It’s the Text, Stupid: A Call to Jewish Educators

by David Steiner

What does James Carville’s 1992 campaign slogan for presidential candidate Bill Clinton (“it’s the economy, stupid!”) have to do with Jewish education? In slightly modified (and more polite) form, everything.

Now that we have entered the month of Tishrei and the school year is upon us, let us extend the self reflection of Elul to our professional lives. Personally, I worry that we are on the road to hell because our path is paved with the proverbial good intentions, yet we seem not to reflect deeply about what we are saying and teaching. In Perek Chelek, the Rambam wrote that he hopes to write a book collecting all the sages’ teachings from the Talmud and other works in order to “interpret them systematically, showing which must be understood literally and which metaphorically, and which are dreams to be interpreted by a wakeful mind.” My wish for us, as we stand before the New Year, is that we approach our education systems and peoplehood with the honesty and depth of Mr. Maimon. We, too, must sift the content, conduit and context of our curricula and ask what is literal and what is meant to give us moral structure through allegory and metaphor.

One of the good intentions I would like to unpack is the term “Jewish Identity.” What do we really mean by “identity” in the postmodern era? Benjamin Barber, the Walt Whitman Professor Emeritus at Rutgers University, speaks of two types of identities: ascribed and assumed. When our students are born, it could be argued, they are not Jews. We make them Jewish with the choices we make for them. Circumcision, for instance, is not a child’s choice. (I, for one, wouldn’t speak to my parents for months after mine). Thus, I ask, is Judaism an assumed identity or ascribed? Do we choose to be Jews or do our parents and community ascribe our Jewish identity to us?

Ascription could be both negative and positive. Hitler ascribed to us an identity which was believed to be fostered in race and contained wholly negative attributes. When we, as Jewish educators, say that we want to nurture our students’ identities as Jews, however, we are saying that we want them to turn their ascribed Jewish identities into assumed identities – in other words, we want our students to own their Jewishness. Such assumed identity, however, is completely contrary to the Jewish education of our ancestors just a few generations back. In their world, the identity ascribed to them by God, with the soul He gave them, meant that they had no choice. They were obligated to their Creator; the manifestation of those obligations was the system of mitzvot that commanded them. Jewish education, for them, was teaching their children what they believed God expected of them. Obviously, there were Jews who didn’t believe in this ascription (and hence the obligation), but Judaism, for the most part, was based on this model.

In the 21st century, the system of obligations to the Creator has changed dramatically. For many, a mitzvah, a commandment, has become a “good deed,” and the commander has become either the source of spiritual enlightenment of the commanded or has simply become synonymous with the way Jews do things; in the words of Tevya from Fiddler on the Roof, “Tradition!” It seems, in general, therefore, that liberal Jews assume Jewish identity, while orthodox Jews still feel compelled via ascription from their Creator.

This brings us to the nature of the second term, “Jewish.” What does it mean to be Jewish? This answer is easy when you are orthodox. Your soul, or taking on the yoke of Torah, makes you Jewish. The big tent of liberal Judaism has different glue. What bonds people to an assumed identity except for the common assumptions of the group? By analogy, think Chicago Cubs fans. Those pathetic individuals (myself included) who express as their mantra, “next year,” every September, have been waiting for over a century for the fulfillment of their dream, and yet they still adhere to the vision of a Cubs World Series before the moon turns blue and hell freezes over. They do not share the same race, nor are they cut from the same cloth, but they continue to insist on the future greatness of their north side boys of summer. In The Nature of Prejudice (1954), Gordon Allport provides this definition. “It is difficult to define an in-group precisely. Perhaps the best that can be done is to say that members of an in-group all use the term we with the same essential significance.” What is the “we” of Judaism?

For those of us hoping to convert ascribed Jews into people who assume the identity of our people, we must examine and deliberate about the content of our Judaism. We must ask, “which must be understood literally and which metaphorically?” And we must be very careful to discern “which are dreams to be interpreted by a wakeful mind.”

