Jewish Education in an Era of Rapid Change

Inspired by Daniel Lehmann’s recent piece, Toward Creativity: A Theological Goal for Jewish Education

by Dr. Gil Graff

Several years ago, I attended a university commencement at which Jewish historian – and, at the time, President of Brandeis University – Jehuda Reinharz was among the speakers. His message to the graduates was that they needed to have a plan of action but, at the same time, to have the flexibility to adjust to unanticipated opportunities or curves in the road. I am reminded of this address each time I hear the GPS pronounce “re-calculating.”

Education is the means by which culture is transmitted from generation to generation. In this sense, it represents roots. On the other hand, conditions of life change, and education is the provision of tools of literacy and critical thinking that will, hopefully, enable the learner to effectively navigate his/her emerging world. In this sense, it represents wings.

Writing in 1943, Eliezer Berkovits, a German-educated Jewish philosopher who had relocated to England – and was writing at a time of tremendous uncertainty and profound change – published a work (Towards Historic Judaism) in which he emphasized the importance of the Jewish school. “It is not for Jewish education to accept … social prejudices of the countries in which Jews are living,” wrote Berkovits, “or to foster in Jewish children an enthusiasm for the killer heroism of the ‘great men’ of world history.” He pointed, rather, to prophetic ideals as a vision for the Jewish student. As for science, he continued, “It can undermine the moral conscience of man but it can also deepen it.” Jewish education, he believed, could and should nurture the latter perspective.

For Berkovits, “total Jewish education” meant establishing Jewish learning as “Torat Hayyim”- a Torah of life. It is an agenda to which Berkovits (who moved to the United States and, later to Israel) devoted his considerable energy and insight, into the 1990s. Berkovits’s view of the scope and mission of Jewish education has supplanted the image of Jewish study as relating only to rituals and customs associated with synagogue ceremonies or holiday celebrations.

Berkovits frequently quoted a rabbinic story (Babylonian Talmud, Menahot 29b) telling of Moses’s visit to the study hall of Rabbi Akiba, a sage who lived long after the “Torah of Moses.” Moses was unable to follow the lectures of Akiba. Remarkably, Rabbi Akiba indicated to his students that his teaching was nothing new but tradition dating to Moses at Sinai; an acknowledgement that was reassuring to the (unseen) Moses. Jews and Judaism have, for millennia, drawn upon inherited teachings and experiences, applying them to life’s changing conditions. A Jewish education that matters will enable learners to share in this enduring legacy with deep roots and powerful wings.

One point of view … let’s hear yours.

Dr. Gil Graff is Executive Director of BJE: Builders of Jewish Education.