Jewish Education in 2013: Placing Torah at the Center

by Paul Steinberg

“Change happens” as the axiom goes, and there is no doubt that the first dozen years of the twenty-first century has brought great change to American Jewish life. American Jews are simply different now and rabbis and Jewish educators are continuously experimenting with ways to appeal to the twenty-first century Jew. We constantly ask: how can we guide and inspire Jews this year to be a part of our Jewish community so that they live Jewish lives, engage in Jewish ideas, and ultimately preserve our distinct wisdom and identity for another generation? And while the question has been asked before, it really does seem harder today than it ever was.

For some answers to this question, Dr. Jonathan Woocher, one of the great contributors to Jewish educational thought, recently delineated the sociological developments that have effected the collective Jewish psyche of the twenty-first century.[i] He details eight trends that speak to the complex nature of today’s Jew. Accordingly, today’s Jew appreciates diversity and maintains a hybrid identity that networks, embracing different communities at the same time while not officially joining. Today’s Jew has a strong sense of self-autonomy and defines his or her own Judaism. Today’s Jew is technologically savvy and likes to run programs rather than simply participating in them.

Woocher then goes on to suggest how Jewish educators might address these sociological developments. The first is “placing learners at the center.” That is to say that the educational program should not be a “top-down, professionally driven enterprise, but that learning and curricula should “grow out of the learners’ lives” and that “learners and their families are co-producers of their learning experiences.” This makes a lot of sense. Yet, when we speak of placing the learners at the center, a part of me hesitates.

Frankly, the idea of placing learners at the center reminds me of an important chapter in The Courage to Teach, Parker Palmer’s masterpiece on teaching and spirituality. Palmer writes of the profound nature of the community wherein education and teaching happens. He says, “Community, or connectedness, is the principle behind good teaching” and that, “Good teachers replicate the process of knowing by engaging students in the dynamics of the community of truth.”[ii] Palmer’s notion of a community of truth is the key idea here. When he emphasizes that education happens within a community of truth, the “center” of education whether it is the teachers or learners shift to a third possibility. He continues:

“Perhaps the classroom should be neither teacher-centered nor student-centered but subject centered. Modeled on the community of truth, this a classroom in which teachers and students alike are focused on a great thing… When student and teacher are the only active agents, community easily slips into narcissism, where either the teacher reigns supreme or the students can do no wrong…. True community in any context requires a transcendent third thing that holds both me and thee accountable to something beyond ourselves, a fact well known outside of education. In religious life, when a community attaches ultimacy to its ordained leadership or to the mass mind of it members, it will fall into idolatry until it turns to a transcendent center that can judge both parishioners and priests.”[iii]

I recommend that we apply Palmer’s notion of a community of truth to our synagogues, Hebrew Schools, and Day Schools, placing Torah at the center as our great subject. It should be Torah – in the broadest sense of the word – that “third thing” that compels us, binds us, motivates us, and holds us accountable. As Parker suggests of religious life, I have observed the temptation of giving supremacy to the rabbi and the mass of members for the sake of membership or marketing and, indeed it quickly becomes idolatry. If this is what is meant by “placing learners at the center,” then I oppose it.

Good rabbis and teachers do not put themselves or the student in the center of the learning circle, but place that great subject – Torah – at the center. It is then Torah and not a person that makes the demand on all of us, calling us to ask more questions, explore it, and synthesize it in a relevant way that reaches into our unique community and each one of us. When Torah is at the center it becomes a sacred vessel of embodied spirituality and mindful living of which we can bear witness and of which we are a part. That is, in fact, how Jewish educators see Torah – as a magnificent thing that is wondrous and interesting that inspires us to constantly learn more and live better. When Torah is at the center, we see the evidence in students pursuing the subject by asking and even challenging the teacher because they are invested and have learned something of the subject independent of the teacher.

In order to accomplish this, however, we need a shift of mindset about teaching and teachers: we need to value, raise, and foster more good Jewish studies and Hebrew School teachers through their own learning and collegiality. After all, these teachers are truly the first responders to the Jewish educational and sociological dilemmas that we face, yet we often abuse and devalue them by demanding more of them than any other teacher. Our teachers must themselves have ongoing and frequent opportunities, such as staff development meetings, to come together as colleagues and transform their individual knowledge and wisdom of the subject and this complicated craft into collective wisdom. For the greatest success, teachers should never compete, as No Child Left Behind would have it, but in fact collaborate.

