VISIONTradition, Light and Hope: A Vision for Jewish Education

24 March 2019

“We are committed to educating ourselves and our children about our tradition. Our legacy includes the Hebrew language and the languages of the diasporas. The words of the sacred literature have been a generative core of our secular writing, music, art, politics and science. As each of us learns more about our own culture, we can better appreciate the experiences of others. As we grow in Jewish learning, we are better able to contribute creatively in any and all fields of endeavour”

-“A Modern Jewish Credo”, Times of Israel, 3 January 2019

Judaism reveres freedom. Jews can only thrive as a distinctive people through the freely-given commitment of future generations. The nature, meaning and potential appeal of the Jewish experience grows with study. I would propose a vision for Jewish education that is based on:

  • Tradition: reviewing, analyzing, understanding and living the spiritual, intellectual and emotional legacy of a civilization that has endured and developed through millennia;
  • Light: the impact that Judaic civilization has had in the wider world on virtually every area of human endeavor, and;
  • Hope: how the Jewish people are still striving towards a better future for themselves and for all, including the current and expected further contribution of Israeli science and technology.

Learning should be experiential and communal; this involves not only the study of texts in isolation, but exchanges between teachers and fellow learners in an atmosphere of free inquiry. Venues can be Jewish day schools, day camps, university programs or study trips.

Israel needs to develop study experiences that replace the earlier role of the Kibbutz for both Jewish and non-Jewish visitors to Israel which are enjoyable and immersive, generating among most participants a lasting respect and affection for the Jewish experience. These educational programs – most of which could be done in a matter of weeks or months, not entire semesters or years – would aim to:

  • Integrate the three dimensions of tradition, light and hope; it is not enough to know that a political leader, scientist, or creative person happened to be Jewish; rather, we must ask questions, such as:

− whether, or how, did their Jewish experiences influence or resonate in their life and work?

− what, if any, were the connections between their life and adventures with the whole chain of Jewish traditions, all the way back to biblical times?

  • Engage the learner’s own individual interests and passions; a learner’s passion might be mathematics.

The “Priestly” passages of the bible exhibit an obsession with order, infused by an attention to numbers, e.g. the sequence of days in creation and the dimensions of sacred architecture. In Hebrew, letters also serve as numbers, and the method of Gematria explores with verve and imagination the meanings conveyed by the numerical value of words. Jewish tradition, including the work of Rav Soloveitchik, has explored the challenge of coping with infinities in both mathematics and physics; Luria’s Kabbalistic theology included tzimtzum, the idea that an infinite deity had to leave space for finite creatures – human beings, to engage their own creativity. And what are some of the current areas of focus for Israeli mathematicians? To name but a few: artificial intelligence, game theory, and the computer science of accident avoidance and autonomous driving technologies.

  • Introduce students to complex ideas by focusing on stories of particular individuals:

Jewish tradition tends to explore abstract ideas by telling stories. This is still a powerful means to attract interest, promote understanding, leave enduring memories and provide questions worthy of life-long exploration.

For example: a student’s passion might be music. Individuals whose stories and works might be studied could include, for instance, Harold Arlen, the Gershwins, Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, or Arik Einstein. A course on “tradition, light and hope” might begin with the earliest texts in Judaism, including their imaginings of the angels, and on praises of the eternal one.

The Levite priests in the Temples were virtuoso singers; we have the attestations of holy books, like Chronicles, and secular historians such as Josephus. The cantillation marks in the Jewish bible mean that the written word is a beginning, the radiant pulse of meaning casting out in all dimensions. One of those dimensions is musical.

Music is pervasive in the Jewish tradition; in chanting from the Tanakh, we sing narratives, poems, laws, and architectural formulae. The Hasidic movement moved beyond textual study, fascinated with melodies.

When Jews were able to contribute to secular music, they were heavily affected by those traditions; they were open to the existence of multiple systems, not just a mainstream one; to the experience of having their own musical tradition, and the experience of being outsiders. They engaged with other outsider musical idioms, such as rural folk music, African-American spiritual music and jazz. The profound Jewish connection of words to music resonates in the Broadway musical – an essentially Jewish creation. The Popular music scene is vibrant in Israel, and mixes many streams of Jewish tradition, including that which has flowed to Israel from North Africa and the East.

Next steps:

  • Educators of Judaism should actively create Tradition, Light and Hope programs in dozens of disciplines;
  • The government of Israel should see TLH programs as replacing and improving on the role of the Kibbutz movement, as a means of attracting visitors to Israel and to the Jewish experience;
  • Study materials based on TLH could be created in dozens of disciplines, for use in Jewish schools, summer camps, universities, and on the internet;
  • The World Jewish Museum could go beyond hosting TLH exhibits but also play a central role in encouraging the production of TLH content for wide distribution.
  • The government of Israel, the world Jewish Museum and other potential partners should also consider establishing a residential and study campus in Israel that would host students coming to Israel for TLH programs. Learners there might participate in a program that broadly surveys Judaism from a TLH perspective before the learner moves on to a more specific program in the learner’s area of interest.
  • TLH campuses might also be established in various locations in the Diaspora.

Read more about Tradition, Light and Hope here.