The Community School
Proceeds of an Online Discussion
edited by Zvi Grumet
Community non-denominational schools have been operating in the US and elsewhere for decades, but the last decade has witnessed an explosion of these institutions. Not surprisingly, perspectives on these institutions run the gamut: alternatives to Orthodox day schools (who often had large non-Orthodox student bodies), a last ditch effort to stem the tide of assimilation and intermarriage, places to infuse a new generation with a love of Jewish learning, experiments in fostering pluralistic and tolerant Jewish communities, yet another program with watered-down Jewish content and in which there are no guidelines for what’s Jewishly right and wrong, environments in which Jews will establish social bonds with those whose very Jewishness is questionable.
Part of the debate revolves around the very purpose of education in general, and Jewish education in particular. Is the goal to maximize the benefit to each individual student, so that he or she can fulfill his or her unique potential, or to socialize the student into the society? Is the mission of schools to serve the best interests of its individual students or of the communities and cultures which establish them to perpetuate the values they hold precious?
It is easy to imagine the discussion, or perhaps heated debate, amongst a group of Jewish educational leaders and thinkers. Many would want to eavesdrop on such a discussion. In November 2001, the Lookstein Center for Jewish Education in the Diaspora launched Mifgashim – “an interactive e-mail list that seeks to create a community of learners respectful towards the multiplicity of voices in the field of Jewish Education. Mifgashim provides opportunities for dialogue and conversation, for listening to the other and ourselves, for sharing dilemmas and case studies, and for raising philosophical questions that will hopefully enhance one’s practice.” Under the steady and thoughtful guidance of the list’s moderator, veteran educator Solly Kaplinski, the list has developed into a center of vibrant and animated discussion.
Some six months after the launching of Mifgashim, an article on community high schools by Chaim Feuerman (which originally appeared in Ten Da’at, Vol. XII) was posted on the Lookstein website. Although the intent of the article was “to suggest to community schools under Orthodox Jewish auspices how they might be somewhat more inclusionary and still (possibly?) remain within halachic boundaries,” and not “to convince community schools under pluralistic auspices to change their thinking or practice,” it sparked a thoughtful, highly charged, and impassioned discussion. The intensity and seriousness of the discussion gave us reason to believe that others could benefit from “listening in” on it, and so we present here a slightly edited version of that conversation, that we may all become the proverbial “fly on the wall.”
As is often the case with discussions, this one took on a life of its own and branched out into a number of areas. Recording and presenting such a conversation presents its own challenges. Those familiar with the workings of the Talmud know that its flow is often non-linear. Tangents and sub-discussions often interrupt the main line of thinking, and it is sometimes a page or two later that primary discussion returns – not unlike surfing the Internet, where following a link can spawn a new exploration. Our e-mail conversation presents similar challenges. Occasionally a contributor will respond to two or three previous submissions in one letter, or a private conversation between two list participants will emerge. In this collection we have chosen to try to organize the discussion both topically and chronologically. Not always is the progression from one selection to the next obvious. At some point a secondary discussion emerged, sparked by a submissions from students in the Pardes Educators Program. Responses to that were organized as a unit. Finally, although most of the discussion was of an educational nature, there was one significant submission by a Jewish lay leader as an ideological missive in support of pluralism. We present it as an addendum to the discussion.
A few principles guided the editing of this collection. The nature of e-mail and discussion lists suggests that submission are informal and conversation-like, and should not be confused with well-crafted essays carefully prepared for publication. Spellings remain as they were in the original postings, so that both American and British English are represented, and transliterations are those of the original authors. On the back pages the contributors are identified with their institutional affiliations as of the date of their submission.
Archives of past discussions of Mifgashim (as well as the other educational mailing lists of The Lookstein Center) can be found on the Lookstein website at https://www.lookstein.org/lookjed.htm. We hope that you find these pages stimulating, and encourage you to join the conversation at https://www.lookstein.org/register.htm.
Rabbi Zvi Grumet, editor
I – Jewish Community High School Education for Everyone: Really? Counteracting Intermarriage and Assimilation- Chaim Feuerman
Michael Cohen and Paul J. Shaviv
Aryeh J. Geiger
III Learning to Become a Jewish Educator in and for a Pluralistic Environment- Tamar Rabinowitz
David I. Bernstein
I. JEWISH COMMUNITY HIGH SCHOOL EDUCATION FOR EVERYONE; REALLY?
Counteracting Intermarriage and Assimilation1
“School Craze: Jewish High Schooling Goes Boom” reads the title of a recent article in the Jewish Daily Forward.2 The article’s author, Gabriella Burman of the Forward staff, hails the proliferation of new non-Orthodox high schools, declaring that, “… No fewer than 15 such schools are due to open their doors in the next three years, increasing the total number by one-third to 45, from 30 today. Twelve of the new schools are community, or non-denominational, schools…”3 The proliferation of such community high schools is seen by the author of the Forward article as the “communal response to rising intermarriage rates and a perceived decline in Jewish affiliation.” 4
This assertion finds validation in an in-depth private long distance telephone conversation that I had with two of the founders of one such community high school. In that conversation, the founders lamented the fact that many of the presumably Jewish adolescents in their community were confused as to their Jewish identity. In many instances only one of the parents of these adolescents was Jewish – often not the mother. They expressed pain over their belief that 50% of the members of the Reform and Conservative congregations in their community were not born Jewish and that the intermarriage rate in their community is 70%. Even more heartbreaking, mourned those founders, is the frequency with which even Orthodox Jewish high schoolers in their community are enrolled in prestigious Christian private schools which require all students to participate in Christian religious instruction as well as in Christian worship services.5 The results they clearly anticipate: a rise in intermarriage and a decline in Jewish affiliation. The founders of this Jewish community high school see the establishment of their school as the means by which to stem these alarming tides of Jewish self-destruction.
The Conventional Community High School Paradigm
The intentions of these noble individuals are as patently pure and selfless as their philanthropy is truly magnanimous. They are deserving of the greatest admiration and commendation. Indeed, if they were thinking in halakhic terms, they would probably consider our time to be an eit la’asot laShem, heifeiru toratekha.6 Their school, which reflects the conventional Jewish community high school paradigm in other cities, proposes to provide an educational environment for everyone – one in which all students are embraced, including those whose Jewishness is claimed by patrilineal descent; that is, whose fathers are Jewish but whose mothers are not. It specifically seeks to include Orthodox students in order to preserve the school’s Jewish substance and character, the founders said. It further proposes to recruit a Judaic studies faculty of teachers from all Jewish persuasions and to offer a choice of several kinds of Jewish religious prayer services in which students may elect to participate.
A Serious Concern
I am impelled at this point to raise a serious question and concern. In view of the following considerations, do the proposed well-intentioned actions appear to carry out the noble aspirations for which I have earlier expressed admiration?7
Firstly, in spite of the professed desire to employ Jewish Studies teachers of all denominations at this community high school, Orthodox Judaic studies faculty may be excluded because many will be reluctant to teach Torah to students who are halakhically non-Jewish.8 The school, as a result, will be rendered considerably less of a “community” school than intended. If the community high school sincerely seeks to include Orthodox students in order to preserve the school’s Jewish substance and character, the inclusion of Orthodox faculty would appear to be equally desirable for the same reason!
Secondly, by accepting patrilineal descent – without proper conversion – as an indicator of Jewishness the school will only further blur the boundaries of Jewish identity rather than clarify them. Such a policy will serve to validate intermarriage rather than to stem its Jewishly self-destructive tide.
Thirdly, if a student of patrilineal descent who considers himself Jewish attends services and seeks to be counted toward the minyan or to lead the prayers or to be called to the Torah, how will the school respond? Rejecting the student’s request would constitute a humiliation, while accepting it would constitute, in Orthodox terms (Conservative as well), a hypocrisy. Neither could be considered an instance of truly embracing all students.
“Thinking Out of the Box”: A Radical Departure from the Conventional Paradigm
In view of these three considerations, I propose an alternate paradigm which may appear to some to be both radical and revolutionary, but which appears to me to be entirely simple and traditional.9 The paradigm needs to be reviewed carefully by rabbinic halakhic authorities before it can be recommended for implementation, but, in concept, it sets forth four major points:
- Accept all students including those of patrilineal descent, as originally proposed by the founders of the new community high school cited above.
- Offer three curricular tracks in Judaic studies, assigning each student to only one track:
a. Orthodox, for all those who are halakhically Jewish,
b. Conversion-preparation for those who are not yet halakhically Jewish, but who wish to prepare themselves for proper conversion to Judaism;
c. Sheva Mitzvot benei Noah for all those who are not halakhically Jewish and who do not wish to convert to Judaism.10
- Offer only one type of Jewish worship service at school, namely Orthodox, but make participation in school worship services optional. In response to students’ voluntarily expressed interest, instruct those students who are not halakhically Jewish regarding which parts or forms of the tefillah are open to their active participation and which are not yet, until such time as proper conversion takes place.
- Recruit only Orthodox Judaic studies faculty, but orient, train and equip them to gear classroom instruction toward embracing students from all persuasions.
This, then, is my Jewish community high school paradigm proposal in bare outline. Such a proposed school structure purports to embrace all students in a way that may truly help stem the Jewishly self-destructive tides of intermarriage and assimilation. At the same time it conforms better to standards of Halakhah. I repeat: The paradigm needs to be reviewed carefully by competent rabbinic halakhic authorities before it can be recommended for implementation, but it is presented here as a springboard for what I consider to be sounder thinking along the line of providing Jewish community high school education which is more realistic for everyone.
Rabbi Dr. Chaim Feuerman’s article about the phenomenon of the new Community High Schools (posted on the Lookstein Center site at www.lookstein.org/resource/jewishcommunityschool.htm) warrants a response to clarify and explain this model of high school education.
Unlike the impression given by Rabbi Feuerman in his article, the mission of the Jewish community high school goes well beyond the goal of arresting intermarriage and assimilation. As in Orthodox day schools, those involved with the community schools care about creating more educated Jews; that their offspring will continue to be Jewish is an anticipated by-product of this education, but not its raison d’etre. We can hardly expect or hope for a halt in the rate of intermarriage and assimilation if our students do not learn to value and appreciate Yiddishkeit in its own right. And so we teach them Torah she-bikhtav and Torah she-beal Peh.
We teach them to look to the Tanakh for models and guidance, for national symbols and narratives, for seeing the role of God through history, for understanding the role of the people of Israel, for comprehending aspects of the relationship between man and God. We demonstrate to our students the process of interpretation, the rich heritage of commentary that defines the Jewish approach to Scripture, the engagement with sacred texts that is inherent in our culture and identity. We explore with our students the purpose(s) underlying Jewish tradition and practice so that they might bring greater meaning to their own practices, whatever they might be. We bring our students into conversation with the great Jewish scholars of our history, from the Tannaim in the Mishnah and the Amoraim in the Talmud to the luminaries of the middle ages to the eclectic but brilliant minds of our own times. We give them an identity as knowledgeable Jews who thirst for even greater knowledge and understanding. We provide the basis for them to view the world through a Jewish lens and to meet the dominant culture with the counterweight of Jewish tradition and Jewish perspectives. We give our students a taste of a strong and vibrant Jewish community that does not define its territory by strict denominational guidelines and we hope that they take this vision and commitment out into whatever communities they find themselves. We inculcate ideals of social justice and community activism in terms of Jewish values of Chessed, Tsedakah, and Tikkun Olam. We nurture a love for the land of Israel and a passionate support for the state. We teach them, in short, to be Jewish.
Do we always succeed with this long list of objectives? Probably not as much as we would like, but that is not the point. This is our intention, and to the extent that we don’t measure up to our ideals, we strive to do better the next time around. But our focus is on creating such knowledgeable, thinking, committed and passionate Jews. As you can see, it is not possible nor fair to summarize this mission as a desperate attempt to halt the slide towards intermarriage and assimilation. And if, indeed, it is in the minds of some (perhaps many) of our parents, then I applaud their attempt to combat intermarriage through real Jewish education rather than through some half-hearted and meaningless guilt-trip.