Good teaching and learning must first be modeled among the teachers themselves in order for them to bring it to life amongst students and families. Therefore, our Jewish schools must invest in providing for them to engage in consistent conversations around the mystifying process of teaching and learning, for there is no formulaic answer to Jewish education, no technique or program du jour that is going to meet any sociological challenge or change. There is nothing beyond the passion and talent of a dynamic teacher that is capable of putting the subject at the center.

So, how can we guide and inspire Jews today to be a part of our Jewish community in 2013 so that they live Jewish lives, engage in Jewish ideas, and ultimately preserve our distinct wisdom and identity for another generation? Through the integrity, creativity, passion and identity of teachers (as well as rabbis and the leadership) invested in the process of their community of truth.

Rabbi Paul Steinberg is the Senior Educator at Valley Beth Shalom in Los Angeles, CA and is the author of the award-winning series, Celebrating the Jewish Year (JPS, 2009). He also teaches at the Graduate School of Education at American Jewish University and is working on his doctoral dissertation in education at the Jewish Theological Seminary

[i] Woocher, J. (2012). Reinventing Jewish education for the 21st century. Journal of Jewish Education, 78 (3), 182-226.

[ii] Palmer, Parker. (1998). The Courage to Teach.  San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass, p. 115.

[iii] Ibid, 116-117.

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  1. says

    Paul, I very much appreciate your thoughtful contribution to an important discussion. I suspect that the distance between our positions is not as great as may initially appear, and I certainly agree with Parker Palmer about the importance of both a community of learners and of seeing education as an act of self-transcendence and connection to something of value beyond ourselves (else, how does growth take place). In proposing that we put “learners at the center” of our thinking and practice, I certainly do not want to encourage a narcissistic or solipsistic focus on the “self” as the measure of all value (nor is education merely about “crowd-sourcing”). However, my question is how we encourage today’s learners to engage enthusiastically, deeply, critically, and impactfully with “Torah” in all its multifariousness and complexity. For this, I would argue, appreciating and empowering learners in all their multifariousness and complexity is essential. So, perhaps what is at the center is actually the relationship we are trying to help learners build with “Torah,” a relationship that develops in large measure through their relationship with the educator and their fellow learners. Palmer’s description reminds me a great deal of Buber’s writings about community: what truly creates community is not the relationships along the circumference of the circle, but the shared relationship to a Center that gives the community purpose and vision. I hear you suggesting that for Jewish education, Torah must be that center, and you are right. But, the learner, in her/his fullness as an I and a Thou must be part of that relationship as well. And, in my view, that element has too often been submerged in our educational practice when we put the subject matter at the center and lose the individual. In the end, I continue to believe that Rosenzweig had it correct: in Jewish learning today, the journey must be from life to Torah and back. Perhaps that whole cycle is the center, or at least the “essence” of Jewish learning for the 21st century.

    Again, thanks for an important statement. Shabbat shalom.

  2. Paul Steinberg says

    Jonathan, Thank you so much for the response. Having read so much of your work, I am sure our positions are very near, especially on the importance of relationships in learning and in ensuring relevance to the learners. The root of my hesitation regarding the phrase, “placing learners at the center” is that I have found that in difficult times organizations are vulnerable to compromising their principles. In difficult times an organization may like to rely upon the dynamism of an individual to carry them through, which may not be bad as long as that leader has integrity and carries the conviction of the institutional values. Or, out of fear and paranoia, an institution may begin to cater down to the loudest critics and risk diverging from the core institutional values. This can happen on a classroom level when a teacher gives in to student or a few students out of a feeling of despair. It can also happen on a school and institutional level, even in very subtle ways. I worry that one might misinterpret “learners at the center” for this latter understanding. Therefore, I merely wanted to inject Palmer’s voice into the conversation because I believe that he encourages us to remember that however we may adapt to the sociological challenges of the 21st century, that it is our vision of Torah and Judaism – its collective wisdom, values, and approach to living a good life – that is our purpose and the connective tissue that laces our communities together. The learners are important yet they are bound by something far more significant. They are bound together to us, to the community, to the collective consciousness of our people, and to the past, present, and future by our Torah and Judaism. In that sense, I like the notion of “subject centered.”