In the period of Zionism before the establishment of the State of Israel, Prime Minister David Ben Gurion, turned to the content of our collective history and had this to say about our peoplehood as he stood before the U.N. Commission on the Partition of Palestine in 1947:

Three hundred years ago a ship called the Mayflower set sail to the New World. This was a great event in the history of England. Yet I wonder if there is one Englishman who knows at what time the ship set sail? Do the English know how many people embarked on the voyage? What quality of bread did they eat? Yet more than three thousand three hundred years ago, before the Mayflower set sail, the Jews left Egypt. Every Jew in the world, even in America or Soviet Russia, knows what kind of bread the Jews ate – Matza. Even today the Jews worldwide eat Matza on the 15th of Nisan. They retell the story of the Exodus and all of the troubles Jews have endured since being exiled, saying: This year, slaves, next year, free! This year here – next year in Jerusalem, in Zion, in Eretz Yisrael. That is the nature of the Jews.

The problem with this Zionist approach is that it works just as well for African Americans and other oppressed people who remember their past and were delivered from slavery. It is not enough substance to assume an identity. Black Americans are thrust together by their common history, like Jews, but they also cannot escape their ascribed identity: they don’t pass into white America. The color of their skin keeps their unified identity alive. Not all African Americans celebrate Kwanza, nor do they hold membership in the NAACP. African Americans have Clarence Thomas and Thurgood Marshall, two black justices who couldn’t be further apart in the substance of their jurisprudence. Both Alan Keyes and Barak Obama ran for president. The greatest commonality between them is merely the color of their skin and the history of their forebears, to a limited degree. The “Jewish” in Ben Gurion’s approach above is “substance lite.” There is some culture – we ate matza; and there is geography – we had a land. Thus, Ben Gurion is not quite accurate when he proclaims, “That is the nature of the Jews.”

The nature of the Jews comes after liberation from slavery when they had their constitutional congress at the foot of Sinai and accepted, collectively, upon themselves the Torah, and when they went to live in the land of Israel and converted Torah into Halacha, and when they carried Halacha with them into exile. The content of this Judaism is not primarily in history books, even if our engagement with history shaped who we would become. The content of this Judaism is found in our libraries, in the texts that are the cornerstone of our peoplehood. If it wasn’t this way, we would be a people whose identity is merely written through the engagement with others.

As teachers, we often want to pour honey on our letters and make them sweet to the senses of those students we hope to transform from ascribed Jews to people who chose Judaism, but we forget that honey is not the substance. It is the sweetener. When Jewish educators focus on “positive Jewish experiences,” or “camp-like” religious schools, we must be cautious not to pave the road with good intentions at the risk of abandoning substance. Fostering Jews with an assumed Jewish identity is not as simple as making their education taste good. It has to be substantial for our students to choose it – and our substance is in the evolving Torah, both written and oral.

Making religious school appealing is important, but substituting sweetener for substance hurts Judaism. We do not have a catechism, but our tradition teaches, “Talmud Torah k’neged kulam,” the study of Torah is above all. Make Jewish education experiential, sure. But we cannot effectively “throw out the baby [Torah] with the bathwater” by abandoning the text for the experience?

Confronted with the same problem regarding poetry, Eve Merriam proposed the following methodological/pedagogical approach.

  • Don’t be polite.
    Bite in.
    Pick it up with your fingers and lick the juice that
    may run down your chin.
    It is ready and ripe now, whenever you are.
    You do not need a knife or fork or spoon
    or plate or napkin or tablecloth.
    For there is no core
    or stem
    or rind
    or pit
    or seed
    or skin
    to throw away. (“How To Eat a Poem” by Eve Merriam)

Just as we say, “It is hard to be a Jew,” it is hard to educate our youth. We want to hand them our tradition, yet we fear it won’t fit the world they occupy. With this in mind, we try to fit into their sensibilities to the abandonment of our own. “Meet them where they are,” may be part of the formula, but it is conduit, not the prize. In Summerhill, the first book that inspired me as an educator, A.S. Neil speaks about his daughter and how he trusted her to come to a balanced diet for herself through experimentation. I struggled with this idea for years. My self-knowledge made me think that, in this environment, I would satisfy my hunger, daily, with pizza and ice cream and never achieve a balanced diet. I didn’t understand A.S. Neill. He never intended for his daughter or students to leave the school’s kitchen with a belly full of Snickers bars. He simply let them choose their diet and own it by setting up a system that would lead them to good choices. He put the spinach in the kitchen, too – and with the help of a nudge here and a lesson in nutrition there, he got the students to choose well.

Nobody is saying that Talmud Torah shouldn’t be fun and fulfilling, but it does need to be substantial. The difference between raising vilde chaya and civilized humans is education. To develop civilized Jews, that education starts with Torah. In other words, “It’s the text.”

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.