There is a further point that I believe needs to be addressed. In describing his “serious concern” with the current model of the community high school, Rabbi Feuerman focuses exclusively on the issue of students of patrilineal descent. As difficult and thorny as this issue might be in theory, it is of very minor impact on the school on a daily basis. If I understand the demographics correctly, the numbers of students of patrilineal descent in the schools that admit them (at least one community high school does not) is exceedingly small and the schools do not take a stand as to their Jewishness, per se. Instead, their acceptance is a result of the inclusiveness of these schools, which open their doors to all Jews who identify with the mainstream denominations, including Reform. I concede that the Reform movement’s decision with regard to patrilineal descent is of real concern to halakhically observant Jews; however, I also affirm that as a practical matter in the schools themselves, the issue is a minor one (in some places it is almost non-existent), and thus to place in question the schools’ legitimacy on this basis is entirely misleading and, in my mind, invalid. It is also a red herring to be concerned about the representation of Orthodox Jews on the faculty. Again, as a practical matter, self-identified Orthodox Jews dominate the Judaica faculties of the community high schools, and they are no more worried about the possibility that they might be teaching Torah to a non-Jew than is any rabbi who lectures in front of an open audience. If anything, the problem in the community high schools lies in the difficulty in attracting non-Orthodox teachers, a topic for another discussion, perhaps.
Community high schools provide an alternative to Orthodox day schools and, for the most part, attract students who would otherwise not go to a Jewish day school. There are many who will find halakhic problems in the community high school system – that is certainly their right, and they are free to steer clear of these schools, either as teachers or as students.
The pluralistic setting is also not appropriate for everyone. I don’t believe that the leaders of community high schools claim to be the best option for all Jews, regardless of halakhic or ideological commitment. And I don’t expect many Orthodox rabbis to advocate community schools over Orthodox day schools – they may even disagree with the very mission of the community day schools. At the same time, I think it is only fair to judge these schools on their own merits and by their own mission. They have earned that right and deserve that respect.
(The views expressed above are my own, and do not necessarily represent the views of others involved in community high schools.)
I applaud Josh Levisohn for an articulate and inspiring description of the mission of community schools. While as Jewish educators we share common goals, it is incumbent upon us to consider our various constituencies and strategize how to reach them ba’asher heim sham. That is true not only between schools but even within each school. A monolithic approach to Jewish education is like teaching to the middle of the class academically. Not only do we lose the extremities but we don’t service the middle adequately either. Differentiated instruction applies not only to academics but to all facets of education.
Regarding the discussion of a pluralistic Jewish educational environment, it seems to me that another important variable that has to enter into the discussion is the age of the students in question. What is appropriate for a graduate student may not be for someone who is younger – how much younger can also be a matter open for discussion.
An educational goal and commonplace is identity formation for the student, and one can wonder whether Jewish identity formation is best served in every context by offering a myriad of possibilities and positions. While intellectually it might appear that this is the most equitable arrangement, the literature dealing with cognitive dissonance, particularly as it relates to the day school environment, i.e. some students have difficulty in moving back and forth in terms of Judaic and general studies curricula, assumptions, approaches, mechanical operations, etc., raises the question of whether the environment is rendered all the more confusing when multiple versions of practice, belief and approach are offered?
The extremes are easily made straw men, i.e., too many possibilities or only a single one. What sort of reasonable balance is to be struck that will broaden students and yet avoid confusing them to the point where they will see no need for or be incapable of making personal commitments?
The community school, which seems to be a relatively recent structure in North America, has actually existed de facto for generations. Historically, most schools in North America were founded by Orthodox Jews, who were most committed to providing Judaic education for their children. However – especially in Jewish communities of limited size – the Orthodox population could not underwrite financially nor sustain numerically the ongoing needs of the schools. These schools therefore engaged in considerable outreach to the less Orthodox to provide money and students to make the schools viable. These schools ended up being, then, Orthodox by constitution but Community by demography.
They served as a fair model for a school of communal population and a certain pluralistic acceptance, albeit a begrudging one, of the need to accommodate a rather broader constituency and to offer at least nominal respect across religious lines. Where these schools differed from what we think of as a community school today is that their philosophies were not formally pluralist, and this was clearly understood by all those in attendance. A parent could not question the right of a teacher to define religious practice from a strictly Orthodox perspective, although a teacher who would be overly aggressive or offensive in his/her presentation might be admonished by the school administration for “political” insensitivity.
Within the last several years, schools espousing a formal policy of pluralism and inclusiveness, have opened in many cities on the continent, and schools that already exist have grown. How much of this is due to a rising appreciation of the educational excellence of Jewish schools; how much to fear of the deterioration of public schools; how much to a sudden, desperate hope that Jewish education will be the successful bulwark against the deluge of intermarriage and assimilation – all of this is open to speculation and to that ethereal game of statistical interpretation.
The question that I would like to consider here briefly is that of the opportunities and limitations of a school which is, by its own definition, “a community school”. By dedicating itself openly to serve the broad range of the community, such a school is positioning itself to offer a service to the community that more narrowly affiliated schools could not offer. This is both exciting and liberating, but, at the same time, it poses challenges, which the more parochial day schools did not have to face.
The central question in the community school is not, as some have suggested, whose Judaism to teach; by self-definition, the community school is teaching everybody’s Judaism. The central question is actually how to teach everybody’s Judaism without, on the one hand, offending this group or that group or, on other hand, teaching as little as possible to avoid offending anyone. Balancing on this swinging tightrope is no mean feat.
I have had the privilege over almost thirty years of working in a community school which has successfully served the broad range of the community while maintaining standards of excellence in a comprehensive study of Judaica. While there are many elements that have gone into this success – extremely able and dedicated administration and staff, a supportive and dedicated lay board, centralised funding of the Jewish community, a living wage to teachers – I would suggest that the pedagogic approach which has allowed an exhaustive, professional academic study of Judaism – religion, history, sources, language, etc. – has been the teaching of Judaism as an objective comparative religion course. Teaching about rather than teaching to.
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.
The price we pay is that, while we hope to influence students toward positive affiliations with a broad sense of Jewish tradition and Jewish value, we make no demands, we require no struggle, we seek no spiritual epiphany. We sacrifice the critical for the sake of the communal. That the sacrifice of the critical is, in some very important way, a sacrifice of something fundamental in the educational process is just the way it has to be, a compromise with the ideal in order to make the process workable.
Sacrifices happen in the real world. And I believe the price is worth paying. It leads to tolerance and respect and the important skill of focusing on what brings us together rather than what pulls us apart.
But the rewards are far greater than that. Certainly, our approach leads to a sense of camaraderie and an understanding that Judaism encompasses a variety of views. It allows for the in depth study of all aspects of Judaism without the feeling that this information imposes a requirement of personal commitment. A student does not, for instance, feel that an exhaustive study of the development of the laws of Shabbat places upon him/her the obligation to keep Shabbat in any particular way – or at all, for that matter. It may be taken as an intellectual study for its own sake, like art history or the geography of Finland.
One of the very positive outcomes of this approach, aside from the accumulation of significant knowledge regarding Judaism, is an appreciation gained over time for the academic integrity of Jewish knowledge: in-depth study demonstrates that Judaism is more than picturesque folklore; it is an area of intellectual achievement no less complex or worthy than science, math, philosophy or world history. An overview, however heuristic, of our graduates over thirty-five years shows us community leaders on all sides of the community, ongoing commitment to Jewish life (defined broadly) and a pride in Jewish knowledge and affiliation.
In this day and age, when “religious pluralism” is mentioned in many federations and school board rooms with the hushed awe that was once reserved for the night of Kol Nidre, my personal concern is largely for what we are tempted to leave out in order to avoid problems in the building of community consensus. Several months ago, when Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks visited Toronto, he commented to day school principals how pleased he was to see the high level of Hebrew language in many of the schools since, he said, it was largely a battle that had been lost in Great Britain.
Hebrew language was simply no longer a significant part of the curriculum. We are hearing of more and more schools across our own continent where Hebrew, certainly as the modern spoken language of Israel, but even as the primary tool of the study of classic Judaic text, is being sacrificed to the need to keep the broad range of parents comfortable in the inclusive community school.
Some years ago, when I had the opportunity to work with a group of students from a large, established day school on another continent, I noted with some alarm that the Judaic knowledge of students who had been through nine years of Jewish day school was alarmingly limited. Brief investigation turned up the fact that this school was limiting its Judaica classes to three or four a week, so as to reduce the pressure on students, most of whose parents were more interested in a school for Jews than a Jewish school.
The growing support for community schools should encourage us, of course, but it must also challenge us to lead our communities and not simply to follow paths of least resistance. It is not enough to sit Jews together in a classroom and to thereby declare assimilation defeated. We need to demonstrate to our students that Judaism is body of knowledge to be respected, to be admired, not simply tolerated as the price for being in the private school.
The community school is an opportunity to reach children, families, communities that we have never had before. It may well be the opportunity to combat assimilation head-on that its supporters claim it will be; but only if we lead our communities to utilise this opportunity as a true educational crusade and not simply as another painless band-aid in multi-coloured packaging.
Nor can we hide behind “community definitions” or ”parental focus groups” or “initial compromises until we build up our population base”. We are the educators, and, while we must certainly work with our lay leadership and our parent body, we must also be willing to take the lead in building our educational structures, in defining our educational structures. We must insist on serving as full partners and not simply as employees.
That is our job.
I have often observed that at CHAT the words ‘Orthodox – Conservative – Reform’ are barely heard in school from year to year (except when we have visitors, or in an academic context). In our school life, they appear to have little interest for students or staff. This is mirrored in the community behaviour; most Jews seem unconcerned by denominations. Much more relevant, accepted and indeed useful is Dennis Prager’s distinction between “serious and non-serious Jews”. The problem with this – one of the problems with this – is that we are essentially educating students to attend synagogues that don’t exist – where a girl can sit in a mixed shiur, and study Gemara-Rashi-Tosfot-Rishonim with an impeccably OrthodoxTalmid Chacham, in fluent Ivrit.
February 10, 2002
Paul Shaviv (Headmaster) and Gary Levine (Vice Principal) of the Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto, paint a fascinating picture of a well functioning, pluralistic community school model in which denominational divisions are blurred and, to all intents and purposes, non-existent.
I am thus curious to know whether the school, given its non-prescriptive Jewish philosophy, enrolls Gentile students and/or students who are not halachically Jewish, and whether educational professionals affiliated to Reform, Conservative or Reconstructionist congregations may serve as Jewish Studies’ faculty members – and here I include non-Orthodox ordained male and female rabbis.
Does the school define itself as Orthodox? Traditional? Would such a school – given the “variety of views” and “in-depth study” to which Gary Levine refers – countenance egalitarian, daily minyanim, a chazanit to lead the daily t’fillah, and, say, the teaching of the Documentary Hypothesis or views of the doctrine of Torah Mi-Sinai which run counter to those of normative Orthodoxy?
I would find a comparison of the CHAT model and the variety of South African and Australian community Jewish day school models interesting, and would thus value a response from Paul Shaviv and Gary Levine.
- You paint a fascinating picture of a well-functioning, pluralistic community school model in which denominational divisions are blurred and, to all intents and purposes, non-existent.
- We are not necessarily a school in which “… denominational divisions are blurred and to all intents and purposes, non-existent.” No one is asked to abdicate their own views or denominational identity – it’s just that we don’t regard them as barriers to teaching together or learning together. I have often said that the important distinction in CHAT is Dennis Prager’s distinction between ‘Serious Jews and non-Serious Jews’. We try and educate the former. It should be added that – as a personal observation – the denominational differences seem to be less and less important to our constituent families, and, I guess, to the Jewish community as a whole.
- Does CHAT, given its non-prescriptive Jewish philosophy, enroll Gentile students and/or students who are not halachically Jewish?
- We enroll students who see themselves as part of the Toronto Jewish Community, which includes students from all streams of Judaism, according to the diverse definitions of Jewish status current in different organisations. The halakhic definition is one of those definitions, but of course, not the only one. We do not require proof of Jewish status. Under Ontario law, we have discretion over entry, and I would not accept, for example, a student whose synagogue affiliation or belief is Hebrew Christian.
