A Manifesto on Jewish Education based on the thought of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

Courtesy Office of Rabbi Sacks

[Published today to mark shloshim for Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.]

By Dr. Daniel Rose

The Jewish world, and beyond, have felt an immense sense of loss this past month, faced to contemplate a world without the spiritual and moral leadership of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. So much has been written in these weeks, by so many, on his impact and influence. Students who were close to him and many who had never met him yet felt his influence in their lives in a profound way. World leaders whom he had a close relationship with, and those who admired him from afar. It is not my goal to add to their voices and share my own reflections here. Instead, I wish to consider how we can begin working toward actualising the vision for the Jewish people and the wider world which he laid out for us so eloquently in his writings and speeches. My humble contribution is to begin a conversation on what a system of Jewish education based on the thought of Rabbi Sacks may look like, and I have tried to set this out in this Manifesto on Jewish Education.

A Nation of Educators

About to gain their freedom [from Egypt], the Israelites were told that they had to become a nation of educators.”1

Universal compulsory education existed as a communal policy in Israel eighteen centuries before the western world. However, education as a core Jewish value was never limited to the framework and institutions of formal education. It was and is found in every aspect of Jewish communal life. But more than our great institutions of formal and informal Jewish education, the role of families is the most effective educational tool we have. Families must be encouraged to be seen as partners in and agents of Jewish education in their own right.

Core Educational Values: 

  • A Jewish education is the right of every Jewish child
  • Jewish education should be at the heart of all of our communal institutions 
  • The family should be empowered and supported as partners and direct agents in Jewish education 

Dignity of Difference

The test of faith is whether I can make space for difference. Can I recognise God’s image in someone who is not in my image, whose language, faith, ideals are different from mine? If I cannot, then I have made God in my image instead of allowing him to remake me in His.”2

The dignity of difference is a central value to Rabbi Sacks’ philosophy of Judaism, and must be a central ethos of all our educational institutions. This should manifest itself both in the curriculum of Jewish values, and practical educational policies, including inclusivism in the classroom, synagogue, and camp. Jewish education must also be outward looking, engaged across the spectrum of the Jewish community and with wider society. We must provide our children with opportunities for building bridges with communities and people who are different from themselves, and the skills to navigate this. Rabbi Sacks was a model for this in his work and life.

Core Educational Values:

  • Inclusivism should be a core value in Jewish education
  • Jewish education should be outward looking

A Letter in the Scroll

I want to say to Jews around the world: Take it, cherish it, learn to understand and to love it. Carry it and it will carry you. And may you in turn pass it on to future generations. For you are a member of an eternal people, a letter in their scroll. Let their eternity live on in you.”3

The end goal of Jewish education must be Jewish identity formation, Jewish continuity, and a sense of responsibility to community, peoplehood, and wider society. We want our graduates to have pride in their Jewish identity, and a desire to pass that on to their children.

Core Educational Values:

  • Jewish identity building
  • Educating toward a sense of responsibility for Jewish Continuity

The Great Partnership

Science is about explanation. Religion is about meaning. Science analyses, religion integrates. Science breaks things down to their component parts. Religion binds people together in relationships of trust. Science tells us what is. Religion tells us what ought to be. Science describes. Religion beckons, summons, calls.“4

In Rabbi Sacks’ thought, Jewish knowledge is an example of the particular, and secular knowledge (science, and all fields of human knowledge) represents the universal. Both are integral to what it means to be a human, and both must be equally valued in a system of Jewish education. Further than that, “these products of the twin hemispheres of the human brain, must now join together to protect the world that had been entrusted to our safekeeping.”5 Our educational communities must be environmentally responsible and sustainable.

Core Educational Values:

  • The curriculum of Jewish education must hold Torah and Chochma in equal value
  • Wherever possible an Integrated approach between these two should be taken
  • Jewish education must be environmentally responsible in both content and practice

Radical Responsibility to Heal a Fractured World

To be a Jew is to be asked to give, to contribute, to make a difference, to help in the monumental task that has engaged Jews since the dawn of our history, to make the world a home for the Divine presence, a place of justice, compassion, human dignity and the sanctity of life.”6

Having a “radical responsibility” to working toward tikkun olam (repairing the world, or in the language of Rabbi Sacks, healing the fractured world) is the ultimate message of Judaism, according to Rabbi Sacks. It is the essence of the Jewish national mission and the Jewish people’s destiny. Thus, Judaism must always be framed in this way, in both theoretical/philosophical terms, and in normative practical behaviour. Jewish education therefore should have a practical social activism component. It should not remain theoretical, remaining in books, classrooms,  conversation or thought. It must leave the doors of the Bet Midrash and blaze a trail of healing in the world.

Core Educational Values:

  • Social activism as a practical and meaningful expression of Judaism’s values should be incorporated in any enterprise of Jewish education
  • The Jewish curriculum should be focused on practical personal and national ethics

Covenant & Conversation and Ceremony & Celebration

I called my series Covenant & Conversation because this for me is the essence of what Torah Learning is, throughout the ages, and for us now. The text of the Torah is our covenant with God. The interpretation of this text has been the subject of an ongoing conversation that began at Sinai and has never ceased. Every age has added its commentaries, and so must ours.”  

