Community Schools – Communities of Truth: A Challenge to Jewish Educators

  • by: Yonatan Yussman

Yonatan Yussman: Joint Graduate Education Program – Pardes and Hebrew University
“Jewish education is the great failure of contemporary Jewish life”, writes Professor Barry Chazan of The Hebrew University.  I would add to that indictment our failure in keeping the Jewish people together. There is an urgent need for Jewish community educators to discuss how we can create an educational institution which a) successfully brings together students and teachers from across the Jewish spectrum; and b) teaches in such a way that engages and stimulates all Jews, no matter what their background. In this article, I attempt to raise some critical questions which must be answered to create such a school, and will humbly offer some suggestions of my own.
In order to come up with solutions, we first need to determine how we reached this crisis.  I would suggest that we no longer share the common Jewish frameworks that we did in our past, such as the centrality of Halacha, Bible and Talmud. The language of both agreement and disagreement used to be a shared language, but no longer. I think the solution is to recreate that shared language again, to build a common framework again. That must be our mission, and one of the driving forces behind any Jewish community school.
We must also discuss how to determine the boundaries of educational institutions, which try to attract such a wide spectrum of Jews. I believe that each community is entitled to define who and what they are not. This requires that they set limits and determine who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’. Schools need not be based upon unanimous agreement about religion and Halacha. Then again, Jewish communities never have been. Rather, the boundaries which define this type of school must be certain shared values and standards of evaluation, and agreed-upon rules of respectful argument.
We must also think about the challenges that arise from pluralistic Jewish education. Specifically, with all of the varieties of Judaism represented under one roof, how does one prevent such a school from becoming relativistic? Are we in fact currently teaching relativism or pluralism in our community day schools. Gary Levine’s statements in previous issues of Mifgashim, I contend, are good examples of an undesirable relativistic approach to Jewish education. He writes:
“In our school, which successfully allows place and validity for all streams of Judaism — more successfully, I believe, than any other institution in the community — we avoid declaring any view factually wrong by declaring no view factually right.  We allow and we applaud individuals’ personal commitments, but we allow no personal commitment to claim to be “the correct one” and permit no commitment to be attacked as “the wrong one”.  A teacher, and, indeed, any student, is free to note what his/her practice or belief is as a statement of personal choice, but not as a suggested template for the practices or beliefs or anyone else.”
We must define the differences between relativism and pluralism. I would suggest that pluralism argues there is no one single authoritative truth, that one objective reality may be interpreted in different but equally valid ways. This differs from relativism where one’s beliefs reflect the truest interpretation of Judaism while simultaneously respectfully recognizing that all Jews do not hold this position. A pluralist would argue that Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox Judaism are equally valid ways of understanding and practicing Judaism. One might disagree with the practice of another, but not argue that the other’s practice is false or invalid.
I challenge us to consider whether or not pluralism, as described above, excludes Orthodoxy. Orthodoxy can acknowledge and even celebrate many kinds of diversity and pluralism: pluralism of other faiths, and pluralism in how to interpret a biblical passage, among others.  But it cannot be asked to acknowledge halachic pluralism. To legitimize non-halachic movements is to delegitimize Orthodoxy itself.
Likewise, I challenge us to consider whether or not inclusivist models of Jewish education exclude non-Orthodoxy.  Inclusivism holds that there is only one truth, but that the ‘other view’ is to be somehow included.  In terms of Judaism, an Orthodox Jew might believe that he holds the single truth, but that Reform Jews are making excusable errors, and therefore may be ‘included’ in the faith community. I would argue that pluralism is as unacceptable to Orthodox Jews as inclusivism is to Reform Jews.
We must also discuss how we should approach these issues of pluralism in the school itself.  Are high school students mature enough to handle pluralistic models of Jewish education? By ignoring these pluralistic issues, by not teaching students how to think critically and make reasoned judgements about issues of pluralism, the school ignores deeply important issues concerning the Jewish people.
In addition, it’s a farce to think that these issues won’t come up outside of school.  No matter who the student is, no matter how Orthodox he or she might be, the student will be exposed to the ideologies of non-Orthodox Judaism.  Therefore the question is not whether the students will deal with these issues, but whether the student will deal with them in a respectful, thoughtful, critical, balanced way.
Furthermore, by putting these issues at the forefront of the school’s conscience, it provides the opportunity to teach how to dialogue in a positive and respectful way with someone who has differing opinions. This is a prime way to give students practice at discussing controversial issues in a positive way, something which they can take with them as a crucial life skill wherever and whoever they are.
