actual historical events; different archaeologists variously vindicate or dismiss the historicity of various accounts; William G. Dever, in What Did the Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know It? provides a compelling denunciation of the political hostility to Israel that can lead to excessive “minimalism.” Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, however, argues that for much of Jewish history, Zakhor, collective Memory, a stylized and religiously infused recollection of the past, has been more important than scientific historiography. Politics mix with academic inquiry today in debates over the most sensitive events in Jewish history, including the history of the temple, the Shoah and events of the 1948 War of Independence.
A learner’s passion might be passion. In Genesis, God created both men and women. The love and dissension among couples is portrayed vividly. In the Song of Songs, an exuberantly erotic poem somehow enters into the canon; partly because of its intrinsic appeal, partly because it was reimagined as a metaphor for the love between the people of Israel and the almighty. The Talmud frankly, and often pedantically, explores sexual matters; rather than adopting the asceticism of St. Paul, the sexual instinct is regarded as healthy and natural, and the ideal is to bring it under a modicum of self-discipline, rather than repress it outright. The Bible at times saw the distinction between men and woman as foundational, and abhorred the blurring of identify; how then do contemporary Jews interpret or revise, or abandon, tradition in order to be accepting of same-sex relationships and mixed gender identities? The fracture between the old and the new is not always stark; the Bible accepts strong (and possibly homo-erotic?) bonds between David and Jonathan; Rashi had a tolerant view of many same-sex relationships. Given the tensions between traditional and modern views, how has the State of Israel adapted its practices and laws? How did Tel Aviv come to be the one of the most gay-friendly cities in the world?