Jewish Survival Needs More than Knowledge to Survive: A Response to Rabbi Even-Israel
By Rabbi Shmuel Feld
In his eJP article, “Knowledge: The Key to Jewish Survival,” Rabbi Meni Even-Israel indicates that our longevity “is driven by our desire to debate, to dig deeper in our quest for knowledge.” He suggests that “…by challenging each other and supporting the development of tools that make the texts accessible to everyone, we will advance Jewish knowledge and ensure our survival.”
Advancing Jewish knowledge is an essential step toward ensuring the survival of the Jewish people, but the journey cannot end there.
Rabbi Even-Israel makes a strong case for the value of chavrutah study to dive into the “reasoning behind our actions.” Ultimately, to achieve Jewish continuity, individuals need to do more than “engage with the texts, study the foundations of faith in-depth, and join the identity-building discussion…” Jews can only own their Judaism when they both understand the traditions and texts passed down and have the opportunity to construct personal meaning through them.
Rabbi Bachaya, the 11th century author of Chovot Halevavot, Duties of the Heart, emphasized the power of self-determination within humans to develop a genuine connection to our faith. At the end of the second chapter of the Gates of Oneness, the author lays out four hierarchical levels of understanding of God. The lowest level comprises a repeating of beliefs, which even the unengaged can imitate. The next level up covers those who trust the beliefs because of the source and the people who taught it, even if personal understanding still eludes the inheritor of the wisdom. The penultimate level contains a personal understanding of the inherited principles and an ingraining of its importance in the soul. The highest level encompasses a complete understanding of the inherited principles and their known proofs, as well as an infusion of one’s own proofs, unique creativity and personal, daily etching of the Truth in the soul.
While Rabbi Even-Israel correctly criticizes those who strand the next generation of Jews at the lower two tiers of action, repeating slogans, and lacking understanding of our rich inheritance including sacred texts, I would respond, “yes, and…”
K-12 Jewish education should aim to put students at the highest level. Jewish educators should see their role as helping students find their own path, make their own connections and generate their own philosophy to embrace their Judaism based on our sacred texts and ancient wisdom. As the revised Bloom’s taxonomy suggests, individuals need to move beyond just knowledge acquisition and understanding through discussion. For deep spiritual learning to occur using the cognitive domain, learners need to utilize our sacred texts and ancient wisdom to apply, evaluate, synthesize, and create connections to oneself, our Holy Nation, and God.
Rabbi Shmuel Feld is the founding director of the Jewish Education Innovation Challenge (JEIC), a bold initiative to radically improve the quality of Jewish education in day schools across North America. JEIC’s vision is to reignite students’ passion for Jewish learning and improve the way Jewish values, literacy, practice and belief are transferred to the next generation. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.