We must also consider whether the schools we are creating are doing more to increase divisive denominationalism than to get rid of it. Are we unnecessarily encouraging denominational differences? I think we need to be realistic: Denominations are never going to vanish, no matter how many non-denominational schools there are.  Orthodoxy will always exist, and non-Orthodox movements will always exist, and they will never “join up” to form one unified, common denomination Furthermore, despite the fact that denominations may have little interest for some Jews, it is painfully obvious that divisive denominational differences are one of the central problems afflicting the Jewish people today. Thus, it is naïve and perhaps irresponsible to ignore denominational differences in the school.
We must also ask whether it is wise to promote yet another denomination (i.e. “post-denominationalism” or “non-denominationalism) in the school. Are we educating our students to join a Jewish community that, with extremely rare exceptions in the world, does not exist?
I suggest that we should use the current denominations to fight divisive denominationalism.  We should be educating our students to be proud and knowledgeable members of whichever denomination they belong to, but at the same time to love and respect Jews of different denominations.  We must do this in a realistic and responsible way, which means giving our students the knowledge and skills to succeed in the existing (divided) Jewish world, and at the same time the tools and confidence to change it and make it a unifiedJewish world.  That’s the “new Jew” I want my students to be.
Clearly, enabling Conservative, Reform, Orthodox, and “Other” Jews to learn from each other in the same institution is a daunting task. It is also a challenge to reach students who have little or no background at all in Judaism and Torah learning. We must articulately construct our school environments in such a way which will allow that cross-denominational encounter to take place without offending anyone’s beliefs or feelings, and which will engage and stimulate those students who are both new to serious Jewish learning and those with more of a background.
To reiterate I think that the root of the problem is that we no longer have a common language, and that the mandate of any community school must be to recreate that shared spiritual language of common values which all of the Jews in the school can use to speak to,  learn from, and relate to each other. Basing the school around the shared spiritual language common values is, as Professor Michael Rosenak of the Hebrew University writes, “the language of Judaism most plausibly and effectively conveyed to non-committed pupils…”[1] and I believe the best method of bringing the denominations together, and of educating all of the students in the school, no matter what their background.
Each community must therefore define the values that their community school will rest upon, around which their school will meet, and through which their students will learn.  I suggest that we consider emphasizing the following ten values: the utter centrality of (1) Jewish unity (Klal Yisrael) and (2) Jewish love (Ahavat Yisrael).  As Rabbi Eliezer Berkovitz has written, “To work for Jewish unity in the spirit of Ahavat Yisrael, love for every Jew, in the interest of Klal Yisrael, the reality of the totality of the Jewish people, is an urgent demand of Torah-realization.”  Accordingly, we must also endeavor to make Israel a dynamic and living force in the lives of each student, to make Israel “speak” to every student in a personal and compelling way, and encourage the students to visit and think about living in Israel.
Respect (3) (kevod habriyot) and (4) responsibility (kol yisrael aravim zeh b’zeh) must also be central values in the school.  Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik suggested that two covenants bind the Jewish people: the covenants of fate and destiny. The covenant of fate states that all Jews share historical events, all Jews share suffering, all Jews share responsibility, and all Jews share actions (such as political action to save other Jews).  The concept of a covenant of fate gives religious dignity to all Jews.  It suggests that our arguments must be argued out in the framework of a shared community, rather than rejecting the other as an enemy. It suggests that all Jews have obligations towards each other.  The school community must also be based upon the covenant of destiny, which reflects a chosen, voluntary commitment to the dreams, values, and goals of the Jewish people. The school must strive to be a community of shared spiritual goals and covenantal spiritual aspirations.
(5) Diversity (shivim panim latorah) must be another central value. Our Sages in the Talmud asserted that each individual is physically unique and at the same time a replica of Adam, who in turn was fashioned in the image of God.  They also affirmed that each individual is intellectually and spiritually unique. Furthermore, they declared that the inevitable disagreements stemming from these legitimate differences of opinion, when for the sake of Heaven, are constructive in nature.  Thus, our Sages teach us that Jews exist in a physical, intellectually, and spiritually pluralistic community.  That we differ, by divine purpose, in our outlooks and attitudes and when we ignore or suppress our differences, we suppress the greatness of God.  Our differences of opinion, and the debates and discussions over them, are to be respected and celebrated as revelations of God’s greatness.
