Innovation Shminnovation!

by David J. Steiner

In his book, The Struggle for the American Curriculum, Herbert Kliebard examines approximately eighty years in the history of American public education through the lens of interest groups. He paints a picture of a pendulum culture, which swings back and forth between progressive notions of the curriculum and more conservative notions triggered by things like the launch of Sputnik. The battle he describes is not strictly between conservatism and innovation but rather a culture of great books versus a capital “P” Progressive culture.

As a multimedia producer for textbook companies in a prior life, I experienced a different aspect of the trajectory of American education: capitalism. Innovation was the need of a consumer culture largely agnostic about Progressivism and Great Books but highly motivated by replacing the old with the new as a mechanism for creating demand. In this world, California and Texas are leaders by virtue of their size. If one of these states adopts a textbook, it immediately becomes more efficient for the rest of the country to fall in line.

In my capacity as a doctor of education, I know that academic culture is primarily about innovation. This does not simply mean replacing Newton’s theory with Einstein’s. It also means that the subject of academic inquiry is often relegated to the unexplored. In a sense, historians all become revisionists, psychologists look for new ways of explaining the human brain/mind, and business administrators are always directed toward improvements in efficiency rather than, say, the benefit of their employees or the environment.

So can we fault Judaism for falling in line with the dominant culture? Of course we can, and we should. Judaism has always been counter-cultural. As my Talmud teacher, Rabbi Benay Lappe teaches, every time Judaism has encountered a crash in the narrative of our existence, (we encounter personal minor crashes all the time) we have taken the road of synthesis. At her yeshiva they call this “radical traditionalism.”

In the past, those of us who didn’t choose synthesis either remained Karaites, became Christians or helenized. In the modern world, we have similar patterns as our culture hits a crash. When we first encountered the enlightenment and equal citizenship, many Jews were baptized and left the tribe. Today we have Jews for Jesus, Jewbu’s (Buddhist Jews) and other hybrids. We have high rates of assimilation, Jews by choice, cultural Jews and all kinds of other variants. And it is in this environment that we find ourselves, again, confronted by a crash. The call for innovation, however, is not the typical Jewish response. Rabbinic Judaism synthesizes. We have eyes on both sides of our heads in order to look forward as we look back. In a culture dominated by innovation, everyone loses their rootedness because they only look toward the future and reflection is sidelined.

In my practice as a Jewish educator, I try to look in both directions. When I look forward, I try to understand the world in which I am situated. I imagine myself as a modern day Rabban Yochanan trying to decide how Judaism needs to become portable and malleable for the journey beyond the river and the sea. When I look back, I am reminded of the movie Mulan and the practice of reflecting on the past in order to discern what important gifts we received from our ancestors that we should take with us on the journey into the future.

My fear for Jewish education and culture is that we have adopted a posture of innovation for its own sake. There are many practices that our ancestors gifted us that are precious and life enhancing, and I cannot understand why we are not magnetized by them.

Recently, I was invited to speak at the Hong Kong Polytechnical University about Jewish literacy to graduate students of education. Less than five percent of my audience knew who Moshe Rabbeinu was, but their professors knew that there was something valuable and spiritual in Jewish study practice, and they wanted to learn more. After my lecture, my hosts observed how the students – normally complacent and automated – seemed inspired and, well, more rambunctious. (I look forward to bringing that challenge to Beijing next year).

I felt proud that another culture looked to us for a lead in literacy and chutzpah, but the trip also saddened me when I thought of our own lack of awe and inspiration from the gifts of our foremothers and forefathers. Instead of studying Halacha to figure out what methods and logic our ancestors used to structure their civil lives, we teach it as a way of understanding the rules and regulations we need to follow, i.e. “What are the statutes, the testimonies, and the laws that God has commanded you to do?”

In Judaism, like in Professor Kliebard’s American curriculum, there is a pendulum, and it is swinging between extreme conservatism as manifest in the fear of God and a constitutional-literalist approach to Torah, on one hand, and a culture of innovation that all too often throws out the baby with the bathwater on the other. In the modern Jewish world, ultra orthodoxy resembles Karaism and liberal Judaism gets defined by their deniers as apostacy, as illustrated recently by the graffiti maliciously scrawled on the walls of a Reform Temple in Rannana, “Maimonides, Laws of Repentance, Chapter 3, Law 14; Psalms 139, verses 21-22.” This, of course, refers to the Rambam’s declaration that heretics and deniers of the Torah have no place in the world to come.

I do not suggest that liberal Judaism is as their deniers claim, nor that ultra orthodoxy is going the way of the Sadducees. Broad spectrums of disagreement have always existed in Judaism – a most positive aspect of our culture. After all, Judaism lives in the balance. The problem, however, is that in this culture of extreme conservatism and ecstatic innovation, we are losing the benefit of the tension caused by the disagreement. My teacher, Noam Zion, taught me that growth is in the tension, and I believe that this is what Rabbi Lappe is pointing to when she calls for the synthesis option.

We live in a world that includes many spectrums. This is why Hebrew roots often create contrasting words. Shin, Chet, Reish, for instance, is the root of shachar – dawn – and shachor – black; one is the beginning of light and the other, its absence. What we do with these spectrums is the important thing. You can’t have a middle ground, the place of synthesis and growth, without the poles, but Judaism has survived because it chose to live in the balance every time it met a crash. I am afraid that today, in this post-Shoah culture of extreme capitalism, when the Jewish people are the freest they have ever been, when we have the option of self-rule, we are not feeling the crash and not seeking the center. And I worry that, as a result, we will miss the chance for growth, and possibly conserve or innovate ourselves into the realm of historical remnant rather than reveling in the gift from our ancestors.

David J. Steiner, Ed.D. is working to complete his rabbinic ordination. He has been a congregational director of education for both the Reform and Conservative synagogues, and he recently returned to America from a fellowship at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.