Jewish Adult Education: Creating an Educational Democracy
This article originally appeared in Ten Daat 1996, 9:1, pp. 63-77. Reprinted here with permission.
“Heraclitus deposited the book in the temple of Artemis, and some say that he deliberately wrote it in obscure language, so that only those capable of reading it would approach it, and not in a lighter tone which would expose him to the contempt of the crowd. Heraclitus himself said: “Why do you want to drag me here and there you illiterates? I did not write for you but for those who can understand me. One man to me is worth a thousand, and the mob-nothing.” 1 Diogenes Laertes
“But Heraclitus is gone, and his book has been thrown open to all the savant monkeys who desire to approach it, writing reviews and footnotes!” 2 Umberto Eco
I. Adult Education: A “Novelty”
In the table of contents of Bertrand Russell’s Education and the Good Life the following categories appear under “Intellectual Education”: The School Curriculum Before Fourteen, Last School Years, The University, Conclusion. 3 Russell’s discussion of education, its methods and its merits concludes after the university years. Education and the good life that follows is a process that presupposes an institution and a stage of life. “Continuing education,” an idea that was evidently foreign to Russell’s work on the subject in 1926, has no established classroom walls or matriculation. But despite the passage of time and the popularity of adult education, there is still a dearth of analysis on this recent phenomenon. A local public library will have shelves on preschool elementary and high school education and learning. Publications exist about gifted children, special needs children, hard-to-motivate children, on how to learn math, do homework, take standardized tests and behave in the classroom. But where are the books on the special adults who come ready-motivated and pose no discipline problems, who no longer take standardized tests and who do not fight on the playground? Is there so little to say about the way in which they learn? More than thirty years ago Malcolm Knowles made a number of predictions about the future of adult education. One of them was an increase in the awareness of how adults learn:
There will be a rapid expansion in the body of knowledge about the education of adults. Research resources will be increasingly focused on the developmental processes of the adult years, the nature of adult learning, environmental factors affecting adult learning, characteristics of adults as learners, and institutional arrangements for the education of adults. It is probable that an enormous untapped potential for human growth and achievement will soon be discovered. 4
Thirty years later there is still much to be discovered and much untapped potential. Knowles’ predictions that teachers would undergo specialized training to be adult educators, that resources and facilities for adults would multiply and that a trend toward self-education would develop have not yet seen their moment but are anxiously awaited. 5
II. Adult Education in the Jewish Tradition
The popularity of continuing education, intellectual development that carries us through all stages of life and takes place inside and outside of the classroom, is nothing new to Judaism. Ethics of the Fathers describes patterns of wisdom that take us from age five to one hundred.6 The Talmud assumed that each would contain a disproportionate amount of time for study in relation to work. Following the harvest season, adults would go off for monthly study sessions. However, as intimacy with primary sources waned, so, too, did the upkeep of such institutions. The break-down took centuries. One writer reflecting on adult education in the 1950’s was saddened by the loss.
In the typical synagogue adult education enjoys marginal status. Though all congregations have a special budget and a special committee for child education, few have such a budget for adult education …Today, however, the sad reality is that much of what passes for adult study is not worthy of the name. Some of it may be called indoctrination or promotion of specific Jewish causes or specific branches of Judaism.7
While a return to primary sources has been the current educational fashion, the move to promote ideas rather than promote general study is often the animus for many study programs. This is particularly true with women’s continuing education, where content and text analysis often take the back seat to the speaker’s agenda. Nevertheless, the trend of Jewish adult education is encouraging. It has become an accepted phenomenon for men and women of all ages. Regular weekly Torah study sessions abound; translations of once inaccessible texts are readily available. Creative and innovative learning programs have become an almost expected feature of synagogue life. With all its glittering successes, it is not too early to reflect on certain “vocational hazards.” Just as children were historically once treated like little adults, we as educators cannot make the mistake of treating adults as big children. Yet, given the paucity of educational writing on the subject, it is difficult to assess the direction of adult education and create a vision for a long- term future.
