The Study of Jewish History in the Jewish Day School

by: Jon Bloomberg

The Study of Jewish History in the Jewish Day School

By: Jon Bloomberg

This article originally appeared in Ten Da’at, 6, 1, 1992, pp. 31-32. Reprinted here with permission.

RABBI BLOOMBERG, Ph.D., teaches Talmud, Tanakh and Jewish history and is the High School Jewish Studies Curriculum Coordinator at the Maimonides School, Brookline, Mass.

The importance of studying Jewish history and its consequent inclusion in the curriculum of the Jewish day school is, no doubt, commonplace to many readers of Ten Da’at. The purpose of the following, then, is to outline the important specific contributions which the study of Jewish history can make to the education of the day school student: [1] It is hoped that this will be of value in the ongoing process of clarifying the goals of Jewish history instruction. [2]

Some Jewish educators might well argue that the overarching goal in the study of Jewish history is to enable students to perceive yad Hashem in the historical process. A course in Jewish history should thus be constructed to represent the fulfillment of the mandate of zekhor yemot olam, which bids us to preserve the past as evidence of God’s loyalty to His people. Notwithstanding the difficulties and dangers inherent in confidently and triumphantly pointing to the direct and specific role played by God in historical events, it is certainly to be desired that students integrate the sense that there is Divine involvement in the historical experience of the Jewish people. As important as this reading of our history is to our students, I would argue that there is much they can gain from studying Jewish history “for its own sake,” i.e., as it is studied by historians.
The first area of benefit is that it provides students with some desperately needed historical perspectives on matters which affect them as Jews both today as well as in the future. Many features of the contemporary Jewish “landscape,” the division of American Jewry into Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, and Orthodox Jews, for example, are understood far better when seen in historical context. Likewise, the critical issues which comprise the contemporary American Jewish agenda, e.g., political and economic support of Israel, require the illumination offered by history in order to be fully understood.
History also provides insights into those fundamental conceptions which have shaped, and continue to determine, Jewish self-understanding. Anti-Antisemitism, for example, is understood better, though by no means fully, when one examines its roots in the past, its development over time and the myths about Jews and Judaism which it has promoted. The concepts of galut and ge’ulah, which have always interpreted the historical experience of the believing Jew, take on even greater significance when concretized through historical study. Finally, students’ understanding of the mashiah, especially the potential dangers inherent in false messianism, can be greatly enhanced through the study of Jewish history. [3]
A second area of benefit is that of strengthening the Jewish identity of students. It is hoped that by becoming thoroughly acquainted with the many significant accomplishments and contributions of Jews throughout history, students will be stimulated to take pride in the Jewish past and identify with it as a special dimension of their own being. In addition, although this should not be overly emphasized, it has been observed that, perhaps somewhat paradoxically, an awareness of the history of Jewish persecution may well tend to strengthen Jewish identity, i.e., “If my ancestors endured so much for this religious tradition, then I owe it to them to do my share to perpetuate it.” [4]
In seeking to strengthen students’ identification with the Jewish past and making them feel that they are a part of Jewish history, it is useful and desirable to stress continuities, the way in which many of today’s issues, problems, and challenges have existed in the past. This can be done very effectively through primary sources. Thus, for example, for a number of years I have been using a 12th century Jewish school curriculum from Muslim Spain to highlight and stimulate discussion of two critical issues which have faced Jewish communities in the past and continue to do so: 1) Which strategies are available to a minority group which seeks to preserve its identity in the face of an attractive majority culture, and 2) What are the goals and essential components of a Jewish education?
The third area of benefit is of particular importance in shaping students’ attitudes to the Jewish community. As students consider, for example, the specific histories of Ashkenazim and Sefardim, Hasidim and Mitnaggdim, they will become attuned to the great variety of legitimate forms in which halakhic Judaism has been expressed and practiced through the centuries. An awareness of such diversity is helpful in the cultivation of an attitude of tolerance and respect for the honestly-held viewpoints of others, without compromise of one’s own fundamental beliefs, commitments, and principles. Similarly, as students study the history of the Jews of Muslim Spain, or of 19th century Germany, they will have the opportunity to consider the way in which Jews in various periods of geographic locales, when possible, interacted with surrounding cultures and societies rather than withdraw from them. Moreover, this kind of study presents an opportunity to expose students to the strong historical roots of an attitude of openness to general culture, especially as they study the Geonic and Spanish periods.
Beyond all this, however, is the opportunity that the study of Jewish history provides to illustrate the dangers of extremism and the benefits of moderation. The former can be seen, for example, in connection with the Maimonidean Controversy or the early battles between Hasidim and Mitnaggdim, while examples of the latter can be found in Rambam’s tempered approach to the Karaites and his sensitive counsel to the Jews of Morocco in the Iggeret HaShemad. [5]
The study of Jewish history, then, can enrich and enhance the Jewish educational experience of the day school student in numerous ways. Most importantly, it has the potential to help students develop a better understanding of the Jewish present, while at the same time strengthening their attachment to the Jewish people. In addition, a carefully-guided study of the Jewish past provides the sensitive, intelligent educator with a treasured opportunity to teach tolerance and moderation to future members of the global Jewish community.

