The Purpose of Jewish Education is to Help Us Become.
By Casper ter Kuile
A rich tapestry of practices and stories, traditions and values, Jewish education is woven through the lives of Jews and those who love them. It teaches and practically supports us to live lives of greater meaning, justice, and connection. As someone who didn’t grow up with a religious background and isn’t Jewish, my life and work have been deeply enriched by it.
Through our How We Gather research at Harvard Divinity School and the On Being Project, I’ve been welcomed into conversations about the future of Jewish education – including at Moishe House’s recent Jewish Education Summit. Invited to share my team’s analysis of the broader cultural trends around community and spirituality, I argued that how we integrate Jewish education into our days has changed dramatically in the last few decades. The stories and practices that make up Jewish education have become unbundled and remixed so that they often no longer live in recognizably bounded communities.
This is not an isolated trend. Think of a local newspaper. Whereas fifty years ago it provided classifieds, personal ads, letters to the editor, a puzzle for your commute, and, of course, the actual news, today its competitors have surpassed it in each of these, making the daily paper all but obsolete. Craigslist, Tinder, Facebook, HQ Trivia, and cable news offer more personalization, deeper engagement, and perfect immediacy. The newspaper has been unbundled, and end users mix together their own preferred set of services.
For many of us today, how we become the people we feel called to be happens in a similar way. In the past, most people in the United States relied on a single religious community to conduct spiritual practices, ritualize life moments, foster healing, connect to peoplehood, inspire morality, house transcendent experience, mark holidays, support family, serve the needy, work for justice, and – through art, song, text, and speech – tell and retell a common story to bind them together. Now, we might rely on the Insight Meditation Timer, mountain hikes, High Holidays with our families, Afro-Flow Yoga, Instagram hashtags, Friday shabbatlucks, Beyonce, anthems, and protesting the Muslim Ban. We have unbundled from various communities and traditions and remixed our own personal curation.
This is not to say that this unbundled and remixed world is better than a bounded cultural group and tradition. For many Jews this stable reality remains the case, and I have no desire to interrupt that. Further, the trend of personalization seems to contribute to the dramatic rise in social isolation, as so little is shared to bring people together. What I do argue is that this unbundling and remixing is the reality for a growing number of Americans. And to ask them (including me) to leave behind other identities, languages and practices that hold deep meaning is both unrealistic and painful.
At the Moishe House Summit, leading practitioners and academics gathered to explore what then we might define as the boundaries of ‘what counts’ as Jewish education. Must education engage text, as Moishe House staff have maintained so far? Is textual practice centered on the text we read, or how we read it? What other bodies of Jewish knowledge and wisdom can we draw on? Indeed, embodied practices were a key theme in the conversation that challenged the assumption of textual primacy. The dance between rootedness and relevance required all of us to question our assumptions.
But the project of establishing boundaries around some practices and not others necessitates labeling some people’s Jewish life as illegitimate. And to try to force structure onto so rapidly changing a landscape is likely to be unproductive.
What if, instead, we engage the exciting and radical prospect of offering the gifts of Jewish education far beyond traditional Jewish life. Think of the proliferation of Shabbat in a culture that is chronically overworked and desperate for rest and renewal. Or perhaps Harry Potter and the Sacred Text, a podcast I co-host, where we. teach Havruta and PaRDeS to 75,000 listeners every week for most of whom it is their most consistent dose of spirituality, ethics and meaning-making. So many of us want to be braver. More honest. To live our lives in service of what matters most. Jewish education can help. What greater joy is there than to give this gift?
Casper ter Kuile is a Ministry Innovation Fellow at Harvard Divinity School and a Strategist at On Being. Casper is the co-author of How We Gather, a cultural map of Millennial communities, and the co-founder of the UK Youth Climate Coalition and Campaign Bootcamp. He’s a graduate of Harvard’s Divinity and Kennedy Schools and his work has been featured in The New York Times, The Boston Globe and on NPR.