Most adults who engage in some form of regular Jewish learning are highly motivated, bringing to class with them insights from a collective wealth of life experience. Their educational needs are different. Many adults, far in time from classroom days, are negligent about “homework” or proper revision. They are daunted by the thought of a test or a paper. Many do not want to take notes. They want to learn but they do not want to be in school. “Twenty years of school was enough for me,” they say. They are right. But they are also wrong. Learning is not only listening. How information is retained, reviewed, and applied is largely through vehicles that make learning feel like school. How can a teacher in an adult education program encourage active learning without making the demands of a school teacher? This tension has often led to accommodation to the continuing student’s demands. Many adults want an educational program that is meaningful, entertaining, stimulating, but not too demanding. They would like to spend an hour a week and gain the skills and knowledge that only a lifetime of Jewish study can offer. The following essay challenges some assumptions in current trends in adult education and, hopefully, offers a vision for future developments.
III. Education vs. Entertainment
Torah has had to compete with a myriad of other local classes, leisure activities and hobbies to attract. In doing this educators and administrators have turned to a device being employed more and more in all areas of communication: entertainment. It is true that even the famed third century amora, Rav, advised opening a class with a joke. However, Nehama Leibowitz, a contemporary Bible scholar in Israel, warns the teacher:
…should anyone think that the teacher’s excitement while teaching, explaining, analyzing, interpreting the Torah and the sacred flame of aha vat Torah which burns within him, that these will suffice to prevent the student from falling asleep during class- the Midrash come and slap him in the face: “Rabbi Oudah the Prince sat and expounded. The audience dozed off. He attempted to arouse them by saying: ‘A woman in Egypt once gave birth to 600,000 at one time!” (Shir Hashirim Rabba 1:64). 8
Today, one introductory laugh is hardly enough; classes should be peppered with jokes, witticisms, and “shtick,” to maintain the attention of the student. It is getting more difficult in this media-saturated age to appeal to the mind without the added visual and audio stimulus. 9 Today’s teacher is sensitive to the limited attention span of the student and the limited time that an adult has to further his or her education. No lawyer has to spend his evenings in a shiur on Bava Kamma when Nautilus equipment and a good TV sitcom can fill up his evening. It is not that the participant puts Torah and television on equal footing. Nor is it a lack of commitment that makes the choice a challenge. Many adults who study on a casual basis have such little time for themselves that their hobbies and recreational activities get lumped together in the one small space still open in their personal organizers. This, however, has had a damaging effect on Jewish learning. Torah must compete to attract.
This motivation has inspired high-gloss brochures and promises of good refreshments after class. One adult education program took an acronym that made it sound like an aerobics class. Common to many Torah study classes is pairing up a common fashion with a Jewish discipline; “Zen and Hasidut,” or the “Gestalt theory and Seifer Shemot” (to name only two that I have personally seen advertised). Yet while all of this marketing attracts students, it detracts from Torah study. It takes a two thousand year old discipline and turns it into a trendy vehicle for attracting adherents otherwise immersed in the other cultures. It conveys to the student that Torah is as philosophically penetrating as reading Nietzche, as psychologically engaging as Jung, as humorous as Seinfeld, and as strenuous as a night in the gym. It is not and it should not have to be. Torah study has its own authenticity to master and need not be a handmaiden to outside disciplines.
There is a difference between making Torah study interesting and making Torah study entertaining: it should always be the first and should not have to be the second to engage the student. Said differently, there is an important distinction to be made between disseminating Torah and marketing Torah. The Internet recently yielded an interesting find relevant to the topic at hand. Rabbi Shmuel Boteach, who runs the Chaim Society in Oxford University, put out for the consideration of the computer-savvy audience a plea that Torah should be like business:
Businesses cannot rely on sentimentality, patriotism, or tradition in their hopes for success and the supremacy of their product. Market share is only gained when a manufacturer’s products and services have the best cost/value ratio.
His obvious conclusion is that Torah has such a ratio, is a superior product, and with the right packaging can compete in the open market of ideas. Whether it can or cannot is not the issue. His suggestion that the Torah educator become some kind of “businessman” (minus the salary and the expense account) is fallacious and dangerous, and being employed with increasing frequency. To equate the teacher with the business man, to equate education with marketing, means that the teacher pursues the latest trends and succumbs to what is wanted by the student/client rather than what is needed. Teachers should be attuned to developments in their fields and to pedagogy in general, but they must also be somewhat stalwart and a challenge to us rather than a mirror. Allan Bloom, in The Closing of the American Mind, argues that the teacher must always move a student to his potential rather than the teacher himself being moved to accommodate the student.
