An Educational Manifesto

Part I The Problem (Ideas #31)


Traditional Judaism was long based on authoritarian structures which paralleled structures of the general pre-Modern world. Most significantly, faith in a Creator had long been a nearly universal norm. Thus, while Judaism, per se, was not consonant with society around it, G-d was at the center of how people understood their world.

While this is not the place to properly review changes brought about by the Modern era, it may be helpful to remind the reader about some of the great upheavals that directly impact on religious continuity. Modern thinking opened up all realms to free inquiry, leaving nothing to dogma. One of my first teachers, perhaps inadvertently, summarized the impact on Judaism when he said that contemporary acceptance of the Torah is no longer characterized by na'aseh venishma (we will do and we will understand), but rather by nishma vena'aseh (we will understand and we will do). Whether we are conscious of it or not, our zeitgeist impels us to understand what we believe and why we believe it.

Modernity also challenged the authority of the elites by pronouncing all men to be equal. As such, rabbinic authority was severely compromised, opening the way for the various movements that arose independently of the traditional rabbinate's hegemony on ideology.

In our own times, as Modernity continues to unfold and develop, the last authoritarian stronghold to fall is the family. In accordance with the Democratic idea, older children are choosing whether or not to listen to their parents. Of all structures, this is arguably the most critical to Judaism. And yet, we see it falling nonetheless.

Moreover, today we see faith in a virtual state of siege. Even those that proclaim to believe in a Creator rarely explain the world around them in more than mechanistic terms. This is undeniably having an impact on our own ranks, as reflected in the following quote from a  talk of Rav Wolbe z.l:

It seems to me that education in faith is really weak today. You have to start talking about faith already in cheder, telling the students that they were created from God, explaining how it is He who gives them life. He gave the Torah that they are learning. Then later in yeshiva ... you have to talk more about faith.

Such an educational need has arisen because these things are no longer assumed in the surrounding society. Schools do not teach that we need to eat food or that the sun keeps us warm, because these ideas are universally accepted. Once faith has lost its universal acceptance, attentive teachers like Rav Wolbe will see a need to "teach" it.

In spite of Orthodoxy's extremely mixed record, the dominant approach in this sector towards Modernity has been to isolate ourselves from general society, its paradigms and questions. This has not only been the approach to education, but to thought as well, as the philosophical investigations of the rishonim (medieval scholars) were shunned for more narrow textual study, focusing mostly on understanding the how and when as opposed to the what and why.

The ability to isolate ourselves from the assumptions of society around us, however, has of late become severely compromised. Two trends have made Orthodox society extremely permeable, to the point where Modernity is confronting the previously most isolationist segments of our society. The first trend is the increasing dependence on media, and particularly the Internet, necessitated by participation in the marketplace. The second trend is the greater exposure to the non-Orthodox brought about by the influx of ba'alei teshuva in the last few decades (as well as our contact with a greater number of defections from the Orthodox community). Thus, the continued usefulness of the isolationist strategy is becoming more and more questionable.

Almost all Jews today live part of their lives in contact with modern Western culture. In many subtle ways, this culture competes with Judaism for our loyalty. Unconsciously, many of its values become incorporated into our worldview without our even realizing it. An obvious and dangerous example is the growth of consumerism among all but the most careful circles. Consumerism is defined here as spending inordinate amounts of time and effort on consumer choices and believing that these choices help define our identity.

The above analysis leads to the conclusion that Jewish faith and values can no longer be assumed as cultural norms even within the most conservative segments of Orthodoxy. As such, we must consciously and explicitly teach our beliefs to ourselves and our children, with the realization that the assumptions and freedom of modern society ultimately gives our children a much greater prerogative to reject these values. While these assumptions may not be ones with which we agree, under the present circumstances, we have no choice but to work within them, believing that we have good reason to expect success in the free market of ideas and lifestyles. Thus, we must learn how to compete for the hearts and minds of our own children as well as for the hearts and minds of others. In our day, there are few, if any, voices presenting a clear strategy on how to do this. Rather, we muddle along, focusing on performance of mitzvot and Torah study in a cultural vacuum.

Instead of a fixed plan to deal with the causes of the current malaise that exists in Orthodoxy, people are merely dealing with the symptoms. While we may salute the courage of the Jewish Observer in acknowledging and addressing the issue of dropouts, like the vast majority of efforts, it isolates the problem to the individuals and not to problems with the system as a whole. The same can be said of the myriad forums that are trying to deal with the variety of marriage/family/ parenting issues that are more and more apparent within our ranks. While focusing on individuals is much more palatable to the dominant conservative forces within Orthodoxy, in the long run it is doing us a disfavor.

One obvious arena that must be addressed in dealing with the problem outlined above is our educational system. Essentially based on the Eastern European yeshiva model, its focus is on giving students the ability to study texts. The European yeshiva curriculum was aimed at providing two goals for its elite student body: 1) proper mastery of the Talmud and accompanying literature to provide the necessary expertise from which to reach halachic decisions, and 2) enhancing the spirituality of the students in a mystical fashion, grounded in the questionable idea that more involvement in Torah study will bring about a stronger connection to G-d. In the contemporary context these two goals are clearly insufficient. While traditional study itself, if done well, can be invigorating, it is not enough to give today's culturally ambivalent student an understanding and internalization of classical Jewish beliefs and values, and thus motivate him to devote his life to G-d.

Thus, what is needed is a complete re-evaluation of what we study and how we study it, in accordance with what most of our children will need in order to flourish within our religious tradition.

*I am focusing on Orthodox Judaism, as I believe it to be the only serious link to our religious heritage. Orthodoxy is the only movement that has preserved our loyalty to Jewish law and the movement that has best maintained the core values enshrined in our classical texts. As such, I view Orthodoxy as having a responsibility to the entire Jewish people and not only to denominational adherents.