Education for Jewish Peoplehood Today

[This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 22 – “Israel@70: A Peoplehood Perspective” – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.]

By Hanan A. Alexander

In his classic study Ideology and Utopia, sociologist Karl Mannheim argued that ideologies – frameworks of belief and value that govern some aspect of our individual or collective lives – tend to advance until they fall prey to their own internal contradictions. In many respects, American Jews and Jewish Israelis are heirs to competing ideological responses to the challenges with which modernity confronted premodern Jewish life. The recurring tensions between these communities can in large measure be attributed to the playing out of tensions within and between these ideologies. Addressing these tensions through education requires dialogical pedagogies that can foster ways of living together across deep differences within the Jewish people today.

Prior to the modern period, the vast majority of Jews lived in autonomous communities under Greco-Roman, Islamic, and Christian rule, in which religious and political affiliations were intermingled. New forms of scientific thinking arose beginning in the sixteenth century associated with the European Enlightenment that challenged the foundations of religious piety. They rested authority concerning what to believe and how to behave in the reasoning of autonomous individuals, not in divine revelation. By the nineteenth century, the European Emancipation gave rise to liberal nation states that left religious belief and unbelief to individual conscience. This new sort of state enabled people of different faiths to become citizens in a common civil society.

Ultra-Orthodoxy attempted to preserve premodern Jewish life by rejecting the terms of both Enlightenment and Enlightenment. The liberal (religious) response, on the other hand, especially characteristic of mainstream American Jewish life, accepted the terms of Emancipation. Its supporters argued that Jews should become citizens in the liberal state while redefining their religion to meet the rational demands of Enlightenment. Finally, the (secular) Zionist response, expressed today in the lives of most Jewish Israelis, rejected the terms of Emancipation. Its adherents redefined Jewish affiliation primarily in political terms by becoming citizens in a Jewish (and democratic) state, while accepting the Enlightenment critique of religion. When the state of Israel was founded 70 years ago, each of these ideologies sought to solidify its position, in response in part to the traumatic events of the second world war. Seventy years on they remain the primary modes of Jewish attachment. However, following Mannheim’s trenchant analysis, each is advancing toward its own utopian extremes today, that entail tensions both within and between each alternative.

During the period between the Six Day War in 1967 and the Second Palestinian Uprising in 2000, many people sought common ground among two of these orientations, liberalism and Zionism. Today, these two ideologies appear to be growing steadily apart. According to Peter Beinhart and others, this is due to the rise of a dark side to Jewish nationalism in Israel combined with the mounting influence of an intolerant form of ultra-Orthodoxy. These developments have led to the absurd situation that the nation state of the Jewish people may not recognize the Jewish status, rights, or proclivities of many Jews living abroad and an increasing number of those living in Israel. According to this analysis, the rightward turn in Israel may have also contributed to a possible jeopardizing of minority rights by a sovereign Jewish majority, after centuries of being persecuted as a religious minority, and to an inability to settle Israel’s differences with its Palestinian neighbors. This disconnect between liberalism and Zionism may also be tied the growing influence of critical social theory among left leaning intellectuals and opinion makers – Marxism, neo-Marxism, postmodernism, postcolonialism, and post- Zionism. Some interpretations of these ideas depict Israel as an unjustified colonial implant in the Middle East, or if not the entire state, then Jewish settlements in what some call Judaea and Samaria and others the West Bank or the Occupied Territories.

However, alienation from Zionism, which presupposes Jewish distinctiveness, may also be a product of the very form of liberalism that Beinhart and his colleagues embrace. American liberalism may not be as pluralistic, and hence as accepting of Jewish difference, as it purports to be. It tolerates all views- providing they embrace the principle of liberal pluralism itself. This may explain, at least in part, the current demographic decline among American Jews who embrace this form of liberalism. They experience difficulty in articulating a substantive vision of Jewish life to be transmitted across the generations. Liberal pluralism provides a basis to protect each person’s right to choose such a life but no normative vision upon which to base such a choice, save liberal toleration itself. It follows that one must first embrace the principle of pluralism as a price of entry into liberal society, even if it runs contrary to political or faith commitments that one might otherwise embrace. Transmitting a Judaism across the generations that is grounded primarily in the choices of autonomous individuals, without some concomitant basis in values that originate outside the self – in history, or nationality, or God, may not be as feasible as religious liberals have supposed.

This analysis suggests a pressing need for engaging some form of political liberalism in Israel, for renewed attention to Jewish nationalism among American Jews, and for a fresh look at the substantive beliefs and practices of Jewish life on both sides of the Atlantic. To this end, the Jewish people requires a dialogue among rival visions of what it means to be Jewish today, that addresses their weaknesses as well as their strengths, in order to reconstitute some form of common Jewish life. Isaiah Belin offered an alternative political theory to classical versions of both liberalism and nationalism that is well suited to this task. Sometimes known as diversity liberalism, this view seeks a modus vivendi for peaceful coexistence across deep differences.

Education for such a dialogue requires attention to two complementary dimensions of teaching and learning: One dimension, called ‘pedagogy of the sacred,’ entails initiation in an intelligent vision of Jewish life prepared to engage competing conceptions of Jewishness in dialogue, from the inside, as it were. The other dimension, known as ‘pedagogy of difference,’ involves learning from or about orientations different from one’s own, from the outside, so to say. Whereas instruction in a tradition aims to initiate into a particular path, to become an insider, instruction from a worldview encourages consideration of its wisdom without requiring assent, and instruction about an orientation calls for phenomenological understanding, to imagine oneself an insider without actually becoming one, or historical, cultural, or political knowledge, from an outsider’s perspective. Advancing educational dialogue of this kind may be among the most important challenges facing the Jewish people today.

Hanan A. Alexander is Dean of the Faculty of Education and Professor of Philosophy of Education at the University of Haifa