The teacher’s standpoint is not arbitrary. It is neither simply dependent on what students think they want or happen to be in this place or time, nor is it imposed on him by the demands of a particular society or the vagaries of the market. Although much effort has been expended in trying to prove that the teacher is always the agent of such forces, in fact, he is willy-nilly, guided by the awareness, or the divination, that there is a human nature, and that assisting its fulfillment is his task. He does not come to this by way of abstractions or complicated reasoning. He sees it in the eyes of his students …No real teacher can doubt that his task is to assist his pupil to fulfill human nature against all the deforming forces of convention and prejudice. 10
In order to paint a vision for Jewish adult education which is both authentic and enduring, we must explore three facets of classical Jewish study: self-instruction, reverence for text and teacher, and motivation.
IV: The Importance of Self-Instruction
Traditional Jewish learning has always played down the role of the teacher, preferring the arduous task of self-instruction. Therefore, with Bloom’s model in mind, the student, not the teacher, pushes himself beyond convention and the “vagaries of the market.” However, since adults who take classes do not have to be in school, bring their own developed histories and life experience with them to class, are often the same age as their teachers and pay handsome tuition, there is a reasonable tendency to accommodate to their needs. The mature student more so than his younger counterpart, is a consumer of education. “Consumer” Torah study has the teacher doing most of the work; classical Torah study has the student doing most of the work. In “consumer” Torah study, the teacher must worry about his clothing, the photocopies he hands out, the dynamic in the room and the number of anecdotes he tells. In classical Torah study, the student must make sure he is on time for his chavruta, prepared for shiur, and respectful of his rebbe, with or without silk tie. Consumer Torah study is very hard for the teacher; it makes teaching into quasi-acting, forcing the teacher to deliberate over the externalities as well as the content of the material. Classical Torah study makes more demands of the student and ultimately makes the student responsible for the acquisition of knowledge. Consumer Torah study is very easy for the student. He pays his fee takes a seat, and waits; a most passive endeavor. Once again, Nehama Leibowitz advises us against this type of passivity:
In the last decade, pedagogues in various countries investigated and discovered that it is difficult for a youngster, a child-and all ages are alike in this respect-to learn via listening passively; by sitting inactively and only receiving. He desires activity; to exercise his abilities; to overcome difficulties; to wrestle with the subject matter until he overcomes it.
Passivity during class weakens the muscles, weakens spiritual abilities which are given no opportunity to exercise. So these pedagogues arose and demanded independent work by the student in lieu of the teacher’s work: discussion, analysis, and questions on the students’ part rather than the teacher’s lecture to paralyzed student. 11
Students, of all ages, must learn to make demands of themselves to achieve a level of Jewish literacy. They can only do this if educators are not afraid to challenge them and possibly forfeit quantity in place of quality. Ultimately, the adult who stays in the classroom learning to read Rashi script for the first time, gaining a skill that ties him to hundreds of years of rabbinic literature, will be grateful that content came before packaging. He or she will not be intimidated by the printed Hebrew book and will slowly gain mastery in the rabbinic reference books of the Jewish library. Succumbing to “consumer” Torah study leaves the student empty, able to mimic the teacher’s words but not able to replicate the teacher’s skills. Judaism’s long and proud history of literacy is a credit to the strenuous exercise of the mind that each open book presented.
Thus, on a practical level, when an adult is forced to confront a text alone (but, obviously, with guidance) he becomes more active, physically and mentally in the task of education. The teacher becomes merely a facilitator for his study. The task appears overwhelming to the adult who has left the world of essay writing and homework assignments. It can be psychologically daunting; most adults who join a class do not want to be scholars. They may feel burdened by primary source material that they have to master on their own. The process takes time and a sensitive, sympathetic guide. The rewards are great. Whatever demands are made will be self-imposed. Whatever disappointments are experienced will be self-inflicted and the joy of complete mental engagement will be self-possessed.