As mentioned earlier, we should be careful that this theological diversity does not turn into theological relativism.  Rabbi David Hartman writes, “My desire is to speak to all Jews.  This does not mean that if I speak to them, I legitimate them.  What an absurd idea: that if I speak to a secular kibbutznik it means I agree with secular Zionism …Theological diversity within the Jewish community would encourage the development of communities founded on conviction, knowledge, and choice.”[2] Rabbi and Chancellor of Bar Ilan University, Emanuel Rackman has written, “I have no argument with anyone who does not share my religious commitment…I welcome their challenge.  My Judaism only becomes richer as I encounter challenges from other cultures.”  “It is always healthful for centrist, moderate groups to have fringe groups to the right and to the left that they may better fix for themselves the point that is the center.”
It is also crucial that (6) Torah be placed at the center of the school. In the words of Rabbi Hartman: “Condition number one for taking a tradition seriously is being invited to participate in the discussion that is that tradition.”[3]“[Students] must be made aware of the rich diversity of approaches to taamei hamitzvot in the tradition…”
Thus, the core classes must be the Bible and Talmud classes.  This is where students would see the debates between Rashi and Ramban over how to interpret a line of Bible.  This is where students would see the dialogue between Hillel and Shammai on issues of law.  This is where they would see that unanimous agreement is not what makes up a community; it is the ability to set standards of argument. When they open up the Talmud, or study from a Mikraot Gedolot, they will see the example of our ancestors who shared particular religious values and standards of evaluation, and who argued in a respectful way over religious issues. Via agreed-upon rules and a process of persuasion and consensus, they favored some answers over their alternatives.   It would make these facts come alive for the students to have students and teachers in the school who represent a diverse range of interpretation, and can emulate the Jewish community model of the Talmud and the Biblical interpreters.
Another value that should be emphasized is that (7) a religiously committed person can live with inner conflict and in a state of contradiction i.e. a religiously committed person can struggle spiritually and intellectually. It’s okay to doubt ourselves – having faith is not easy. We must help our students with their doubts by providing them with tools that will help them work through their struggles.
Rabbi Rackman: “Perhaps, like Socrates, I corrupt youth but I
do teach that Judaism encourages questioning even as it joins faith and commitment. A Jew dare not live with absolute certainty, not only because certainty is the hallmark of the fanatic and Judaism abhors fanaticism, but also because doubt is good for the human soul, its humility, and consequently its greater potential ultimately to discover its Creator…To doubt is natural, to deny is sin.”[4]
Additionally, teaching which does not encourage (8) commitment is a critical educational mistake. As Professor Barry Chazan has written, “Non-indoctrinary religious education does not imply neutral, ‘intellectual’, or non-committed religious education.  On the contrary, the non-indoctrinary religious educator must be committed to some belief, and must appear so in his student’s eyes…One of the basic principles [religious schools teach] is that the religious life implies and demands commitment.”
Further, we must think about how we will encourage this commitment.  I would suggest that students not be pressured to choose their religious commitments on the spot, and to keep them for the rest of their lives.   One of the main goals of this school is a long-term one, which is to help enable the students to one-day make decisions for him or her.
The value of (9) individuality must also be central. Most of these Jews will not see Judaism as authoritative or persuasive.  How do we reach them?  I think the answer is that Jewish educators need to change the language they speak.  For example, being “chosen” carries negative connotations in today’s society, and I cannot blame anyone from shying away from that description.  But being “chosen” is not a gift or a privilege or a sign of being better. It is a responsibility that must be lived up to. Other bitter tasting ideas that need to be better articulated are the suggestions that Jews do not respect the truths of other religions; being part of the community yet not losing one’s individuality; and the seeming conflict between freedom and obligation.
It almost goes without saying that the school must be committed to the value of (10) excellence in education. Our teachers, materials, courses offered, and facilities must all be top-notch, and must enable the students to succeed and excel according to the standards of the top high schools in the nation.
Additionally, we need to find ways: to allay the fears of parents of sending their children to such a diverse environment; how the teachers and students and community will be able to handle such a demanding educational model; and we must try to emphasize that learning and Judaism takes place all around us, all the time: the school must extend itself into sports, breaks in between classes, Shabbatot, weekend parties, and so on.
As Parker Palmer has written, “En route to a new pedagogy, there will be days when we serve our students poorly, days when our guilt only deepens.  To counteract guilt, I need at least two things: a rationale for what I am doing when I open a learning space…and an understanding of the skillful means required to keep such a space open.”[5]  It is my hope that this article provides us with some of the raw material to open up a learning space and to create a community of truth in the Judaics classroom of Jewish community schools.
[1] Rosenak, Michael. Teaching Jewish Values: A Conceptual Guide, pp. 75-76.
[2] Hartman, David. Heart of Many Rooms, pp.202/203.
[3] ibid. p. 118.
[4] Rackman, One Man’s Judaism, p. 25.
[5] Parker, Palmer. p. 132.