[1] I am not here addressing the always crucial question of the appropriate grade level at which Jewish history should be taught. It will be evident from my discussion, however, that the high school years are the most receptive to the kind of instruction which assures that the study of Jewish history will have the impact that it should.

[2] The lack of clearly-articulated goals in the teaching of Jewish history, and the impact of this on the quality and success of instruction has been repeatedly lamented, most recently by David Bernstein, “A Study of the Teaching of Jewish History in Modem Orthodox Yeshiva High Schools,” Jewish Education 54:4 (Winter 1986), p.35. Although it is in need of some updating and reworking, I have found J. Golub “Goals in the Teaching of Jewish History,” in A. Eisenberg and A. Segal, eds., Readings in the Teaching of Jewish History, New York, 1956, both useful and thought-provoking.

[3] Methodologically speaking, I would suggest that the teacher or curriculum designer seek out primary sources which can illuminate and/or promote discussion of these concepts. To cite two examples from the medieval period:

a) The 10th century correspondence between Hasdai ibn Shaprut and Joseph, King of the Khazars, is extremely helpful in demonstrating how Jews, even those who found themselves in ostensibly secure economic and social circumstances, still saw themselves as in a state of galut, and hence vulnerable to anti-Semitism. The contemporary relevance is clear.
b) The story of the “Four Captives,” recounted by Ibn Daud in his 12th century work, Sefer Ha-Kabbalah and explicated by Gerson Cohen in his critical edition of Ibn Daud’s work, provides an opportunity to show students how Jews were encouraged to view their history as a gradual, Divinely-guided movement toward an eventual geulah.

[4] See the pertinent observations of C. Liebman and S. Cohen, Two Worlds of Judaism, New Haven, 1990, p.47. It is interesting that organizers of the “March of the Living” indicated that they have observed this kind of reaction among participants in their program in response to having visited the sites of Nazi death camps. For a relevant historical example, see the comments of the important precursor of Zionism, Moses Hess, regarding the reawakening of his latent Jewish identity in A. Hertzberg, The Zionist Idea, New York, 1970, p.119.

[5] On “moderationism” as a fundamental, defining characteristic of the approach of Centrist Orthodoxy, see Norman Lamm, “Centrist Orthodox Judaism and Moderationism: Definitions and Desiderata,” in J. Sacks, ed., Orthodoxy Confronts Modernity, Hoboken, N.J.,1991. Note, as well, that most of my examples are those suggested by Dr. Lamm in this important article.

* Ed’s. Note: See Active Learning in the Teaching of History by Prof. Nechama Leibowitz, translated by Dr. Moshe Sokolow, published by the Torah Education Network, 1989. Available from the Ten Da’at office.

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