- Can educational professionals affiliated to Reform, Conservative or Reconstructionist congregations serve as Jewish Studies faculty members?
- Yes. We have several JTS graduates, and next year will have a female, kibbutznik, non-dati teacher of Talmud and Rabbinics. Lack of other affiliations is not for lack of effort to recruit. Incidentally, about 10% of our Faculty are our own graduates (16 out of about 160), including several in the Jewish Studies Department – most of whom are non-Orthodox. A large proportion of the students in the York University Jewish Teacher Training Programme are CHAT grads. Excluding our own staff, currently, there are at least a dozen CHAT graduates – probably more – in senior positions in Jewish schools in North America, including at least four Principals of Solomon Schechter schools.
- Would faculty include non-Orthodox ordained male and female rabbis?
- We seek the best teachers, whoever they are, and provided that they identify with the ethos of the school. For the record, no non-Orthodox Rabbis are on Faculty at present. Equally, neither I nor the Director of Jewish Studies (Sam Kapustin), nor Gary Levine (Head of our new Richmond Hill campus) are Rabbis, although we have a lot of Rabbis around!
- Does the school define itself as Orthodox? Traditional?
- We are a Community School, with no denominational affiliation. A year or so ago, within a couple of days of each other we had as guest speakers in the school the Rav of Agudat Yisrael in Toronto and Rabbi Elyse Goldstein, one of the leading feminist Reform rabbis in North America. No one blinked. There is a fairly traditional ethos in the school, as we have an emphasis on text-based curriculum. CHAT may be the only school in North America where a female student who is a member of, say Holy Blossom Temple (Reform), can graduate our Special Talmud course fluent in Gemara, Rashi, Tosfot and Rishonim, having been taught and tested completely in Ivrit, and having had an outstanding Litvish Talmid Chacham as a teacher. We have many such.
- Would such a school – given the “variety of views” and “in-depth study” to which Gary Levine refers – countenance egalitarian, daily minyanim and/or chazanit to lead daily t’fillah?
- Yes. For example, we have an extensive Shabbaton programme, where different services take place. Tefillah is voluntary in the school. We have a daily minyan (at our larger branch) of 40 – 70, including 6 -10 girls. It is traditional. Quite a number of non-Orthodox students (and sometimes parents) participate. We advertise regularly, offering alternative formats of minyan. The demand is not there. Bear in mind that any school minyan is a little difficult when it is minus 30 Centigrade early in the morning. Toronto is a very conservative (small “c”) community, and has an enviable record of tolerance. For example, the annual conference of day school administrators takes place each year over a Shabbat. It includes participants right across the spectrum, from Yeshivot to Reform day schools and supplementary schools. At the Shabbaton, there are three (sometimes only two) parallel services. No one minds, and there is a great collegiality.
- What about the teaching of the Documentary Hypothesis or views of the doctrine of Torah Mi-Sinai which run counter to those of normative Orthodoxy?
- I know you don’t seem to believe this, but we are not an Orthodox school, and definitely not normative according to anyone. Different views of the origin of the biblical text are presented in the school. Some teachers, I suspect, may emphasise one view; others will strongly suggest another. With luck, a student will have one teacher one year and a teacher with a different view the next. Both students and teachers learn to respect diverse views.
- I would find a comparison of the CHAT model and the variety of South African and Australian community Jewish day school models interesting.
- Do not confuse schools that are constitutionally Orthodox but have overwhelmingly non-orthodox students (e.g., Moriah College in Australia, JFS in London), with a school that is constitutionally and philosophically a community school.
May 20, 2002
The Re’ut community was created with the express purpose of responding to what we felt to be Israel’s most pressing needs. This list of needs includes the following:
Creating a pluralistic community where people of all streams of Judaism can learn together. This is done by assuring that, on the one hand, no one need feel defensive as to the levels of religiosity, while at the same time enabling those who wish to pursue a more practising religious way of life to be allowed to do so.
Creating a community in which pluralism is practised and taught not only through particular Jewish values, but also through a more universal approach. For example, the idea of studying Japanese, Italian, Sign Language, Amharic, French or Spanish (besides the required study of Arabic), is carried out so as to give young people a recognition that other cultures, religions and ways of life exist. Our practice of including people from all socio-economic strata and with various special needs (what others call disabilities), this too is a way of doingpluralism and not just wording it.
Some think it “cute” that students at Re’ut can meditate before prayer or do Tai Chi, or run, or cook, paint and more. The idea is that prior to prayer, one works on connecting or hitchabrut. In general we feel that prayer needs to be worked on. This reflects not only our attitude that prayer can be made relevant if worked at but more important, that one of the schools central missions is enabling people to pursue a personal spiritual quest while at school. Yes, we believe that one of the most important issues facing all schools, religious, secular, unaffiliated, is that children must be allowed to learn the tools of pursuing a path to their own spirituality and they must be given the space to do so. This is indeed “school business”. If adults create a non-judgmental environment, with love and freedom to err and grow, children will be happy to explore their spiritual growth.
Our path at Re’ut has been to try to work on the notion that Torah is to be done much more than taught. Thus, the soup kitchen, the volunteerism in women’s shelters, with the elderly, cerebral palsy and so much more. Doing Torah means that one recognizes that differences amongst people are situated on a continuum and that everyone is potentially healthy or not, mentally well or not, etc. We are not only a microcosm of society but in fact must learn that society, as a whole exists within each individual. Thus working on social justice and bettering the planet reflects a commitment to do Torah first and accompany that with teaching and knowledge.
Yes, Re’ut like many schools, is committed to excellence in education as well. We have found that given top-notch teachers, enabling students to pursue their passion, and giving children the freedom to learn and control their destiny, all this makes it possible to succeed and excel. Yet above all else, we are committed to maintain a community that sees the pursuit of excellence in values education as a top priority.
While I have spelled out some of the basic ideas or the mission of Re’ut, it would be misleading to think that Re’ut was created with the sole purpose of serving its own student population. Indeed, this is not the case at all. From its very inception, Re’ut saw as part of its mission the creation of an alternative educational stream in Israeli education. The Re’ut community, parents, teachers, students and its many supporters in Israel and abroad, all recognize the urgent need to alter the status quo within the Israeli educational school system. We are caught in the schism of secular (Mamlachti) education that is often too paranoid to enable Judaism and Jewish spirituality into the school fearing coercion and close-mindedness. On the other side is religious (Mamlachti Dati) education often expending great energy in maintaining its own identity, on sensing or expressing an ownership for the “right path” having thus kept others estranged to pursue their spiritual path within Judaism.
It is not our intention at all to spend energy being critical of others. Clearly, each stream has a right to feel as they do and educate in a way they see best derived of their own concerns and past experience. Yet it is the Re’ut community’s belief that it is time to pursue a third alternative, a State Pluralistic School System. Our objective is to show that Jews from all streams of Judaism can study together. Certainly, it is more than possible for schools of different persuasions to function within the same school system while maintaining their own autonomy. Instead of spending so much time defending our different identities (whether out of fear or elitism), the time is ripe to create school environments that bring together children of all backgrounds on an ongoing basis. We do not need to just meet in the army, but must confront our uniqueness and commonalities on a day-to-day basis.
As this article is being written, parents in Raanana, Hodayot, Rechovot, Shoham, but to mention a few, are all considering alternative pluralistic schools. All these parental groups are made of parents from all the streams and of differing perspectives. There is indeed a growing understanding that the model Re’ut represents (with numerous variations) is indeed worth replicating. While we have no interest in establishing a chain of schools or being a force of this type, we are encouraged that others have the courage to seek such alternatives.
Considering the current situation in the country, I would be remiss were I not to mention one final aspect of the Re’ut vision. We are a community of ardent “leftists” and “rightists”, and of course of those in between. We have students and their families who are totally committed to realizing their Zionism through the settlement of the West Bank and all of Biblical Israel. We have students and their families who believe that territorial compromise is a must and even those who feel that the settlement of the West Bank was a travesty. We have it all not only religiously but politically as well. We do not have uniform, knee-jerk responses to every terrorist attack and to every event. We have a plethora of perspectives.
As difficult as this may seem, this is a dream come true. For we have the opportunity to educate towards models for dealing with conflict. The models deal with conflict resolution not only with stated enemies but also in dealing with conflict within us. We have a chance to educate children in confronting the complexities of our reality and looking at ways of dealing with complex moral issues that lack clarity or certainty. This is done with much compassion, love, respect of others, and a deep recognition of the rights of those who think differently than oneself.
Re’ut is far from perfect. We have much to learn and improve upon. We are committed to pursue a path of growth. This we are committed to do by maintaining ourselves as a truly pluralistic community, made up of young people and adults, who believe that, together, one can create a spiritual, loving environment that can be of benefit to itself and others as well.
II Community Schools – Communities of Truth :11
A Challenge to Jewish Educators
August 5 2002
“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 judgments 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 naive 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 unified Jewish 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…”12 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 Jewish unity (Klal Yisrael) and Jewish love (2) (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 responsibility (4) (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.
Diversity (5) (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. 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.”13 Chancellor of Bar Ilan University, Rabbi 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 Torah (6) 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.”14 “[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 a religiously committed person can live with inner conflict and in a state of contradiction (7), 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.
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.15
Additionally, teaching which does not encourage commitment (8) 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 themselves.
The value of individuality (9) 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 excellence in education (10). 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.” 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.
I am grateful for the opportunity to offer some brief comment on Yonatan Yussman’s far-reaching article. Indeed, the breadth of Yonatan’s presentation calls for a discussion forum of its own to investigate, analyze and struggle with many of the educational challenges he raises for us. I apologise for offering these few comments in point form below and not in the more organized essay form that his work deserves, but it is summertime . . .
1. I am particularly – and pragmatically – interested in the categorization Yonatan offers for approaches to Jewish education. Like him, I have found a pluralist approach difficult to accept for both the theological and pedagogical reasons he suggests. I had not realized that the approach which I described, and which he quotes, falls under the category of a “relativistic” approach. I might argue that an approach which holds that a given belief system within Judaism “reflects the truest interpretation of Judaism”, as Yonatan suggests, is relative only in that Yonatan has chosen to use a relative word, “truest”, in describing the approach, rather than an absolute word, “true”. But I quibble. I accept that I have championed a “relativistic” approach for the community school.
Yonatan has, however, found the relativist approach inappropriate for the community school model. “Gary Levine’s statements in Mifgashim (1:12), I would argue, are good examples of an undesirable relativistic approach to Jewish education.”
I do not wish to argue here that he is incorrect in his evaluation, but, rather, that I do not understand from his article what exactly there is about the relativistic approach which is in conflict with his vision for the day school.
He calls for us to, “be educating our students to be proud and knowledgeable members of whatever denomination they belong to, but at the same time to love and respect Jews of different denominations,” and to, “construct our school environments in such a way that will allow that cross-denominational encounter to take place without offending anyone’s beliefs or feelings.” He calls for a “shared spiritual language of common values,” and for, “specific, rigorous, measurable and manageable academic standards.”
I need elaboration from Yonatan as to what there is in the relativistic approach I have outlined which is contradiction or opposition to the model he forwards. Indeed, the only way in which we can achieve pride in individual denominational commitment and respect for Jews of different denominational commitment seems to me to be in an institutional system which does not formally embrace any one denomination and in which (to quote myself shamelessly), “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’.”
Not only can I not understand why Yonatan sees this approach as antithetical to his model and “undesirable”, I cannot understand clearly what alternative approach he is proposing that will better serve the goals and values of his model.
I do not know if he means it to be so, but Yonatan’s warning that “we should be careful that theological diversity does not turn into theological relativism” is not an argument against the relativistic approach. The theological relativism he speaks of would suggest that, in an effort to get along with all Jews, I would eschew personal commitment that would separate me from all Jews. He is quite right to find such a theology self-defeating. But the relativistic approach does not defend such a belief. On the contrary, it suggests – quite in line with Yonatan’s quotation from Rabbi Hartman – that I take pride in my own commitment and applaud the “theological diversity within the Jewish community (that) would encourage the development of communities founded on conviction, knowledge, and choice.”