Yet, self-instruction is more than a personal victory. Employed en masse it has the potential to radically change society’s educational expectations. The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, in The Idea of an Educated Public, argues that education is becoming too specialized and thinking is no longer democratized. His own words:
When Kant enjoined us to think for ourselves, it could never have occurred to him that thinking, in the sense in which he was talking about it, might be deformed into a professional activity, largely unavailable except in specialized contents. Yet this is just what has happened in modern society. Thinking has become the occupational responsibility of those who discharge certain social roles: the professional scientist, for example. But those topics thinking about which is of general concern; thoughts about goods and the good; about the relationship of justice to effectiveness, or the place of aesthetic goods in human life; about the tragic, the comic and the farcical not only in literature but also in politics and economics; either are handed over to certain disciplined, but limited because professionalized, specialists or are dealt with in forums in which the constraints of disciplined exchange are almost entirely lacking. 12
MacInlyre challenges our everyday notion of expertise by making greater demands of the common man. An educated public, one he had trouble creating even in the philosophical realm, is one that actively pursues ideas and does not wait passively for the answer of the professional. Everyone can see the appeal of letting the professional do the thinking and yet the long term price is very high for the short-term mental relief.
V. Educational Democracy
Maimonides anticipated or perhaps witnessed the difficulties of advancing an educational democracy in the twelfth century. In the Laws of Torah Study, he writes beautifully of Judaism’s three crowns: the crown of Torah, the crown of priesthood, and the crown of kingship. The crown of priesthood was given to Aaron and his descendants, and for this the Rambam brings scriptural proof: Numbers 25: 13. The crown of kingship was bestowed upon David and his descendants as is stated in psalms 89:37. The crown of Torah, however:
…rests, stands and awaits all of Israel, as it says (Dt. 33:4): “The Torah was commanded to us through Moshe; it is an inheritance for the community of Jacob.” Anyone who wants it can come and partake. Perhaps one will say that those crowns are more desirable than the crown of Torah. Therefore it says (Proverbs 8:15-16): “By me kings reign, and princes decree justice. By me princes rule, and nobles, even all the judges of the earth.” From here we learn that the crown of Torah exceeds the other two. 13
Maimonides takes the Talmudic aphorism and sees in it the exclusivity that the crown of priesthood and kingship possess. Achieving those positions is effortless-a matter of birth and not of merit. Because the crown of Torah is available to all, it may not hold the glamour of the other two. Yet, in utilizing a verse from Proverbs, Maimonides demonstrates that God is the one who determines prestige; He is the appointer of priests and the anointer of kings, and it is He who has designated that the crown of Torah has preeminence. The following passage brought down by the Rambam is both touching and a support for this idea: the mamzeir who is a great scholar takes precedence over the ignorant high priest. The placing of the passages is not incidental; true status comes not with title but with knowledge. The rest of the chapter continues to describe the difficulties inherent in the life of the Torah scholar. This crown of knowledge is accessible to all, but the crowning can only take place with strenuous effort.
If we are to maintain the standard of education that has always characterized the community, it will be in keeping to the tradition of educational democracy. This can only be achieved by creating an educated Jewish public who are not afraid to make more demands of themselves; unlike the popular aphorism: “leave teaching to the teachers,” we have to return to the classical Jewish approach: “leave teaching to the students.”
VI. Texts and/or Teachers
Reverence for text and respect for teacher do not always sum up the educational attitudes inculcated into the college students of yore who are the continuing students of today. Many mature students grew up with a “Question Authority” pin on their jacket lapel. Whatever was worn on the outside, students often bore a suspicion of the teaching establishment on the inside and an attitude that undermined the classics of literature and philosophy for more “progressive” and contemporary works. Much of this educational rebellion has reformed the college campus and its residual effects have affected much of our thinking about education in general. When we take these attitudes into the Jewish classroom, we find an anomaly of sorts. Rabbinic literature upheld the esteem one should have for a teacher, likening a teacher to a parent and, in some instances, more important than a parent. A person once watched a chief Sephardic rabbi from Israel being kissed on his ring. Unfamiliar with this practice and aghast at what he thought was an almost idolatrous act, he asked a participant of the class to explain its origins. “Do you kiss a seifer Torah when you are in the synagogue?” “Of course,” the man replied. “This man is a walking seifer Torah.”
The Talmud abounds with anecdotes of sages, inculcating awe in its readers. A teacher in a local synagogue study hall would not desire this treatment or a kiss on the hand, but the idea that he is judged about the interest of the shiur and does not merit respect simply for who he is, is an attitude that may belong (but should not) to the lecture hall of a university but not to the study hall of a beit Midrash. Watch a class of students exit a shiur; how many thank the rabbi or teacher for an hour of stimulation or for the preparation that went into a weekly derashah in the synagogue. Criticism abounds. It is a small point and yet aptly puts into focus an attitude that has severed the presentation of the material from its presenter.
