By Aryeh Ben David
Jewish education has experienced 2 distinct stages during the last 40 years.
The first stage was educating for content.
Beginning in the early 70s, centers of Jewish learning opened up throughout Israel and the US. Men and women sought to take control of their Jewish identities by becoming literate in classic Jewish sources. Our goal was to become knowledgeable Jews with educated Jewish minds.
Soon the Jewish book-publishing world took off. Formerly inaccessible works became available and accessible to the masses. The Talmud had a Hebrew translation, then a user-friendly English one. Annotated commentaries on the Torah, the Zohar, and Jewish thought, as well as online Jewish education classes, proliferated. Jewish content became accessible, overnight, for both the more and less learned Jew.
Acquiring Jewish knowledge is essential. But absorbing pages of Talmud, commentaries on the Bible, and literacy in Jewish philosophy does not automatically affect or improve our lives. We can become very knowledgeable Jews without becoming better people. The ‘shadow-side’ of this approach slowly emerged: educating for content can easily promote an ego-driven Torah, emphasizing ‘who knows best, who knows more, who is the smartest’.
Jewish education then moved to its second stage: educating for the sake of connection.
We have focused on acquiring content for generations. After stage 1, the yearning shifted from the quest for knowledge to the desire for personal connection. The driving question became “How can we make Jewish learning meaningful, engaging, and resonant?” Words like “meaning” and “mindfulness” entered the Jewish educational lexicon. Suddenly the goal was to bring Jewish learning into our hearts and feel a deeper personal connection to the sources.
Bringing Jewish learning into our hearts and deepening our personal connection to Jewish wisdom is essential. But achieving personal connection may not necessarily make us better people. We can become deeply connected to our learning without our learning affecting or improving our behavior. This type of learning may not necessarily affect and catalyze positive behavioral change. The ‘shadow-side’ of this approach is that it can lead to narcissistic behavior, focusing on: ‘how do I feel? What do the sources do for me? Are they making me happier? Are they increasing my well-being?’
The first stage of Jewish education, connected to our minds, asked the question – “What do I know?” The second stage of Jewish education, connected to our hearts, asked the question – “Am I connected to what I know?” Both stages addressed the needs of their times, and yet both came with ‘shadow-sides’.
We are now ready for the next step, for the third stage of Jewish education: educating for life. Educating to make us better people.
The third stage of Jewish education asks the questions – “How can I bring my learning into my life? How does what I know and my personal connection to this knowledge change me? How is Jewish education making me a better person?”
2,000 years ago, Judaism instituted the reciting of blessings before eating. The goal of saying a blessing is not only to know the words and meaning of the blessing. The goal of saying the blessing is not only to feel connected to the words of the blessing. The goal of the blessing is ultimately to affect me and transform how I eat.
The test of saying a blessing is whether it changes how I actually eat.
Similarly, the goal of learning Torah is not only to know content, and not only to be connected to what I know.
The test of learning Torah is whether it changes how I actually live.
The third approach radically transforms the process of teacher-training and our whole educational system. The test is not how well the student understands the subject matter or how connected the student is to the material, but how much this knowledge and connection affect the student – after the class is over.
Learning well and personally connecting to the subject matter are essential steps in bringing our students to the third stage. We want the “aha” moments of personal awakening and excitement. But these moments are not the ultimate goal of Jewish education.
The most important moment in Jewish education occurs after the class is over – in life. Jewish education needs to give us the tools for becoming our best selves.
Aryeh Ben David is the Founder and Director of Ayeka: Center for Soulful Education.