In short, then, I don’t understand what Yonatan finds unacceptable in what he has termed my “relativistic approach” or what exactly he is proposing in its place which better suits his model. I look forward to Yonatan’s clarification of this question.
2. I certainly agree that a Jewish school needs to be founded on spiritual values, and one cannot but applaud all ten of the values that Yonatan presents. I would ask, though, about an organizational structure for these values. The differing views in Mishnaic times of midot shehaTorah nidreshet bahen is, similarly, not a question of how many midot are actually used hermeneutically, but, rather, how the taxonomy should be envisioned, how the many methods should be understood as parts of a clearer structure. Yehuda, Yisachar and Zevulun all camped to the East, but under whose flag?
This is more than hair-splitting; it is a question of the school’s defining of its vision. The school needs not only values, but also a clear, central value system to guide it. The ten values listed are certainly to be included, but what is the thematic structure? A school in which the values of Ahavat Yisrael and Klal Yisrael are conceived of as within the category of Torah, for instance, has a different vision that that of a school in which Torah and Ahavat Yisrael are within the category of Klal Yisrael.
As interesting and necessary as the listing of relevant values may be, I think there is a useful exercise to be undertaken in organizing these values into a taxonomy that defines the ethos of the school.
3. Yonatan makes a good case for defining Bible and Talmud as the core classes. I would add Hebrew language as a necessary core course. It is not simply that a concern with the State of Israel is a common, unifying element for all the denominational groups that populate our schools. More importantly, it is not possible to teach Bible and Talmud on the level of excellence which we require without being able to deal with primary source texts. Without a strong Hebrew ability, our student cannot study Bible and Talmud; they can only study about Bible and Talmud.
It could be argued that Biblical and Talmudic Hebrew requirements do not require a separate course in Hebrew, and certainly not in Modern Hebrew. Yeshivot have, for centuries, successfully taught Bible and Talmud on the highest level, developing erudition in comprehension of the classical language while holding discussions in Yiddish or Ladino or English. That argument is valid, and, for schools that do not see a concentration on Modern Israel Language and Literature or Conversational Hebrew as goals to be served, the concentration on classical Hebrew can be undertaken as part of the Bible or Talmud curriculum. But we should then formally build into the curricula of these courses expectations for the development of expertise in the classical language.
I conclude by again expressing my appreciation to Yonatan Yussman for offering us ideas well worth our consideration. I look forward to reading the discussion that his work is bound to generate.
Yonatan Yussman’s paper on pluralism and Jewish education is constructive, thoughtful and an optimistic contribution.
I am not sure that he squares the circle of Orthodoxy and pluralism or the problem of pluralism and relativism. The best I could do here was that pluralism is the belief that there are multiple perspectives on the truth which is out there while relativism sees truth itself as a human construct and therefore always relative to the humans who construct it. I am not sure how much difference there is here as even if the truth is out there pluralism asserts that we can only have it through our interpretations which are equally good. The truth itself is never grasped.
I wonder if as educators we have to solve these philosophical conundrums – which is not to say we should ignore them.Clearly there are people out there who are party hacks for this denomination or another whose job it is to promote their own party and denigrate all others. This seems a bit old-fashioned nowadays.
As educators we have the opportunity in our teaching and in other aspects of our work to see how far we can go without ideological and theological issues being a problem. The evidence seems to be that in certain settings and with certain educators we can go quite far indeed. What can help is the awareness that whatever our denominational loyalties we all have our problems. It is more fun to point out other people’s problems but more worthwhile to confront our own. I think a great example is the way some Orthodox groups are confronting the status of women. The stances of other denominations help draw attention to the problem. The Orthodox response is not (as the Ultra-Orthodox charge) a matter of importing alien ideas but of responding to a real religious and ethical problem in the belief that the tradition contains the resources to do this without itself being distorted or shattered.
Reform movements which once stood on a platform of fierce opposition to ritual have changed, no doubt in response to a sense that ritual, tradition and continuity are important and necessary. No doubt the presence of Orthodoxy with its appeal of authenticity played a role here but not necessarily as simply a model for imitation.
A question worth asking and answering both in a philosophical way and through empirical research is: why are community education, pluralism and trans-denominationalism enjoying such growth. Perhaps some of it is due to a post-modern perception that truth is a problematic notion. Traditionalists seek to ground their beliefs and practice in some idea of truth but if they are open, they know that this cannot be done in a dogmatic way by mere assertion.
Teachers it seems can teach a lot of Torah without getting bogged down in these arguments. We need to know much more about how they do it. We need teachers to report on what happens in their classrooms when they teach Matan Torah, or problematic rabbinic texts or Shabbat. We need researchers to go in and observe teachers and to talk to students about what they understand.
One thing which pluralism should not mean is that teachers cannot tell their student, in non-dogmatic and non-manipulative ways, what they really think. As Yonatan seems to understand, to come up with homogenised, non-toxic, harmonised Judaism is to do everyone a disfavour. It is to confuse and deceive students, emasculate teachers and to distort Judaism and its history.
Response to Gary Levine:
Gary asked for clarification on why I disagreed with his approach to pluralism. I may have misunderstood your original comments on pluralism, Gary. I understood you as saying that:
1. You teach that all views are equal and valid (“We avoid declaring any view factually wrong by declaring no view factually right”)
2. You do not teach personal commitment (“[My approach] allows for the in depth study of all aspects of Judaism without the feeling that this information imposes a requirement of personal commitment”)
3. You do not teach that learning about Judaism is different than learning about any other subject (“[Learning about Judaism] may be taken as an intellectual study for its own sake, like art history or the geography of Finland.”)
In response to your first point, I’ll offer a couple of pertinent quotes on the subject: Rabbi Norman Lamm: “… a pluralism which accepts everything as co-legitimate is not pluralism, but the kind of relativism that leads … to spiritual nihilism. If everything is kosher, nothing is kosher.” And Isaiah Berlin has written that such a relativistic approach reinforces the thinking of, “I like my coffee with milk and you like it without; I am in favor of kindness and you prefer concentration camps.” All views are not equal, nor do I think we need to pretend that they are for the sake of our students or community.
With regards to your second point, I’ll summarize a section of Prof. Barry Chazan’s book, The Language of Jewish Education, which I firmly support. One of the fundamentals of religious education is the teaching that the religious way necessitates some form of personal commitment. That this commitment is not frivolous but rooted in justifications, that the teacher is an example of a committed person, and how to become such a religious committed person. It must initiate the student into his heritage, develop an appreciation of, affection for, and commitment to that heritage, must present legitimate and defensible arguments for adherence to such a heritage, and prepare the child to freely choose – in a knowledgeable way – whether to accept or reject such a heritage. I may be misunderstanding you, but I feel that your views on teaching commitment are in dissonance with Chazan’s views.
With regards to your third point, I can’t imagine that the possible benefits of equating Judaism with the geography of Finland can outweigh the obvious costs of such an approach. I’d appreciate some more elaboration on your part.
I hope this provides some clarification of what I disagreed with in your previous comments on pluralism. I look forward to your comments on what I just wrote. One note (which I think is obvious): I feel strongly that we can conflict in our philosophies of pluralism and at the same time each be successful teachers, and that we can have the utmost respect for each other despite disagreeing.
Gary also asks how to translate the ten values I described in my article into a practical taxonomy. That’s something that’s currently on my mind, and I would value hearing other educator’s opinions on the topic.
And with regard to the point that Gary made regarding Hebrew being a core course, in addition to Bible and Talmud, I agree wholeheartedly.
A comment on Michael Gillis’ remarks:
Michael captured my fears of relativistic teaching when he wrote, “As Yonatan seems to understand, to come up with homogenized, non-toxic, harmonized Judaism is to do everyone a disfavour. It is to confuse and deceive students, emasculate teachers and to distort Judaism and its history.”
My thanks to Yonatan Yussman for taking the time to respond to my comments of last week.
It may be, as Yonatan suggests, that we simply disagree on some elements of the question of teaching toward commitment, but I think that at least some of the insufficiency which Yonatan sees in my approach stems from a broader interpretation he is giving to points which I intended in a significantly more limited context.
I certainly did say that the approach which I suggested (which Yonatan referred to several weeks ago as not pluralist, but relativist – and last week as pluralist, after all) “allows for the in-depth study of all aspects of Judaism without the feeling that this information imposes a requirement of personal commitment.” Yonatan, with the aid of quotations by Rabbi Lamm and Dr. Chazan, takes that to mean that I believe we should not encourage commitment to Judaism in our students.
Certainly, that is not at all what I meant to say. My discussion of commitment was in the context of affiliation to a given Jewish religious stream. I noted that as a community school, we actively seek the attendance of students from across the broad spectrum of the community. Our school currently enjoys an extremely high registration rate from feeder schools in the city from the Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Labour Zionist streams – as well as students coming directly from public schools. A not-insignificant percent of our students list no synagogue affiliation at all.
If we are to deal with our students and their families with honour and integrity, to which branch of Judaism should we encourage their commitment? Should we subtly guide them to find the truth of “Torah True Judaism” while no one is looking? Should we suggest a homogenized “Torah miSinai, but we can go a little easy on the d’rabanans” that we can get a general consensus on from 63% of the student body? We could probably get pretty close to unanimity on “Yom Kippur, at least one Seder and the first night of Chanukah”; is that the commitment we should be seeking?
No! Our students are young men and women whose minds and hearts we are going to treat with respect. We are going to offer them a comprehensive, even exhaustive, study of sources and discussions and analysis of Tanach and Rabbinics and Jewish History and Ivrit over four years. We are going to respect our teachers and our students enough to allow everyone to present, to discuss, and to argue. We are not going to require personal religious commitment. We are going to encourage thought and learning and open discussion, and we are going to trust that it will lead thoughtful people to positive decisions.
The community school cannot require as an enrolment pre-requisite a commitment to a given religious movement, nor can it morally educate toward religious commitment to any single religious movement behind the backs of our parents. I continue to wait for Yonatan to explain the model he proposes in which he succeeds, I must assume from his statements, to find a way to require personal, pre-defined religious commitment from a broad spectrum of students in a community school. He has stated that our modest attempts are insufficient, but he has not yet told us what the sufficient model looks like.
Paul Shaviv, our Director of Education (Community Hebrew Academy, Toronto) has on more than one occasion in this forum written about “serious Judaism”. It is a powerful concept and worthy of consideration and attention. By “serious Judaism” we mean the thoughtful consideration of the place of Judaism in one’s life and the commitment to a personal involvement in the Jewish experience.
I certainly do believe that we must educate towards a commitment to serious Judaism. To what extent will that commitment be religious? To what extent Zionist? or ethnic? or linguistic? or communal? I cannot tell you that; it is not predetermined. Each student – each Jew – must consider this for her/himself. It is a personal choice, founded in the encouragement towards learning, analysis, introspection; founded in our respect for each student’s ability to consider what our fine teachers have presented, to learn from them and from each other – to think, to reason, to search one’s soul and to offer one’s heart.
And the key to all of this is serious, honest, intellectual study – yes, like art history or the geography of Finland – with all the information presented and all the options open – without precondition, without a statement of what “right path” students are required to believe.
Yonatan, if we believe that there is truth and righteousness and humility and the hand of God to be found in the texts and the reflections of the Jewish people through the millennia, then we should not be afraid to trust to our children to find these things for themselves when we bring it to them for their consideration.
I can only conclude with this: I have worked alongside good men and women in this approach, in this school, for many years now. I cannot say that there have not been mistakes and that we do not continue to learn from them. I cannot say that this approach has satisfied all of the requirements of the academic studies regarding what the academicians believe schools should be.
But there are decades of men and women who have passed through this school, serious Jews who are leaders of their communities all over the world and parents of new generations of serious Jews. This is more, I think, than an adequate measure of the usefulness of the approach.
December 9, 2001
While Judaism has formed my existence in multiple ways, it was only when I volunteered to serve for one year in the Jewish community of Wellington, New Zealand that I discovered my personal interest could be publicly directed. While there, I finally realised where I wanted to invest my energies, concerns and thoughts. My experiences in Wellington released in me a passion for teaching.