Take the text itself. Xeroxed sheets line the desks and floors after the class has gone. Texts that may be thousands of years old in the original, that have been handled by scholars and rabbis with the most delicate care, lie alone waiting to be collected and deposited elsewhere. Students’ questions often reveal the great distance that lies between them and what they are reading. Words that have been revered and painfully analyzed one at a time are sometimes so casually dismissed.
This is not the fault of the educator, but part of a western educational attitude that has not come under enough scrutiny. This is especially true in the “Jewish” classroom and creates the anomaly mentioned before.
On one hand we guide our students in the belief that Torah is a way of life which encompasses every phase of life. On the other hand we expose them in the humanities department to a secular way or life influenced by the sciences, history and world literature, with an entirely different approach to life. From our point of view, we teach our students the importance of authority. Whatever is written in the Torah cannot be questioned. No criticism may be directed against our tradition, but we also teach literature, history and science in which any authority may be challenged… We inform our students that any problem in life must be solved according to the Halakhah …And yet at the same time we teach them that in political and social problems they may follow their own point of view.14
This was written by the principal of a Jewish day school almost twenty-five years ago and, despite the alert, the bifurcation has grown. While adults do not have the mental challenge of the Jewish day school curriculum, their attitudes to Jewish study largely evolved from more than twenty years of questioning and criticizing texts, teachers, and administrations. Naturally, the residual effects will be felt in a shiur. How one goes about changing these attitudes is a complex issue. Perhaps exploring two Jewish thinkers on attitudes to Torah study will enlighten the discussion.
VII. Torah Lishma
R. Hayyim of Volozhin revolutionized the Jewish intellectual world by reintroducing an idea that would change the curriculum of the yeshiva: Torah Lishma. Torah is to be learned for its own sake and not for its relevance (the Vilna Gaon is famed for his study of obscure tractates). Norman Lamm, in his work on R. Hayyim entitled Torah Lishma, writes that: “The study of Torah, however, is different. Here there is no place for inspiring religious emotion; the purpose is purely cognitive-the increase in knowledge and understanding. “Where it may sound strange to divorce Torah and religious inspiration, R. Hayyim was not denying religious inspiration as a consequence of Torah study. He writes in Nefesh Ha-Hayyim of the importance of yir’ah as a propaedeutic to Torah study. However, the motivation to study must be to glean the objective truth of what the text says and not to color or cloud the text with other messages.
R. Yisrael Salanter approached the question of Torah Lishma from a slightly different angle:
For the labor of Torah is unlike the labor invested in other matters, in which the effort is nothing more than a prelude to the goal, the entire purpose being to arrive at the final end, otherwise, it is as if it [the effort] is all for nothing. Not so the Torah, for the exertion [in studying Torah] is an end in itself and each and every day that one studies becomes the great goal …15
The study of the Torah is not undertaken in order to get to some other end goal, but is itself the goal. The discipline of everyday commitment to study is the final end.
While a full-blown discussion of Torah Lishma is far beyond the scope of this piece, its centrality as an educational value is of paramount importance. Rather than try to make shiurim more appealing through expensive advertising and snappy course description, we have to instill an educational philosophy that makes such devices unnecessary. Torah study is part of our daily spiritual routine because, as R. Yisrael Salanter contends, the pursuit of study itself is valuable. Skill building and research are critical because R. Hayyim of Volozhin contends that the entire scope of Torah must be understood.
Instilling reverence for the text is largely the responsibility of the teacher. Highlighting the difference in our treatment of a poem of Keats and a mizmor of Tehillim should be discussed in the classroom before undertaking any analysis of the Psalms. Creating sensitivity to the sacred is no simple endeavor. A teacher who demonstrates excitement about a text and shows himself to be scrupulous in its translation and explanation conveys a powerful message to the student. Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, in his anthology of essays in honor of his father, equated the study of Torah with an act of prayer. Anyone who has felt the kinetic energy of a beit Midrash alive with the song of study does not have to read Rav Soloveitchik’s comparison; he has experienced it for himself. Following his model we must turn the classroom into a synagogue of study.