  3. Nina Price says

    I have enjoyed reading this interchange between Rabbi Steinberg and Dr. Woocher. I would like to contribute a slightly different perspective to the conversation by asserting that alignment among the various elements of the learning environment, rather than concern over what is specifically at the center, should be the focus of our attention. This approach of alignment is promoted in the book How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School (2000). Drawing upon recent brain-based research, this book suggests that the design of educational environments should bring into question and take into account four different centers or lenses that encompass the complexity of the learning experience. These lenses are: learner-centered, knowledge-centered, assessment-centered, and community-centered.

    The learner-centered lens not only advocates the type of learner empowerment addressed by Dr. Woocher, but it also recognizes the importance of beginning instruction by taking into account learners’ preconceptions and prior knowledge. The knowledge-centered lens addresses the core subject matter to be taught, such as the focus on Torah advocated by Rabbi Steinberg, and encourages educators to think deeply about what mastery of a subject looks like and what it means for learners to become competent within a discipline. Unlike Rabbi Steinberg’s portrayal of students questioning teachers as a sign of engagement in a subject beyond the teacher, the knowledge-centered lens may assert that questioning is a core concept and practice at the center of the discipline of Torah study and accordingly teachers must intentionally include it in the design of any Jewish learning environment. The assessment-centered lens reminds educators of the importance of ongoing feedback within the learning process, which heightens learner empowerment through emphasizing meta-cognition and simultaneously reinforces core ideas, such as Torah, by providing opportunities for learners to regularly demonstrate their understanding. The community-centered lens touches upon the importance of learning in community, which is advocated by both Rabbi Steinberg and Dr. Woocher, and further raises the key point that a sense of community can nurture learning by encouraging a culture of asking questions, taking risks, and mutual support. The relationship advocated by the community-centered lens not only addresses the relationship with the subject matter, such as fostering a connection to Torah, but it also notes the importance of building relationships based on respect and trust within the learning environment.

    After presenting these four lenses for approaching the design of a learning environment, How People Learn then emphasizes the importance of alignment among these different centers. Such alignment requires individual teachers and institutions as a whole to engage in professional development and ongoing reflection so that they can be aware of how learning is taking place and optimize the various elements of the learning experience to support growth and understanding. I look forward to continuing to see how this conversation evolves. For those educators interested in learning more about How People Learn, the full text of the book can be downloaded at Shabbat Shalom and Chodesh Tov!

  4. David I. Bernstein says

    Paul, I read your article with great interest. At a time when so many Jewish educational institutions and organizations feel (understandably) pressured to water down expectations, and to cater to the lowest common denominator, you present an alternative model, that of the Great Ideas.
    For Jewish education, that means Torah, broadly defined. For it is not only the Great Ideas and the stories of Torah that are challenging to young and old, but also the quest itself that can be exciting.
    Perhaps one way to address Jonathan Woocher’s concern for the learner is to use the traditional “chevruta” (paired peers) study method, which can engage the students and allow them not only to decode, but also to begin the process of meaning-making from the texts on their own. This kind of peer teaching helps students to “own” the text. (Of course, it is not the right method for all audiences and under all circumstances, but which method is?)
    In my experience, I have seen it be successful with young adults with little or no training in Jewish learning — precisely because with the right texts, it engages the students directly, allowing (even forcing!) them to speak with each other about the content, without the intermediary of the teacher. The mere act of having to articulate one’s thoughts, combined with the active, critical role of a learning partner, leads to sharper and deeper questioning and understanding.
    The role of the teacher can then be to act as a resource, and the playing field is leveled as all have encountered the sources directly, and a true “community of truth” can be created. This community will now encompass many different points of view, with the text at the center but with maximal student engagement in the learning process.
    If we truly want more Jewish engagement, then increasing Jewish literacy and knowledge is certainly one way to get us there. Deepening the level of Jewish discourse, while remaining open to many views, can unlock the untapped energy of the next generation.