However, as a Jewish educator for the elementary school and having to provide an informal educational framework for adults and teens, I found myself in uncharted professional territory. I was constantly aware of my lack of experience and skills and I struggled to guide my students in seeking appropriate texts. This played a large role in my determination to acquire the skills and knowledge to be able to educate in the most effective way.
I am currently enrolled in the Pardes Educators Programme: two years intensive Torah study at Pardes, combined with a Masters degree in Jewish Education from the Rothberg School and the Melton Centre for Jewish Education at Hebrew U. The programme offers the possibility of learning theories and philosophies of education, combined with studying texts that assist in transforming these notions from the theoretical and philosophical to the more practical realm of Jewish consciousness raising. The programme launched last year with 15 students offers a solution to the critical need for knowledgeable teachers in pluralistic community Jewish day schools in North America.
I am learning in an environment that offers innovative responses to the needs and challenges of the Jewish community today – a direct confrontation of studying and teaching Jewish texts and ideas in a spiritual and intellectually intense yet open environment. My fellow students who represent a variety of ideologies and beliefs, come together to engage in texts, each in his/her own way. This ethos nurtures a love and respect for traditional values while not asking us to reject our own personal ethics and beliefs.
Pardes’ Beit Midrash provides a safe environment to tackle and struggle with Jewish texts and challenges our previously held conceptions of what is authentic. I have also for the past two years participated in two pedagogy classes: teaching of Torah to students and teaching Rabbinics. In these classes, our time in the Beit Midrash and the knowledge and skills gained there are transformed into the practical realm of teaching.
The courses offered at Hebrew U range from the Sociology of American Jews, The Bible and the Child, to Pluralism and Memory and History. These classes provide us with the ability to intellectually engage in discussion and reflection concerning our own understandings of educational philosophy and how to implement a curriculum based on these theories. The courses ensure that we are aware of the hermeneutics that we teach, those that stem from our preconceptions of teaching and those that we are now equipped to choose.
All of this reaches its full articulation when we spend a month supervised teaching internship (one in each year) at a Jewish day school in America. Last year, I observed and taught at the New Jewish High School of Boston, a successful pluralistic community day school. I was exposed to numerous methods and philosophies of teaching, as well as the problems that face educators teaching in a trans-denominational setting.
As a student-teacher in such a school, I encountered students from different denominations, with different belief systems and who had encountered different hermeneutic approaches. The courses I had taken and the guidance from my mentor helped me realise that I needed to incorporate different understandings of the text so that all students could gain fresh and meaningful insights without feeling that their belief systems had been attacked. During that month I was able to incorporate what I had learnt in the Beit Midrash and the lecture halls and bring it into the classroom.
My experiences in the programme have helped me formulate my own educational philosophy and to shape my identity as well as furnish me with a rich background of Jewish textual knowledge and skills. My teachers in both institutions have been challenging and dynamic, pushing me to develop as a student, educator and human being.
I was impressed by Tamar Rabinowitz’s article on how her studies are preparing her to work in pluralistic community day schools. However I have some questions. Firstly, I have some difficulty with the concept of pluralistic schools. What exactly is a pluralistic school? If a school does not have a specific ideological position and by implication, if all points of view are equally valid, doesn’t this seem to suggest that ultimately, what does prevail is a laissez faire type of set up where instead of equally competing points of view, there is a watering down or dumbing down of ideological positions or put more colloquially: a wish washy school philosophy?
Secondly, I also want to respond to the following statement:
I am learning in an environment that offers innovative responses to the needs and challenges of the Jewish community today – intellectually intense yet open environment… My fellow students who represent a variety of ideologies and beliefs, come together to engage in texts, each in his/her own way. This ethos nurtures a love and respect for traditional values while not asking us to reject our own personal ethics and beliefs.
My question is: What happens if your own personal ethics and beliefs undermine those of the institution or vice versa? How do you make choices? How do you decide? What are the red lines for Pardes and for you?
Thirdly, Tamar writes:
As a student-teacher in such a school, I encountered students from different denominations, with different belief systems and who had encountered different hermeneutic approaches. The courses I had taken and the guidance from my mentor helped me realize that I needed to incorporate different understandings of the text so that all students could gain fresh and meaningful insights without feeling that their belief systems had been attacked.
I want to ask the following: At a high school level, do we really have to molly coddle students? Why do we need to be over protective? Are students not more resilient than we think they are? By being oversensitive to their needs or ego, do we not run the risk of sending them out into the real world totally unprepared for the thrust and parry of real live people the vast majority of whom don’t give a hoot about one’s feelings? Also, shouldn’t there be limits on tolerance, shouldn’t there be external ‘yes’s and ‘no’s or rights and wrongs or some ultimate moral authority? Aren’t in fact students really looking for guidelines and structure?
Similarly, with the following statement:
Pardes’ Beit Midrash provides a safe environment to tackle and struggle with Jewish texts and challenges our previously held conceptions of what is authentic.
What exactly does a safe environment mean and why do graduate students have to feel safe and protected?
Regarding the question about why graduate students might need a “safe” Bet Midrash environment let me first say that Pardes does not consider itself to be a pluralistic institution. We view ourselves as an halachic institution, and a safe place to explore the tradition.
Why “safe?” It is important to recognize that not every postgraduate student is interested in a Jewish learning environment, which demands behavioral compliance with halachic norms (e.g. dress). By offering the opportunity for graduate students to learn the classical Jewish texts in a serious way, without imposing halachic behavior on them, Pardes is able to expose them to authentic Torah, and authentic Torah role models, without forcing them to change their lifestyles.
In this way, the conflict between “personal values” and the “values of the institution” is generally defused. Pardes students understand where their teachers are coming from, but for the most part feel that they are given their own personal autonomy as well. We do not feel “undermined” if a student does not keep Shabbat, or expresses reservations about kashrutin class. In an atmosphere that accepts diversity in its students (both coming in and leaving us), it is not threatening for us.
We do offer opportunities for spiritual growth, but we do not force it upon our students (e.g. tefilla). We believe (and know from 28 years of experience) that our adult students generally come away much more literate Jews, who love Torah, and find their own ways of increasing their Jewish commitment and lifestyle.
In response to the following statement by Tamar,
Pardes’ Beit Midrash provides a safe environment to tackle and struggle with Jewish texts and challenges our previously held conceptions of what is authentic
Shlomo Kaye asks the following question to which I would like to respond:
What exactly does a safe environment mean and why do graduate students have to feel safe and protected?
Tamar did not say that graduate students need to be “protected”. There is an obvious confusion between the terms “safe” and “protected”. This confusion was also in evidence in your attack on pluralistic school environments.
The Jewish people today, for better or for worse, are cracked into many different denominations, beliefs and viewpoints. The choices are to break off into our little communities and only talk to and learn from people who think exactly us or we can get together and talk and learn from people who hold different and even contradictory viewpoints. The latter is the essence of pluralism. It doesn’t require being laissez faire, as you put it. It requires a safe and protected environment, where everyone expresses their beliefs without filters, without apologies or fears. The safety comes from knowing that you will be heard and you will be accepted, despite the fact that not everyone will agree with all or any of your beliefs.
In a pluralistic environment, no one is molly coddling or protecting any high school, college or graduate students. If anything the school with the single Jewish philosophy is “molly coddling”. In that school, you don’t have to think and struggle to create a personal hashkafa because you are not confronted by different beliefs – your belief is handed to you on a plate. I’ve seen students from these kinds of schools enter “the thrust and parry of the real world,” and it’s not pretty.
The goal of pluralism is to try to build whole Jewish communities, where Jews actually listen and learn from each other, instead of criticizing or judging each other.
I too was impressed by Tamar Rabinowitz’s articulate statement regarding her studies and her preparation for work in pluralistic day schools. I was, however, a bit puzzled by Shlomo Kaye’s series of questions regarding her statement. The Merriam Webster Dictionary defines pluralism as:
a state of society in which members of diverse ethnic, racial, religious, or social groups maintain an autonomous participation in and development of their traditional culture or special interest within the confines of a common civilization and a concept, doctrine, or policy advocating this state.
You will probably recall from studying the history of the period of the Enlightenment, that in the United States a process of cultural pluralism was espoused, a system in which each culture was encouraged to maintain its own particular identity and as a result, society as a whole would be enriched. On the European continent, on the other hand, one had to satisfy particular societal criteria in order to benefit from the freedoms offered by Emancipation. Voltaire, for example, in suggesting rights for the Jews, maintained that they should essentially become like him, become philosophers, he declared, and the Jews would deserve rights like any other citizens of France.
At the risk of oversimplifying this, I believe that pluralistic schools fit comfortably into the American conceptualization. Students from differing religious and ideological perspectives can maintain their identity within the confines of a common locale. This is quite different than the model of a progressive modern Orthodox school that welcomes students with different backgrounds and perspectives but expects the student to perform within the framework of a particular religious perspective. It seems rather clear to me, that in a school in which a pluralistic approach is taken seriously, not only should there be no watering down or espousal of a laissez faire attitude, but rather a compelling need for ideological clarification.
Regarding the issues of red lines and personal ethics and beliefs, it seems to me that this question is no different in a pluralistic school than it is in any other school. In all situations one must decide that he/she is sufficiently ideologically comfortable in the environment in which he works. I have been in co-ed modern Orthodox schools where more Haredi teachers were perfectly comfortable and in non co-ed modern Orthodox schools where they were not. It is always going to be particular to the person and the school environment. Regarding the issue of preparing students for the real world. I would hope that indeed one of the goals of Jewish educators is to prepare students for the real world. I would expect that the goal, however, would be not to reinforce the insensitivity in the world but rather to educate students towards trying to eliminate it.
As someone who teaches students from all denominations and has done so for many years: as someone, moreover, who grew up in a nominally Orthodox home where the degree of ignorance about non-Orthodox Judaism was equaled only by the feeling of superiority towards whatever it was that non-Orthodox Judaism was thought to consist of (usually wrongly), and as someone who believes in addition that non-acceptance of Jew by another Jew is the biggest evil in the Jewish universe at this particular point in time (and at pretty much every other moment in the last two centuries at least), some of the assumptions that seemed to be underlying Shlomo Kaye’s responses to Tamar Rabinowitz pushed a number of buttons and made me want to respond.
I say “some of the assumptions.” I do not say all. I agree that the “dumbing down of ideological positions” is a very negative result, at least from the Jewish perspective, of the politically correct school of liberalism. Time after time I try and encourage students to define their own positions on Judaism and to challenge each other, and yes, to judge each others viewpoints from the standpoint of their own position. As far as I am concerned, this is healthy: it pushes the development of a world-view and a theological/philosophical position regarding the individual’s place vis-a-vis the Jewish world.
I do the same regarding Zionism. As far as I am concerned, not every Jewish child or adult has to be a Zionist, but everyone should be encouraged to develop a position on the subject which they believe in and which they support and are prepared to defend. In order to do this, whether for Judaism or for Zionism or for that matter for anything else-ism, a couple of things are necessary.
Firstly, there needs to be a fair and coherent presentation of different points of view so that the individual can make a choice which reflects who he or she really is and what they believe. The presentation needs to be an educated and deep one which doesn’t corrupt or stereotype other positions just because they don’t agree with the philosophy of the person presenting.
Secondly, the individual must feel free to start stammering their way towards their own belief system. Finding a true philosophy for yourself (rather than just taking someone else’s –parents’ or educators’) – is a long and difficult process. It can last many years, sometimes a lifetime. For a true search to take place it has to start with one’s own questions.
Questions come from the same place where vulnerability and insecurity come from, the “still small voice” of uncertainty inside every one of us where our deepest most authentic self dwells. When those questions start to emerge – if they are real, honest, existential questions of our own rather than questions that come from somebody else’s agenda – they almost always emerge in inarticulate, hesitant, form. At that rare moment of true questioning, we are like the turtle which pops its head gingerly out of its shell. We are ripe prey for someone with better formed opinions than ours to bash us over the head with a point of view that we cannot answer and cause the head to descend back into the shell, bruised and battered (in human terms, embarrassed and with feelings of inadequacy), for a very long time.