Instilling a change or attitude to the material is not necessarily the exclusive preserve of the teacher. Curriculum design is a critical feature or any change in educational attitude. If classes are source based and students have to personally encounter the text, learn about its author, read the words and translate for themselves, reverence will follow. Anyone who merely reads a list of the works of Maimonides will be inspired, let alone a poem of Ibn Ezra, or a biographical sketch of Yehuda Ha-levi. These discoveries show the multi-faceted interests of Torah luminaries and when we approach Ibn Ezra again, we will never do so in the same way.
Malcolm Knowles, in presenting his predictions for the future of adult education (some of which were mentioned earlier), was so convinced by the potential success of this movement that he claimed it would restructure all of education. Since education would become a life-long endeavor, elementary and high school students need not bother memorizing facts and cramming every discipline into fifteen years of education, only into gaining skills for future research. “The curriculum of education for the young must shift from a subject mastery basis of organization, to a learning-skill basis of organization. The curriculum will be organized around problem areas or questions rather than around fragmented subject areas.16 The vision appeals to us on paper, but the reality seems so far away from the vision. His words resonate with an attitude that is no stranger to rabbinic tradition. He helps bring us home:
The new world then requires a new purpose for education: the development of the capacity in each individual to learn, to change, to create a new culture throughout the span of his life. Certainly knowledge must continue to be transmitted, but no longer as an end in itself-only as a means to the end of mastering the ability to learn. The central mission of elementary, secondary, and higher education must become, then, not teaching youth what they need to know, but teaching them how to learn what is not yet known.17
Is not this our own tradition-two thousand years old-that we have forsaken? The books were almost always the same but our understanding of them deepened as our skills sharpened and our minds matured. Bible and Talmud were not studied at an early age to be disposed of later; skills were taught to the newcomer so that as an adult, the words of the daf would yield more and more.
To have a commitment of this nature is no easy attainment. How to instill such a philosophy into adult education courses is particularly challenging because how then does one attract the uninitiated? How can Torah classes compete for precious time? These questions and matters of curriculum restructuring require intensive investigation if we are to create an enduring educational vision for Jewish adults. Answers will take time to develop but the need for such an overarching approach to the endeavor of Torah study is increasingly urgent. In an age where education is also a matter of consumerism and Torah educators are aware of the alternatives competing for an adult’s time, it is more and more attractive to improve the packaging of the product rather than the attitude of the consumer. But let the buyer beware. Teachers are not businessmen of Torah-even if it means selling fewer copies of the book.
1 Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Philosophers, IX, 1-17
2 Umberto Eco, Misreadings (New York: 1963), 94.
3 Bertrand Russell, Education and the Good Life (New York: 1926), 6.
4 Malcolm S. Knowles: A History of the Adult Education Movement in the United States (Florida: 1962), 271.
5 Ibid. These ideas are developed throughout his chapter entitled, “The Future of Adult Education,” 269-280.
6 Ethics or the Fathers, 5:25.
7 Leon Feldman: “Trends in Adult Jewish Education,” Congress Weekly (Jewish Education Committee, NYC) 21:7 (February 1954).
8 Nehama Leibowitz: On Teaching Tanakh; Three Essays, translated by Moshe Sokolow (New York: Torah Education Network, 1986) 15.
9 There is a growing need for educational research on the effects of the media on how we learn. This goes beyond the pregnant discussion of whether or not television can be educational; a topic that has recently yielded a spate or fresh books.
10 Allan Bloom: The Closing of the American Mind (London: 1987) 9-10.
11 Leibowitz, op.cit. , 14.
12 Alasdair MacIntyre, “The idea of the Educated Public,” in Education and Values (London: 1987) 16.
13 Maimonides, Mishne Torah, Laws of Torah Study, 3:3.
14 David Eliach, “The Jewish Day School-A Symposium,” in Tradition vol. 13, no. 1, 100.
15 Dov Katz: Tenuat Mussar (Tel-Aviv, 1967) 181. Also cited in: Rabbi Israel Salanter and the Mussar Movement; Seeking the Torah of Truth, Immanuel Etkes (Philadelphia: 1993) 150.
16 Knowles, op. cit. , 275.
17 Ibid. , 274-275.