The Purpose of Jewish Education is to Log In to the Jewish Network
By Hannah Elkin
In a recent article on the purpose of Jewish education, Casper ter Kuile describes how millennials “unbundle and remix” the traditions and communal associations of Judaism with other cultural and spiritual traditions as a way to build a personal spirituality, and recommends that Jewish communities could be more open to “offering the gifts of Jewish education far beyond traditional Jewish life.” And while I agree with the claim that individuals curating slices from different spiritual sources is a visible and appealing trend for many, I believe there is a fundamental misconception here that Jewish learning can be unraveled so easily from the rest of Jewish meaning. Jewish education aims to help learners construct personal spiritual growth and practice; but the ultimate purpose of Jewish education is to dive into the depths of the Jewish wellspring, not just dip in a toe.
Instead of unbundling and remixing, I would suggest that Jewish education could act instead as the login to the network. Through Jewish education, each individual’s interests and passions can serve as an access point, a way of “logging in” to the Internet of Judaism and the larger world of Jewish content, practice, and meaning. Judaism exists as a particular collection of symbols, history, culture, rituals, and values, which fit together in a complex constellation of meaning, and these traditions only make sense in a deep way when utilized as a whole instead of broken off as discrete pieces. We might unbundle and take away one comment or subtweet on a tradition or source but then we risk missing the full context and meaning of the post itself and the ability to engage with others making comments, which is indeed an isolating, disconnected, lonely experience.
Take the case of Shabbat, which ter Kuile offers as a potential practice for “proliferation … in a culture that is chronically overworked and desperate for rest and renewal.” While Shabbat is one of the designated times for rest and renewal, the different rituals and practices connect with themes and symbols of creation, wholeness and completion, sacred separation, and humankind’s ability to replicate divine rest. Shabbat is not simply a time to relax. While turning off our phones and catching up with friends are important practices in self-care in today’s overwhelmingly hectic world and might provide us with rest and renewal, that does not make it Shabbat. Ter Kuile would perhaps push back that this type of boundary drawing is outdated and even detrimental to spiritual seekers. And yet I think it is misleading and sells the richness of Jewish life short to dislocate a personal Shabbat practice from these larger themes and their spiritual significance in the fabric of Judaism. Jews should feel encouraged to find Jewish meaning but we should also feel challenged to engage with the layers of it, a task that I as Jewish educator and spiritual leader relish to take on by making Judaism and Jewish learning and practice more accessible and relatable.
As a Jewish millennial, I too am searching for deep and authentic spiritual fulfillment, and while I certainly find it at times through Buddhist teachings or nature panoramas, my spiritual home is Judaism. I find the greatest joy in the Jewish practices and wisdom that I have found along the way and then incorporated into my life through my own exploration and agency. And the coherency of these experiences roots me in authenticity, connection with others, and my ownership over my personal spiritual practices. What might that look like in one’s life of spiritual growth and meaning? Do you like hiking? Hit the trail with friends and bring along psalms for praising nature, blessings for seeing trees or hearing thunder, and a havdalah set to move out of the sacred time of Shabbat in a space where you feel connected to the divine. How about social justice? Study the texts of the Prophets and rabbinic sources on injustice to inform your political activism and join a community organizing effort of a Jewish organization.
The question then becomes for educators and institutions: how are we giving Jewish learners different points of entry and different touches of Jewish connection? To start, we need to do a better job of including the vast array of Jewish content in our educational programs. I believe that the primacy of text in Jewish education (a concern raised in the recent Moishe House Summit) in some ways limits our ability to access all of these layers. The Jewish canon contains texts, literature, stories, poetry, music, art, food, languages, dance, ritual, prayers, philosophy, ethics, and more, living and breathing and growing with every generation. The challenge of Jewish leaders today is to help Jewish learners find the Judaism that is personally meaningful to them, creates opportunities to develop as an individual, and connects them with a community of other engaged and caring Jews.
“What is hateful to you, do not do to another … the rest is commentary.” One of the most commonly quoted sources in Judaism, this verse from Bavli Shabbat 31a describes the piece of wisdom that Hillel supposedly gave to a potential convert to Judaism who requested that Hillel teach him all of the Torah “standing on one foot.” However this pithy expression often leaves out the conclusion of the full saying: “What is hateful to you, do not do to another … the rest is commentary, now go and learn.” The full line clarifies the deeper role of education and learning in Judaism: one might take a piece of wisdom, but do not forget to keep searching for the whole.
Leaders and institutions need to lean into that Jewish distinctiveness and present learners with the full depth of the wellspring of Judaism. We need to engage people in a way that touches their souls and draws them into community that feeds their soul. And it is this depth of meaning and its possibilities in the lives of Jews that can be compelling to young adults today. But we have to offer it to them first.
Hannah Elkin is a fourth-year Rabbinic and Education student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. Before rabbinical school, she received her Master of Theological Studies at Harvard Divinity School with concentrations in Jewish Studies and Women, Gender, and Religion. She is currently designing a curriculum that teaches how Jewish theology, rituals, values, and stories can help Jewish teens engage in meaningful and respectful intimate relationships.