I question whether we are emphasizing the wrong enduring educational goal for the 21st century American Jew, namely Jewish identification.
by Paul Steinberg
One thing I know for certain about the Jews I serve is that they are thoroughly Americans. By that I mean that they are deeply individualistic and they are emphatically pragmatic. On the surface, these are not necessarily bad or immoral values. It essentially means that American Jews make their decisions based upon individual needs that benefit them, especially when they benefit them now. To be sure, however, it is individualism and pragmatism that have contributed to the many liberties that have afforded Jews unprecedented empowerment, as well as socio-economic and political success.
The problem that faces many Jewish educators, however, is that the curricular elements of Jewish learning, including Hebrew language, Jewish prayer, Jewish history, and even Torah itself – on the immediate surface level – do not directly meet the values of individualism or pragmatism. Moreover, there is no social motivation to care about these subjects given that most American Jews do not live in homogenous Jewish neighborhoods and communities. In other words, the content itself of the curricula and strategic implementation, which may have at one time been sufficient for a former sociology, no longer appears to motivate dedicated participation for many American Jews. Coupled with other independent B’nai Mitzvah training programs and the enthusiastic embrace of technology (albeit unproven as a viable substitute for direct human contact), individualism and pragmatism are being further nourished as acceptable values in pursuit of Jewish educational endeavors.
Thus far, what has been said here is nothing new to the ranks of Jewish educators. Our teachers, Jack Wertheimer, Jonathan Woocher, and many practitioners (including myself) have addressed the 21st century sociological challenge to a thriving, growing and authentic Jewish education program. We are excellent at identifying the problems – solutions, however, are few and far between.
At this point, I question whether we are emphasizing the wrong enduring educational goal for the 21st century American Jew, namely Jewish identification. That is not to say that teaching toward Jewish identity should not be a goal, but perhaps it should be a result of a grander and more robust approach that better aligns with American individualism and pragmatism, while still retaining the sense of integrity and authenticity of the tradition. I would like to therefore propose an old-new approach to reframing Jewish education, utilizing the lens of Dr. Viktor Frankl’s masterpiece, Man in Search of Meaning.
The first two-thirds of the book recount Frankl’s personal experience as a prisoner in concentration camps. However, his account is fundamentally intended to address the question: what was the mindset of the concentration camp prisoner? Yet, more than the psychological stages of victimhood, Frankl explores how it is that the inner life of some prisoners fell directly to apathy and hopelessness, often occasioning suicide, while others were able to relatively manage the suffering and not succumb to ultimate dread.
Frankl’s answer: meaning. The prisoners who managed the terror – even amidst the most grotesque, painful endeavors on a daily basis – showed signs of appreciation for beauty in nature and art, they were able to maintain a sense of humor, they were open to opportunities for simple joys, and they made clear efforts to be responsible for and help others. This, Frankl suggests, is because they retained a sense of self-respect and dignity, they made an inner choice that no matter the disgusting horror before them, they chose life and spiritual freedom. He writes:
“The experiences of camp life show that man does have a choice of action. There were enough examples, often heroic in nature, which proved that apathy could be overcome, irritability suppressed. Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind… [I]n the final analysis it becomes clear that the sort of person the prisoner became was the result of an inner decision, and not the result of the camp [i.e., environmental] influences alone.” (pgs. 65-66)
Of course, in no way can anyone compare life in America with a concentration camp or our students as prisoners. The point is that life is going to present challenges and, if there is anything Judaism can help our people with it is to understand their purpose and meaning, which will ultimately raise them above their circumstances. Frankl’s insight is that the route to living, truly living, in in appreciating one’s purpose through strength of principles and self-dignity. By having such dignity and principles we rise above our capacity and become more than human – we become mensches. He claims that the realization of one’s genuine uniqueness, our distinct Tzelem Elohim, is the fundamental building block to this process, along with our ability to go beyond ourselves and love another.
As a psychiatrist, Frankl goes on to say that many of the patients he later saw did not necessarily have clinical neuroses, but rather were experiencing an existential crisis of personal meaning and purpose. His therapeutic technique for such cases is what he calls “Logo-Therapy,” or meaning therapy, whereby he would question and guide a patient to discover their own personal meaning from within whatever experience or circumstance they found themselves.
I wonder: might we not apply a similar technique to Jewish education? Considering the importance of individual and pragmatic relevance in our current sociological climate – which declines in religiosity, yet increases in interest in personal spirituality and “self-help” – might we direct our curricular content and implementation toward meaning-rich objectives, rather than mere content knowledge or skills in the name of Jewish identification? Might we ensure that our new trend toward experiential means end with personal meaning gained? Let us then consider what we could call “Logo-Pedagogy,” teaching toward meaning.
Such an educational program may demand a reconstitution of curriculum set around meaning-rich themes. For example, if, as Frankls suggests, love, personal dignity, responsibility, and suffering are the contributors to discovering personal meaning, we might teach Torah and Rabbinics to demonstrate and deepen a student’s appreciation for how those real life experiences are represented in Judaism, making it both more individualized and practical. We can use didactic and experiential techniques for students to develop personal meaning from the treasures of Jewish wisdom. Let them first learn insight before knowledge; first find spirituality before identity. After all insight and spirituality are innate, knowledge and identity are social constructs acquired later in development.
Perhaps we can also teach ritual for its inherent spiritual intent, which is to point out the infinite significance of everything we do only communicated through symbols and poetry, not merely as a Jewish observance. We can teach that Kashrut and Shabbat ask us to discover meaning in every mundane aspect of our lives and to take nothing for granted, including how we shop, how cook, how we eat, how we rest, and how we play. We can also teach that prayer is a three way meditative communication between ourselves, the world, and God, the Source of Life. And, finally, we can teach that our rituals, prayer, and learning are always aspirational – not one of us is perfect in upholding our Judaism, but that we persist on honestly acknowledging our flaws and where we are in the process.
Some might balk and contend a baseline of knowledge precedes such higher learning toward meaning and that identity is first and foremost in fostering communal commitment. To that, I argue that it is never too early to teach and instruct toward meaning, it is simply a matter of how it is communicated and facilitated. Also, communal commitment will naturally follow from personal spiritual meaning because the spirituality necessitates responsibility and sharing, especially if it is framed from a Jewish perspective (which it obviously must). Others might say that they already do this kind of instruction. That is commendable. I only ask that there be an evaluative system that provides evidence that the meaning is truly being expressed on a personal level by each student.
Again, the polls and data in America show that religiosity is on a downturn, but spiritual seeking is not and perhaps even on the rise. I am concerned that the answer to our Jewish educational challenges is hidden in plain sight. The burden upon Jewish educators is not to implement best practices alone, nor is it certainly to carry the load of American Jewish sociology. Ours is the burden of having a vision of meaning in what Judaism represents through questions and values, and then guide students through the same process. The goal for this century is to move students to what Frankl deems Jewish spiritual freedom, not Jewish identity. The goal is to answer the why of Judaism, which is found directly only in meaning.
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 lectures at the Graduate School of Education at American Jewish University and is working on his doctoral dissertation at the Jewish Theological Seminary.