At the moment that a person is engaged in true questioning, he or she needs a very safe place indeed to test out her or his ideas. And it makes absolutely no difference how old that person is. What is important is that the environment is good for turtles, i.e. a place to dare, a safe place. In my opinion there is no statute of age limitations on the need for a safe place. The only ones who don’t need safe places are the ones who are never going to stick their necks out. And who are they likely to be? When you are talking about real big issues like the ones mentioned, those are probably either people who have never been taught that the issues are important and real, or people who have grown up in environments where all questioning is done inside careful parameters of “What is permitted to be asked from our point of view.”
I would suggest that the process of encouraging people to discover who they really are and what they truly believe could best be done in truly pluralistic frameworks. What does this mean? It means that they must contain people of different perspectives who are encouraged to challenge both themselves and others but are taught to do that by using a certain vocabulary of questioning and listening which will encourage all to stretch themselves without the risk of being “defeated” and humiliated by a well articulated alternative point of view. It also means that the task of the educational institution is to act as a neutral umpire, which ensures that the differences are presented clearly and deeply, that the dialogue between the different opinions is a dialogue of listeners and not a dialogue of the deaf and that ultimately each student is challenged to explore and to push his or her own boundaries forward to wherever they might be taken.
Does that mean that such an institution has no values, that it has a “wishy washy” school philosophy? That it stands for nothing? No, just the opposite. It means that it has a philosophy of commitment to authentic searching and deep challenging. It can be an institution that says that “one of the deepest of all Jewish values is questioning, and one of the deepest of all Jewish responses to the world is not to take anything for granted.” It can be a school where every day is Pesach and where the question goes before the answer. It can be an institution that says we believe that all Jews should engage themselves in a deep search for their own meaning in a confrontation with the insights of Jewish culture. If at the end of that search, that individual makes decisions to reject everything – after an in-depth examination of what they would be rejecting – that might be regrettable but we affirm it as their right.
That is what true pluralism in Jewish education is and in my opinion, it is the finest aim of any educational system, because it encourages a person to find their own position in this world rather than accepting that of other people.
I would suggest that one of the reasons for intermarriage and assimilation in the Jewish world today is that people of all streams in Judaism are not encouraged to go through this deep and open questioning process. As a result they come out of the educational process, or rather the indoctrinational process to give it its right name, mouthing positions to which they are not personally committed. If they are not personally committed to something, then their own roots in that position are unlikely to be deep. It will take a small wind indeed –– chance romance? – to blow them out of the Jewish framework altogether.
I hope that this is clear. These ideas run a different race to most of the institutionalised thinking in the Jewish educational world, which goes in the direction of defending territory and “bringing people over to our side.” The ideas will be dismissed by many but they are, I would suggest, the sort of ideas that are needed in order to bring the Jewish people forward to a better place. Maybe these are turtle ideas, and I am about to get my head whacked!
(A response to my friends David Bernstein, Steve Israel)
Dewey once wrote that an educator needs to be prepared to create environments for their own children/others that are vastly different from ones that they studied in and know that their children will do the same. Steve, your model like Dewey’s is progressive and different from David’s interpretation of the Pardes mission in that you expect kids to take your model of serious reflection, the importance of the needs of the individual (heart/brain) and their need to choose their place in the spectrum of Jewish life (or create their own). If I understood David’s comments, they are trying to either build or sustain communities that promote the ideological home of the institution.
David is honest in sharing that Pardes is promoting the choice of a Halakhic lifestyle. A midrash professor from HUC is a hero at Pardes if he follows Halakha and the opposite of a hero if he does not? It seems that the community day school model including the pluralistic model found in Boston, Atlanta and elsewhere would be hard pressed to hire a graduate of your program if they are not somewhat grounded in the educational thinking that Steve Israel suggests. Because if we are training people to work in a pluralistic setting then we have to hire role models that may have a secularistic, progressive outlook on life and Judaism and/or be respectful and/or knowledgeable of the underlying assumptions of the alternative philosophies. That is why Melton/Mercaz for example does a good job at presenting a wide range of serious models for their students. (I agree that day school communities for the most are turning in – away from their friends to the left and the right).
I actually think that the ideological based schools would be more serious if they did open themselves up to a larger range of practices and beliefs. To some degree, Steve I think you would agree your concern for mindless ideology would be addressed in part if the educational process within an ideology would be constructed on a reflection methodology (e.g. Melton values curriculum) as it would give the students the skills to later in life go out and think about their belief positions. When I was a student at the Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto, I benefited when the school would invite pulpit rabbis (at the time Orthodox and Conservative) to teach courses in Jewish thought. The plurality of positions and approaches was exciting and challenging. It is my belief that not one child who davened on Sundays stopped and not one child who did not daven on Sunday started. But it did openly expose students to people, students who later took their Judaism very seriously.
In my school, a proud Conservative egalitarian school which has produced more rabbis (men and women) for the Conservative movement than any other day school in America, we try to expose our middle schoolers to the fact that that there is a larger Jewish world out there. We currently have graduates studying at Orthodox yeshivot in Israel, HUC Rabbinical School and JTS. At a recent graduation, we had 3 rabbis (yes, Conservative, Orthodox & Reform) who gave the commencement address together. We prepare our students to understand how Mitzvah works in the major movements and have Rabbis come in a share their different approaches to ritual, prayer etc. Detroit is also home to the humanist Rabbinical school that has some alternative ideas.
We celebrate “our side” and yet respect the enterprises of the other voices. Will some of our graduates found other schools? I hope so. Many (85%) choose to send their children back to their alma mater. Maybe we will teach them better how to reflect and choose in the second generation of our school. We have over 60 second generation graduates (one parent was a student). Our oldest second-generation graduate is 23 (teaching in a nearby private school) and single but we are looking forward to her marriage and hopefully the return of her children to her potential school of choice.
Steve, I think we need to take the progressive challenge seriously yet be open to the richness and meaning of on-going evolvement of a committed historical community.
Mark Smiley asks (rhetorically, I think) if an HUC teacher who follows Halakha is a hero at Pardes, then one who does not is the opposite?
I would like to think that we do not present different role models at Pardes as “heroes” and “the opposite.” For example, in planning a Yom Iyun on Halakha and Spirituality at Pardes, we invited a number of speakers. Some are faculty members (most Orthodox, one Conservative), and a Rabbi of a Reform congregation who does not follow Halakha.
All of this is not to say that Pardes is pluralistic. As I wrote, and try always to be careful to say, we are NOT a pluralistic institution. We are a halachic institution that is open, and safe for Jews of different stripes. As an example, we have three options for mincha at Pardes: a traditional davening with a mechitza, an egal davening, and the option of not davening!
If our goal is to produce Orthodox Jews, as was implied, then Pardes is indeed a terrible failure. Thankfully, our goal is to produce educated Jews, committed Jews, learning Jews… and I think Pardes is very successful.
Among our students (including the students in our Educators Program), perhaps the most telling comment I can make is that I don’t even know exactly how many of them consider themselves Orthodox, Conservative, etc. It’s just not the point.
My sense is that the majority of the students in our Educators Program do not consider themselves Orthodox – but they are educated, committed, and learning Jews, who will hopefully be very good teachers to many different kinds of Jewish students.
What they have gained from Pardes – aside from their Torah learning – is a strong sense of living and learning together in a Bet Midrash with the rest of Klal Yisrael, in an atmosphere of mutual respect and Ahavat Yisrael.
I hope this will hold them in good stead in the Jewish Day Schools they will one day be teaching in – be they denominational, or be they pluralistic schools.
I cannot but agree with Steve Israel that “non-acceptance of one Jew by another” is an evil that threatens the cohesion and even the future of the Jewish people. One response to this problem is the development of pluralist ideologies and the emergence of educational frameworks, such as community schools, that are built on the inclusion of diverse streams of Judaism.
The philosophical working out of this kind of education is still struggling with some basic questions. The first of these questions is how can two contradictory views be considered true? How, for example, can someone regard obedience to Halakha as the divinely commanded Jewish form of service to God and accept a view which rejects a role for Halakha as no less adequate as a Jewish way of serving God? One answer to this might be that each is committed to serving God and this is what is really important. They differ only as to the means to the end. Each finds a different route to be more satisfactory as a way of achieving the same goal. The problem with this response is that many who value Halakha as the way to serve God do so because of a belief that it is a way of life which is, one way or another, commanded by God. It is, therefore, not merely a matter of personal preference. Pluralism seems to favour those whose commitments do not arise out of a sense of commandedness and which do not entail any particular way of living out these commitments. Pluralism is difficult for the Orthodox, but Orthodoxy is also difficult for pluralism because it is difficult for pluralism to include a philosophy, which, by definition, negates its alternatives.
These problems are not going to be solved merely by a magic verbal formula. Those whose commitment to Jewish peoplehood prevents them from simply throwing in the towel will continue to wrestle with the problems rather than gleefully retreating into self-righteous isolation. One life approach is to put the burning philosophy questions on one side and to seek opportunities to share projects and, above all, to share learning. Here the brilliant distinction made by one correspondent to this list between a “safe” environment and a “protected” environment is very important. Protection implies an avoidance of reality, safety relates rather to the possibility of encountering others without the fear of physical or emotional harm. When the rules of the game require personal respect, assuming the best interpretation of what others say and an emphasis on shared concerns, beliefs and activities, there may be said to be a safe environment.
It is one thing, however, for mature individuals, who hold their ideas and beliefs as a result of a long process of reflection and internalisation and who ground their ideas both in their experience of life and their accumulated learning, to engage in pluralistic opportunities for encounter with other Judaisms, and quite another to make such pluralism the basis for the education of the young. Apart from a high degree of conviction and self-confidence, it takes maturity to know that even our deepest held beliefs and all that we can know cannot encompass all of reality and everything there is to know; that indeed the wise person is the one who learns from every human being. It is only maturity that makes possible such reservations about ourselves without diminishing the strength of our cherished commitments.
Even if we think that we have worked through the problems of pluralism, if not at the level of principle, at least in a pragmatic way, it remains unclear if we can lead young people down the same road without the risk of confusion. This, by the way, is not to overlook the countervailing dangers of intolerance, bigotry and arrogance. It will be interesting to hear from educators working in pluralistic settings on these points with examples of how these dilemmas are overcome in practice.
Some of Steve Israel’s assertions about pluralistic education seem to me to risk educational confusion. I agree that any education worthy of the name should lead young people to think for themselves and not to accept as dogma whatever their teachers assert. I do not believe, however, in the “still small voice” which Steve suggests is within us voicing our “deepest most authentic selves.” I am not sure about the idea of education as a means of encouraging children “to discover who they really are.” I do not mean that I am against sincerity or authenticity. My point is that Steve’s account ignores the extent to which who we are is the result of our participating in a tradition and not the expression of some inner essence given as part of our genetic make-up. To an extent this is the same as the argument over progressive education, which assumed that all that needs to be known is within the child and the teacher is to act as a facilitator drawing forth the potential within the child.
Part of growing up includes deciding on our attitude to the traditions in which we have grown up but this requires the experience of growing up in a tradition, which we can then accept, modify or reject. For this to work the young person must experience the tradition as something objective, real and normative. Only parents and educators who have such a commitment can convey a tradition to a young person. If, from the very start, the tradition is communicated as no more than a possibility or a personal preference it is stripped of its power as a tradition.
Steve suggests that schools should act as a “neutral umpire”. I have already argued that with respect to certain viewpoints pluralism is intrinsically not neutral. It is not neutral towards positions that negate pluralism. The problem, however, goes deeper. I suggest that even the most pluralistic educator has limits. There will be some positions about which neutrality will be unacceptable. Is the educator to remain a neutral umpire when children weigh up the rights and wrongs of racism or genocide? It is these points when the real agenda of the institution emerges and pluralism is set aside. It is easier to be pluralistic about issues which are not cardinal for us. We tend to set aside pluralism when it comes to the values which are at the core of our moral being. Taking pluralism beyond this point can result in the moral void evidenced by the Yale student who wrote about the difficulty her peers have in taking a position on the mass murders in New York and Washington.
