Photo: Bourgeoisbee via Flickr
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Jewish Education’s Ancient New Dilemma

Should teachers insist on transmitting timeless texts and traditions? Or is it time for a more radical, dialogue-based approach?

Malka Fleischmann
May 29, 2019
Photo: Bourgeoisbee via Flickr
Photo: Bourgeoisbee via Flickr

Years ago, I fell intensely in love with Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Traditional education, he wrote, turned students into “containers,” receptacles to be filled by a teacher whose narration couldn’t generate true curiosity or creativity. Real learning, according to Freire, could emerge “only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other.” To be a good teacher, then, an educator had to be revolutionary, giving up his or her innate power in order to form a dialogue-based partnership with the students.

When I began working in education, I desperately wanted to think of myself as a dialogical revolutionary. But, in Jewish education, absolute freedom in learning is especially complex. What happens if students utterly eschew ancient and sacred texts, canonized rituals and storied historical narratives? Can a Jewish educator truly cede his or her power to the students, just praying that their reinvented Judaism remains recognizable?

This issue has long sat at the heart of an ongoing discussion Jewish educators of all stripes continue to have, a discussion that raises more questions than answers.

Our own tradition’s laconic proverb perhaps best encapsulates the paradox: Teach a child according to his way; even in old age he won’t swerve from it.

This is the verse, revealing a tension as old as scripture itself, that inspires and plagues the world of Jewish educators. If, as most translations and commentators presume, “it” refers to the Jewish tradition itself, then we are meant to personalize our teaching, reaching the unique depths within each Jewish child we instruct, but with the overarching agenda to preserve an entire people’s tradition. We want them to feel profoundly connected to the religion—to see theirs as essential voices within the ever-unfolding conversation that marks the pulse of Judaism—but we want them to be the bearers and guardians of external voices and of something that long preceded their contributions.

This tension has been the basis of a series of conferences that my organization, The Jewish Education Project, has launched this year. Partnering with Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah, Chicago’s UpStart, and San Diego’s Leichtag Foundation, and supported by UJA Federation of New York and the Jim Joseph Foundation, we began a series of conversations that sought to probe the changing contours of power in our society—the seeming democratization of power and proliferation of DIY culture—and their inevitable impact upon the world of Jewish education.

It was at our Chicago conference, though, when Benay Lappe chronicled her own rabbinic journey and her founding of SVARA, “a traditionally radical yeshiva dedicated to the serious study of Talmud through the lens of queer experiences,” that the tensions between preservation and personalization and those embedded within the student-teacher relationship in Jewish education felt, for me, most acute.

Bold and articulate, and also somehow elegantly laced with swear words, Lappe’s speech adjured our audience of educators to be co-learners alongside their students. Lappe wants the teacher to “check her ego” and communicate to students that she does not possess all the knowledge they need, tacitly or explicitly encouraging them to offer their own ideas, rather than merely receive what’s already known. Quoting a maxim widely varied in its interpretations, “If you see the Buddha on the road, kill him,” Lappe dismissed the notion that we can know who and what—which leaders and which ideas—are enlightened. Humility and democratization are the wiser course.

And I believe her. I believe that Lappe’s students voraciously tackle their study of Talmud, a thousands-year-old text, with fresh eyes and in ways that feel culturally resonant and personally meaningful. I believe that, as with any human interaction, Lappe’s stepping away from the center of the discussion gives her students permission and safety to venture forward with a sense of empowerment.

But maybe these sorts of learning environments feel successful because they boast self-selecting populations of interested students who opt to examine ancient text. Maybe they work because the students are adults. Maybe they work because the teachers achieve the perfect balance, or maybe the balance is an illusion. Maybe they’re acquiring an existent body of knowledge—complete and authentic—or maybe they’re inventing something entirely new.

The five speakers on our student and young professionals panel, as if with practiced harmonization, formed a chorus intent on personalization and reinvention. The I-know-and-you-don’t posture of expert educators and highly literate Jews is repellent to them. They want a Judaism that honors their personal and more universal values, welcomes all levels of understanding, and is pliant.

And they are not alone: Most available surveys show that young Jews want a Judaism that conforms to the times and their own sensibilities. They want blessings without liturgy, Shabbat without synagogue, and holidays without Torah reading. They want a shape-shifting cultural touchstone that offers spirituality, but not at the hands of clergy.

Truth be told, I believe that Judaism—and, really, all the world—holds the human at its very center. I believe, as I’ve written elsewhere, that people must be our primary content if Judaism is meant to burrow and bloom somewhere inside of us. That, as Freire says, “Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention.” That we wed ourselves to this tradition and find our place within it by exploring the euphony and discordance of our own voices with those of our ancestors. That we find meaning, purpose, access, and obligation when we believe that ours is a critical commentary enfolded within millennia of exegesis. After all, our tradition has been layering upon itself—laws, practices, beliefs, and ideals—since its birth. So why would today’s layering result in a Judaism any less authentic than that which preceded it?

But that’s just it. Layering is different than originating or erasure.

We know that sound doesn’t travel in vacuums. That we are essentially voiceless if our opinions cannot bounce off of a world of noises and objects that surround them.

That just because people are our primary content, doesn’t necessitate or allow for their being our first and foundational content. First give them Judaism and levels of literacy that grant them access, I say, and then let them rail against it.

But the question of power remains. Which is a more profound thievery—to give learners foundational Jewish knowledge upon which they can layer their own voices or, with a nod to their intellectual and spiritual freedom, to not compel traditional Jewish learning or implant lessons of old?

John Holt, an educator wedded to the unschooling theory, wrote, “Young people should have the right to control and direct their learning, that is, to decide what they want to learn, and when, where, how, how much, how fast, and with what help they want to learn it.”

But, when it comes to matters of faith—whether in religion, certain morals, ideals or a particular way of life—how faithful is an adult who feels no sense of obligation to impart his beliefs upon the younger generation? If it’s Judaism we cherish, what kinds of Jews, parents and adults, are we if we don’t care at all about sharing it with the children we raise and love? In other words, can we be truly revolutionary and fully heed the call of young people to cede expertise and power when the elements we cherish, love, and believe are at stake? When there are things that we’re convinced they must know in order for something—them or Judaism itself—to survive?

Yet, while these questions of power and faith remain, the reality of control reigns supreme.

Towards the end of her talk, Lappe said two more things that struck me: “You just have to be a great learner and model it at the front of the room,” and, quoting one of her favorite sayings, “As teachers, we think we’re teaching what we know. We hope we’re teaching what we believe. But we can only ever really teach who we are.”

Even if we give our children all the Jewish knowledge that we possess, what they glean and what they choose to carry with them is beyond our control. And so, in every Jewish educational institution and in all Jewish homes and learning environments, curricular choices will be negotiated and made. What is nonnegotiable, however, must be the ever-presence of the humanity, curiosity, and love with which we teach.


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Malka Fleischmann is a writer and educator living in New York City.