Jewish life has rhythms. Weekly, monthly and annual cycles of Jewish life are what connects all Jews around the world. Rabbi Sacks elevated these cycles in his teachings, using them as a vehicle for ongoing dialogue with Judaism’s ancient texts, finding contemporary relevance, week in and out. These cycles should be the culture of our educational communities and institutions and frame our work. Finding relevant contemporary messages from the weekly parsha positions the Torah as the meta-curriculum of our Jewish educational world, and doing the same with our festivals brings them into the lives of our children in a meaningful way.

Core Educational Values:

  • The weekly parsha should be the weekly rhythm of the Jewish educational community
  • The Jewish calendar should be the annual rhythm of the Jewish educational community
  • We must find the contemporary relevance of both and apply them to our age so that our students find relevance in them for their lives

Israel, Gateway of Hope

That is the challenge for a new religious Zionism: to build a society worthy of being a home for the divine presence by honoring the divine image in all its citizens.”7

Israel has always been an ever present theme running through the teachings of Rabbi Sacks. He has found Israel’s history and achievements a source for pride and inspiration, has engaged critically with contemporary Israeli society when necessary, especially with regards to the political role of religion in Israel, and he has repeated a clear aspirational message for what he saw as Israel’s potential for creating a model society based on Torah values. This is a central tenet of his philosophy of Judaism – that Israel is the place where Jews were summoned to create a society of justice and compassion under the sovereignty of God. Israel should be a central theme of the Jewish education curriculum.

Core Educational Values:

  • Israel should be used as a resource for engendering Jewish pride, Inspiration and identity building in Jewish education
  • Space should be made for critical thinking around Israel 
  • The theological role of Israel in a broader philosophy of Judaism should be a core educational message

Celebrating Life

I love Jewish humour because it lets us laugh where otherwise we would cry. Jewish life has its share of pain, but what we can laugh at, we can rise above. It is an assertion of humanity in the face of dehumanizing influences… Laughing, we defeat despair. Humour is the first cousin to hope.”8

In the weeks that have passed since Rabbi Sacks left this world, hundreds of stories have been shared about the man himself, the access he gave to people, the conversations and letters and gestures that changed lives. His warmth and humanity was obvious to anyone who heard him speak, whether to a crowd of a thousand or an audience with one. It has become clear to the world that he was not a scholar who isolated himself from the outside world in an ivory tower of scholarship, but rather was a man of the people. His humanity and warmth was often expressed through humour and storytelling, and this, together of course with his magnificent oratory skills, made him a mesmerising speaker to listen to. Our education must be fun and engaging, and we as educators must exude warmth and humanity in all aspects of our work.

Core Educational Values:

  • Good Jewish education is fun and engaging 
  • Humor and storytelling are staples of Jewish education
  • Jewish education should expose students to the humanity at the core of Judaism

The Educator as Hero

Teachers open our eyes to the world. They give us curiosity and confidence. They teach us to ask questions. They connect us to our past and future. They’re the guardians of our social heritage. We have lots of heroes today, and they are often celebrities – athletes, supermodels, media personalities. They come, they have their fifteen minutes of fame, and they go. But the influence of good teachers stays with us. They are the people who really shape our life.”9

As central as Jewish education was to the thought and work of Rabbi Sacks, his appreciation of the noble profession of education was clearly communicated. He dedicated his energies over many years to elevating the prestige of educators and the field of education in the community, and made great efforts to support educators in various ways (including investing in the creation of educational content based on his thought for educators to use as a resource in their work). Rabbi Sacks was also a role model par excellence in his private and public life, reminding us of the importance of exposing children to the influence of strong Jewish role models. These are our educators.

Core Educational Values:

  • Jewish educational communities must value in real and practical ways the educator as the lynchpin in everything they do
  • Educators make an impact not just through delivery of content and programming, but by being role models. This impact should be carefully considered in educational strategic planning.

The time for grieving the passing of Rabbi Sacks will soon be over and we will be left with the momentous task of living up to the legacy he has left us. We must build a world in the image of his vision, and I believe that begins with education. This, of course, is a monumental task. But as Rabbi Sacks was fond of quoting, “It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you free to neglect it” (Avot 2:16).

Dr. Daniel Rose is the educational consultant and content developer for the Office of Rabbi Sacks. He developed the Ten Paths curriculum based on the thought of Rabbis Sacks, as well as the Covenant & Conversation Family Edition and Ceremony and Celebration Family Edition series.

1 A Letter in the Scroll, p. 32

2 The Dignity of Difference p. 201

3 A Letter in the Scroll, p. 220

4 The Great Partnership, p. 10

5 The Great Partnership, p. 254

6 Ten Paths, Responsibility, p.4

7 Future Tense, p. 180

8 Celebrating Life, p. 38

9  From Optimism to Hope, p. 132