Inside and Outside Questions of Jewish Education

It’s been a while. Time to shave the stubble off of the blog’s beard and contribute some substance.  In doing some research on articulating my own philosophy of Jewish Education, I dug up some articles I had saved, and rediscovered a few gems. Here’s a sneak-peak at a paper I’m working on for a Jewish Education class at school:

It is no longer radical to assert that the North American Jewish milieu is at the tail end of a transition away from a world where clearly segmented Movements defined beliefs and behaviors, and people identified with them writ-large. Leaving behind a world where Jewish education came with an adjective attached to it (e.g. Reform Jewish education, Orthodox Jewish education, etc.), we now find ourselves in a world – an ecosystem – where families and students seek out teachers whose approach to Jewish life aligns with their own questions, in the quest for personal meaning making. This shift is most visible in the progressive end of the Jewish spectrum, but has also crept into the more liberal edges of Orthodoxy.

Daniel C. Petter-Lipstein, Chief Love Officer of The Jewish Montessori Society, eloquently describes this paradigm shift:

Now more than ever perhaps in the history of the Jewish people, the decision to live a life infused with religious purpose is very much derived from the intrinsic motivations and satisfactions that one believes comes from such religious commitment. Even if such motivation stems from a belief in divine commandment or historical or tribal fidelity, being religious (however one may define that term) is more than ever derived from a person’s inner life rather than outer force or influence.[1]

It is against this backdrop that Jewish education is evolving away from pedagogies which sought to answer the “outer” question, “What do Jews do?” and towards those which seek to answer the “inner” question, “Why be Jewish?

I find myself sitting between these two poles – believing that a rich and robust answer to the question “Why be Jewish?” is absolutely critical for engaging the vast majority of Jews today. That said, I am confident in and inspired by the strength of our millennia-old heritage which holds that Judaism is an active religion, that one must also know what to do as a Jew, and that is an Educator’s responsibility to impart this knowledge. To be sure, I believe that this has emerged as the primary challenge for Jewish leaders of our age: to discern how to get people close enough to us to see that what we offer them as human beings and as Jews is worthwhile.

I agree with Rabbi Daniel L. Lehmann’s approach to this challenge, which envisions Jewish education at its best as an endeavor which, “inspire[s] and equip[s] us to achieve the deepest aspirations of Judaism… [and] enhance[s] people’s engagement with the world by providing Jewish resources that enrich and encourage creating thinking and doing.”[2]

The Janusian thinking[3] at the heart of Lehmann’s vision reflects my own of an ecosystem of Jewish education that does not reject those things once held as incongruous: we must inspire and equip – arming learners with spiritual meaning and practical knowhow. We must have an engagement with the wider world and within our own Jewish milieu – not substituting universal liberal values for intrinsic Jewish ideals, but holding up both together. We must enrich and encourage – not simply meeting people where they are, but encouraging them to aspire to greater heights. And we must ultimately think and do – embodying the Torah’s principle of na’aseh v’nishmah – we will do and we will listen/understand. (Exodus 24:7).

[1] Petter-Lipstein, Daniel: Autonomy, Mastery and Religious Purposefulness in Jewish Education. http://bit.ly/11NySJJ

[2] Lehmann, Daniel: Toward Creativity: A Theological Goal for Jewish Education. http://bit.ly/1rQ53Nu

[3] Janusian thinking is the capacity to consider and utilize seemingly opposite or contradictory ideas simultaneously. See more at http://www.creativitypost.com/create/janusian_thinking

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