Good teachers are not merely people who teach us stuff but those who by their own being inspire what can be best described as a kind of love. Irresponsible charismatic teachers can exploit this love in unethical ways to enhance their own power. A good teacher knows that there is also a need for restraint to leave room for the being of the student. A neutral teacher seems to me, however, to be a weak teacher. When a controversial or problematic topic is under discussion, is it illegitimate for children to ask what the teacher thinks? The teacher may decide, for pedagogical reasons, to defer answering the question so as not unduly to influence the discussion, but should they refuse to answer altogether? Is not a good teacher one, many of whose attitudes and beliefs are understood by students, even without their being articulated explicitly? Can we, and indeed should we, avoid having these attitudes and beliefs of the teacher influencing children’s attitudes and beliefs? Is not this kind of influence exactly what parents and good teachers, from Plato to Hillel, from Rosenzweig to Soloveitchik (not to mention Steve Israel) are there for?
If, as Steve suggests, “pluralism in Jewish education is … the finest aim of any education system,” we are in danger of such disempowerment of tradition. Pluralism is in itself not anything. It depends on the existence of diverse points of view, beliefs, loyalties, traditions and commitments.
Those who seek to maintain the power of tradition while also living with a full awareness of the richness and variety of human choices face a difficult problem. If we teach without conviction we deprive the student of the possibility of acquiring a tradition, but if we teach as if we cannot see the sense in other choices we risk untruth, which poisons education. For myself, I have no simple answer to this dilemma, but neither does pluralism as such and alone provide us with a highroad out of these entanglements.
The question of what exactly is a pluralistic institution is reminiscent of the old question, “What is Art?”
Answer: “I can’t explain what it is, but I know it when I see it!”
Bialik College in Melbourne (which by the way is home to some ten Jewish day schools, ranging from Adass Israel – a loose conglomeration of mainly Hungarian Chassidic groups including Satmar, Mizrachi, Chabad, communal/traditional, cultural Zionist, Progressive, Yiddishist /Bundist) – qualifies as a pluralistic institution. Even if we can’t exactly use precise words, you would know it if you saw it…
1. The Head of Jewish Studies is a member of the Progressive/ Reform community; the Vice- Principal is ‘Conservadox ‘/Modern Orthodox; one of the Music teachers is a member of the Chabad Movement, and a Maths teacher is part of the Adass Israel community. The Jewish Studies teachers include former Israelis and South Africans, representing a spectrum, which ranges from secular Zionism to Modern Orthodoxy
2. Our students and their families belong to a wide variety of congregations, ranging from Progressive, Mizrachi, Chabad, Modern Orthodox, Masorti to Secular Humanist. Our Bar Mitzvah teacher, who is Orthodox, teaches all the students, including girls from Melbourne’s Progressive congregations.
3. In terms of curriculum, we expose our students to the rich variety of Jewish life, practice, customs, and belief. They study Tanach and are presented with a variety of interpretations, both traditional and modern; they study Jewish History and are taught about the Enlightenment and its impact; they know about the Shulchan Aruch even though the school does not demand adherence to Halachic prescriptives; they follow a traditional Hagaddah at seder and recite a traditional Kiddush during our weekly model class based Kabbalat Shabbat.
4. When we celebrate or mark a festival or commemorative day, we do ‘stick to the middle’, not because we must, but because this approach best accommodates our students and us. Our canteen is Kosher, as are all catering at school camps, together with all students/staff functions. We do not however encroach on our students’ private domain: students’ lunch boxes, for example, are not inspected.
5. We have madrichim from every movement coming in to promote their camps and programmes. We also have a variety of Rabbis, ranging across the ideological spectrum (currently, all are coincidentally from the Orthodox Rabbinate) who teach small groups of students. We shall soon welcome three young Israeli women, each of whom has completed her army service in Israel with a Masorti Olami garin, to work in the area of informal Jewish and Hebrew education for a year.
Does this mean we are pluralistic? Perhaps. But we can say with certainty what we are not: we are not a school which sets behavioural demands for our students based on Halachah. Rather, we educate the students so that they have a comprehensive basis from which they can express their Jewish identity and live as Jews. Our curriculum reflects the reality of our Community – its variety of congregations, families, levels and nature of observance and identity.
In response to the following from Shlomo Kaye:
If a school does not have a specific ideological position and by implication, if all points of view are equally valid, doesn’t this seem to suggest that ultimately, what does prevail is a laissez faire type of set up where instead of equally competing points of view, there is a watering down or dumbing down of ideological positions or put more colloquially: a wishy washy school philosophy?
We certainly are not wishy-washy. On the contrary, our students are in daily contact with Jewish educators who are passionate about Judaism, even if their passion is expressed in different ways. They know who differs from whom on the staff, and yet they see the respectful and collegial way these differences enrich our school community. Above all else, they are challenged to think, understand, reflect upon what being Jewish does and can mean to themselves.
[Ed. Note – This post was originally written as a response to an unrelated posting, but a significant portion of it is relevant here. Parts not relevant to this discussion were edited.]
I’ve been thinking a lot about the pluralism debate of a few months ago as well, because I just finished a paper that dealt largely with that topic. I am also a product of the modern Orthodox day schools… Both my elementary and high schools (and college for that matter, I went to Stern) were ideologically modern Orthodox with a huge population of not necessarily Orthodox students. In both schools there were teachers that I loved and from whom I learned a tremendous amount. A few were approachable for deeper conversations, but I remember a definite border within teacher student relations. The schools were definitely traditional.
I also remember the struggles between the Orthodox administration and the non-Orthodox students. On the one hand, the administration had the accepted Orthodox standards to uphold. On the other hand, they had students, sometimes completely secular Israelis who had no idea why they had to pray every morning and sometimes sincere young women who wanted to lay tefillin every morning, constantly challenging these accepted norms.
The administration had no choice but to confront these issues and that’s what made the Jewish debates so alive for me, an Orthodox teenager and my Conservative, Reform and secular counterparts. We argued with each other and the administration, we delved into the texts to try to get answers to present to the administration and sometimes the administration didn’t give us the responses that we were looking for. Sometimes we thought the administration was hypocritical. Sometimes they inspired us with their forward thinking. But because there was the clear line of Orthodox thought as our baseline, the tension was alive and real.
In a pluralistic setting, what inspires a real passionate debate if all views are accepted? What do you fight for if everything is approved? I know, you can struggle with texts, with the Rabbis, but when you really get tired of the debate, you can always close the book. And if the progressive Jewish day school doesn’t really take texts seriously, is it really invested in “making Jews”?
I recently scanned a website of a community school where the curriculum outline devoted one year to learning how to learn Tanach and Mishna as part of an “Ancient Texts” curriculum. Tanach was not found anywhere else in the four-year curriculum. I was outraged. How could a school purport to be devoted to training young Jews to seriously engage in Jewish issues if they spend only one year on Chumash? Why bother? How can you even begin to debate if you don’t know how to get your hands dirty? (The rest of the curriculum reflected this very academic, hands-off attitude to Jewish texts).
When schools work within an Orthodox framework, they must deal with answers as well as questions. Ideologically pluralistic schools have the luxury, as well as the chisaron, of only having to deal with questions. What you’ve discovered is that, once you leave the Chareidi world, there are few purely non-pluralistic Jewish educational settings.
There are various definitions of pluralism. One reads, “a metaphysical theory that reality is not an organic whole but is composed of a plurality of independent entities whether material or spiritual or both – contrasted with monism.” Another, “A state or condition of society in which members of diverse ethnic, racial, religious or social groups maintain an autonomous participation in and development of their traditional culture or special interest within the confines of a common civilization.”
Diversity in Judaism may be our most important unifying principle. Look at some of the examples in our Jewish history:
a. During the Biblical period we had, among our people, monotheists and polytheists.
b. During the First Temple Period Israel was divided. The Northern kingdom, known as Israel, contained mainly people who worshipped other Gods, such as Baal and Astarte, as well as the God of Moses.
c. The return from the First Exile in Babylon attracted only a small part of the then existing Jewish nation.
d. During the Second Temple Period there appeared all kinds of conflicting movements: the Sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes, Rabbinites etc.
e. In the rebellion with Rome which led to the fall of the Second Temple Jews were divided and the zealots may have killed the moderates.
f. During the early Middle Ages, Judaism showed true pluralistic characteristics. This is because Jews lived in so many different countries and developed so many customs and spoke and wrote in so many different languages. In that sense it foreshadowed modern times. Maimonides’ writings received a mixed reception. His books were burned by his contemporary Jewish brethren. Today he is revered – particularly by the ultra–Orthodox and others.
g. During the rise of Chassidism their contemporary opponents, the Mitnagdim, acted furiously against them.
h. The division in contemporary life between the Jews on congregational lines, such as Reform, Conservative, Liberal, Reconstructionist and Orthodoxies of a dozen different kinds.
i. The extraordinary divisions between the Ashkenazi and Sephardi communities worldwide; some of the Orthodox in both camps neither intermarry nor accept each other’s Kashrut.
j. The division between Zionists and non-Zionists.
This is not a conclusive list of the litany of divisions between Jews but shows that we were, most likely, never as one in terms of beliefs, practices, customs etc., but were always a pluralist society.
What kind of pluralisms exist within Judaism? Professor Michael Rosenak – a modern Orthodox professor at Hebrew University – talks of at least seven categories: Liberal, Universal Theological, Sociological, Secular, Pragmatic, De facto/De Jure and Civic Political. About the latter he has written:
One may adopt, through a certain privatisation of religious life, a civic–political approach. Pluralism will then be respected as a juridical principle, which “leaves religion to the individual” and protects all citizens from possible encroachments upon their liberty. They are, in other words, free to practice their faith or to adhere to none. In the spirit of this approach, the courts in the United States, for example, defend religious pluralism, i.e. defend citizens from those faiths or “true believers” who may wish to act coercively upon others. A “pluralistic society” does not make public decisions about the truth of religions. It merely protects citizens against those who wish to impose their truths upon others. Many contemporary religious believers live comfortably with this approach; others are distressed by the compartmentalisation it implies, and the trivialisation of religion it intimates.
In principle Orthodox Jews oppose pluralism because they say it legitimates other forms of Judaism. In my opinion this is not so. By acknowledging the existence of new interpretations, one does not “legitimise” the new nor does one affect the former interpretation. If accepted as a principle or way of life (like democracy) pluralism simply permits divergent views of reality (religious, political etc) to live peacefully side by side. It makes no value judgements other than to say, “Please do not disturb or interfere with someone else’s vision of values”.
Pluralism is a theory about and a reflection of values and how people should live. One may not like that reality and one may wish to influence a change. This is perfectly acceptable under pluralism if one does not cross the line of good behaviour and above all of coercion – both physical (and most people would agree this can no longer be tolerated) as well as intellectual.
Pluralism is not a judge, nor judgmental, nor a value system. It does not determine or rank other value systems. Nor does pluralism “legitimate”, “authorise”, “confirm” or regularise anyone else’s interpretations of life. There is nothing reprehensible in acknowledging Secular/Haredi/Reform/Orthodox/Conservative practices to whatever they deem to be their view of the correct ethical and moral way of life. Acknowledgement or witnessing the practice of others does not mean authorisation or legitimisation. Some Rabbis advocate interreligious pluralism and support it with the following quotation: “Long ago the Rabbis declared that Judaism is not an exclusive route to salvation.” Also remember the famous quotation during the Hillel and Shammai’s debate that, “these and these both are the words of the living God.” Orthodox Jews, like extremist Muslims, have no problems with dialoguing with Christianity but engage in internecine strife with their own liberal co-religionists. Since one lives in a non-Jewish world, it would be suicidal not to “allow” non-Jewish religions to exist. Ergo, pluralism is acceptable outside of Judaism. However, inside Judaism for the Orthodox, pluralism is a kind of heresy.
Even the treatment of heretics in Judaism has changed radically over the ages. As recently as Spinoza’s time, perhaps more than 75% of Jews today would have been declared heretics. Once again, Rabbinic pragmatism came to the rescue with an “eruv”-like legal fiction: tinok shenishbah, the “child raised among the gentiles,” or “the child who has been kidnapped.” These people cannot be held responsible for their ignorance. They have been so overwhelmed by the process of emancipation and secularism, rampant in the world. Rabbi Sacks’ in his book, “One People,” states that tinokot shenishbu Jews are “Jews whose dissenting views are to be attributed to cultural and parental influence but not to personal conviction!”
If I understand correctly Orthodoxy’s opposition to pluralism within Jewry, they seem to think that the philosophy of pluralism is intrinsically opposed to Orthodoxy. How do Orthodox Jews come to that conclusion? Pluralism is not a religion, or a dogma that opposes or disallows. It encourages people to allow the existence of diverse religions and philosophies. If there is an “intrinsic” hidden agenda in pluralism it is NOT to oppose any “ism” or sect, but to oppose the imposition of one on another.
As an aside, let us not forget that pluralism, like democracy, is very much a friend of all minorities. Whilst I realise that the development of enlightenment and secularism has created problems for all religions, democracy and pluralism allow them to flourish unhindered and in freedom. As far as I know history, Jews have never suffered in truly democratic and pluralistic societies. The latter also are not known to start aggressive wars.
Yaakov Malkin has pointed out that the perceptions of Judaism, which are widely current today, are distorted by several fallacies. The most damaging is that Judaism is a uniform culture when in fact it is a changing, multi-faceted and dynamic national culture allowing for many ways of implementing its principles.
These processes of diversification and pluralisation have intensified in modern times due to secularisation, mass waves of immigration, and the concentration of a third of the Jewish people in the State of Israel, in which Jewish traditions and cultures from over one hundred countries now converge. In the Diaspora, groups affiliated with different trends of Judaism can lead separate lives and need not engage in social or political contact: there is no need to foster links between Lubavitcher or Satmer Hasidim, members of Temple Emmanuel and the secular circles associated with the Society for Ethical Culture in New York. In Israel, the dense togetherness forces all to mingle, at times in the same city, or the same neighbourhood, or even the same building. This encounter takes place within a democratic political culture, where governments depend on coalitions, and where every group is, either willingly or unwillingly, influenced by everyone else. These sustained contacts between various groups and trends of Judaism, as well as the growing number of marriages – now about a fifth – between members of different Jewish ethnic groups living in Israel, have increased the awareness of pluralism among secular and religious Jews. A secular educational policy that strives to develop awareness of all forms of Jewish experience and resists attempts to negate certain traditions or to favour one over another, has also contributed to this endeavour.
Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, a modern orthodox Rabbi – expounds most eloquently on the principles of pluralism:
The practice of pluralism is essential to the exercise of power. With use of power, more gets accomplished; correspondingly, more damage is inflicted if errors are made. Pluralism divides power; this guards against excesses. Pluralism distributes power so more interests are accommodated and fewer feel left out. …
Sometimes, pluralism shows up, even frustrates decision-making. But there is an offsetting gain – no one can wield power or carry out policy to a single, unlimited end. An article in the Wall Street Journal once reviewed the ten worst mass murders of the 20th century. They had one fact in common; not one of them was carried out by a democratic government.
…The etiquette of pluralism requires expressions of mutual respect and encourages listening to each other. Respect (for others) tempers the majority’s behavior and softens the minority’s feelings of being overruled. In this atmosphere of accommodation, there is a tacit agreement to disagree, yes, but never to delegitimize the other side. That would be too harsh and wounding.
… Delegitimation undermines pluralism; without pluralism, conflict cannot be managed. This inevitably leads to abuses in the exercise of power. Therefore, we have learned a new norm within the ethic of Jewish power. The system depends on a working principle: disagreement, yes; delegitimation, no. The Rabin assassination and the political process that preceded it have taught us that it is a grave sin to violate this limit.
… the practice of pluralism (allows) multiple, conflicting interests, each their own needs and rights. Since the nation is pledged to stay together, people will make trade-offs and compromises – which is to say they will accept frustrations and limitations along the way. Competing groups can live with these limitations as long as they feel that their fundamental dignity is being honored by the other and as long as the fundamental legitimacy of the system holds intact.
… Ultimately, pluralism is predicated on a greater respect for human dignity and capacity than are monolithic systems…
… Pluralism is made possible by the acceptance of limits. The first is built on the fact that human nature is infinitely varied yet infinitely limited … The second limit grows out of the recognition that there is a higher goal or unifying principle. Respect for that principle – God, covenant, democracy, Judaism etc. – sets a limit on my promulgation of my truth and on the advancement of my interest. The pluralist recognizes that however profound the clash of views or disagreement over a particular policy, the overarching unifying principle sets a limit on the tactics to be pursued in the conflict…
Limit is essential to covenant. The covenant itself sets limits – on God as well as humans! Only people who accept limits can live together in one society, or in one faith, or as one people. Perhaps this is why Judaism rules that only God is absolute; any human claim to be absolute is idolatry…
To repeat: disagreement – but not delegitimation – is the basic working principle of pluralism. Failure to practice this principle threatens civil war in Israel over the peace process – and kulturkampf, if peace is achieved. Failure to grasp its meaning is polarising the Jewish people in Diaspora as well; there, too, the threat of splitting into two bitterly feuding peoples looms large. The Rabin assassination is the early warning of an impending melt-down.
Rabbi David Hartman of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, expounded on pluralism as follows:
… Anyone who has ever studied Talmud understands that ours is a culture of disagreement, a tradition composed by a variety of points of view. This means that a Supreme Court that supports a plurality of values is not necessarily a “secular court”, a court that seeks to uproot the religious foundations of our culture.
The Talmud in Sanhedrin describes a crucial difference between Moses and Aaron: Moses believed in absolute and strict justice and always insisted on the implementation of the rule of law. Aaron, on the other hand, was more concerned with shalom, with peace and harmony among people. Aaron realized that in the human world, social peace and the implementation of the strict rule of law were not always compatible. “Where there is din (implementation of the strict rule of law) there is no shalom (social peace); where there is shalom there is no din.” Hence the Talmud says: “Where is shalom co-existent with din? When there is psharah (compromise).”
In other words, not all values are compatible in practice. Believing in values, therefore, does not mean believing in their full implementation and coexistence.
…When we speak of values and pluralism, we mean … that there is no one vision or one form of human life that can contain all the values that give meaning to human existence. No one system, no one community, no one religious faith has ever cornered the market on what is true and valuable. No individual person or society, no system or set of beliefs, exhausts all that is worthwhile in human life. Therefore, if you care about justice, you must worry about maintaining social harmony. If you care about freedom and individual liberty, you must worry about the inequality of opportunity and distribution. In order to realise a multiplicity of values, you must learn to settle for partial implementation and human compromise.
Pluralism is thus not about the absence of values, but about the abundance of values. And this has nothing to do with the relativity of values, but only with the multiplicity of values.
… A community of ideas and values cannot remain vital and alive without an exposure to alternative views and criticism. Self-righteousness and self- satisfaction are signs of cultural pathology rather than of health. If the Orthodox try to monopolise the marketplace of ideas because they fear that the presence of Conservative or Reform rabbis or of Christian or Islamic theologians weakens their influence, then I would say to them: you are committing cultural suicide by suffocating your own tradition’s possibilities for renewal and rethinking. Through criticism, you can reclaim your tradition; through criticism you can renew your convictions based upon deeper understanding …
… the richness of God’s gift to humanity requires of us that we develop a symphony of voices and views to celebrate diversity and multiplicity – not because we lack convictions, but because we believe in the infinite wisdom of God and in the vast array of possibilities for giving meaning to a human life.
Let us recognise that pluralism is as old as Judaism itself and has matured into a universally desirable philosophy. Pluralism, like democracy, has its negative aspects. They are both difficult and laborious to preserve and inefficient. However democracy and pluralism are still the best practices around and until we can find something equivalent and as humane let us stick with them.
I believe there are also essential elements of pluralism embedded in Jewish culture, particularly the Talmud. Although the Talmud is the book of choice to study for Orthodox yeshivas, and currently also in some secular institutions, it paradoxically also has important aspects of pluralism in it. As an example, the sanctity accorded to majority rule. It goes even a step further in that the majority rule in one age might be turned over in another age and become then the minority when a new majority rule may supersede another majority rule. Rabbi Judah said that individual opinions must also be registered in the Mishna because, although seemingly irrelevant after a majority ruling, later generations may decide to embrace these decisions as their own. Well, each generation, whilst alive, is the “later” generation, and we often make our own new rulings. That does not mean we are any more right or wrong than our predecessors or our successors. This is really very democratic and quite opposite to the culture of the religious who believe that the rulings of the Rabbi are sacrosanct.
Most curious, in my opinion, is the quite revolutionary and radical notion in the Talmud that we cannot value every problem, nor is there an answer to every question. This is embodied in the wonderful invention of teku which become a symbol for irreconcilable views and legitimates the fact that we simply cannot always find an answer. In fact, it is exactly the opposite to the freezing of answers as practised by many Orthodox. In the latter there are no notions of teku.
Teku is consistent with the saying in Pirkei Avot that the individual has the right to choose even when everything seems pre-determined. Without free choice as the foundation of morality we can neither sin nor do good.
Maimonides in Laws of Repentance 5:1, says:
Free will is bestowed on every human being. That man of himself and by the exercise of his own intelligence and reason knows what is good and what is evil and there is none that can prevent him from doing that which is good or that which is evil.
1This article originally appeared in Ten Da’at, Vol. XIII.
2Friday, September 8, 2000, pp. 1, 14.
3Ibid., p. 1. No specific source for these statistics was cited in the article. It is possible, however, that the statistics were gathered from the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education, a partnership of several major philanthropic foundations headquartered in Boston, MA. The Partnership’s executive director, Rabbi Joshua Elkin, Ed.D., is quoted later in the article, p. 14.
5The founders reported that approximately 550 of the 2,200 students (about 25%) enrolled in the two Catholic high schools in this community are Jewish.
6Rashi on Tehillim 119,126: “Our sages inferred from this verse that one may violate the Torah in order to create a hedge and fence (to protect) the Jewish people.”
7My stated position echoes that of the angel in Yehudah haLevy’s Kuzari who remarks: “[Even if] your intention is acceptable to the Creator, your deeds are unacceptable.”
8Talmud Bavli Sanhedrin 59a: R. Yohanan said: A gentile who engages in Torah is guilty of a capital crime, to wit: “Moshe instructed us in Torah, a heritage for the community of Yaakov.” It is our heritage and not theirs. What of the seven [Noahide] laws? R. Meir said: A gentile who engages in Torah resembles the High Priest. To wit: “Which a person should perform and live by them. “It doesn’t specify Priests, Levites or Israelites but a person. The conclusion: Even a gentile who engages in Torah resembles the High Priest when he [engages] in the seven [Noahide] laws!
9A halakhic precedent for this paradigm is found in Responsa Melammed LeHo’il vol. II (Yoreh De’ah) # 77.
10It may appear to some that there is not much of a curriculum for sheva mitzvot benei Noah. In fact, the subject is a vast field of halakhic endeavor, including some burning contemporary issues such as abortion, contraception, artificial insemination, Kiddush Hashem, organ transplants, living wills, divorce, marriage, etc. in which the obligations are different for a ben-Noah as compared to those of a Jew. For the uninitiated, I recommend two books: 1) J. David Davis: Finding the God of Noah: the Spiritual Journey of a Baptist Minister from Christianity to the Laws of Noah. (Hoboken, N.J.: Ktav, 1996; 2) Aaron Lichtenstein: The Seven Laws of Noah (New York: The Rabbi Jacob Joseph School Press, 1986). Both books make it clear that there are many more than seven commandments which benei Noah are obliged to keep.
11This article initially appeared on the Mifgashim reading list, https://www.lookstein.org/mifgashim/readings/yussman.htm
12Rosenak, Michael, Teaching Jewish Values: A Conceptual Guide, pp. 75-76.
13Hartman, David, Heart of Many Rooms, pp.202-203.
14Ibid, p. 118.
15Rackman, One Man’s Judaism, p. 25.
16Parker, Palmer. p. 132.