Toward Creativity: A Theological Goal for Jewish Education

by Rabbi Daniel L. Lehmann

I have been contemplating the need for a theology of Jewish education which would ground the goals of Jewish education in an understanding of Judaism’s religious telos. It seems to me that Jewish education should inspire and equip us to achieve the deepest aspirations of Judaism. At the recent 10th anniversary celebration of the Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education at Brandeis University, I had an opportunity to propose that one of the theological ideas similarly articulated by two of the greatest Jewish theologians of the 20th century could provide us with an overarching and orienting purpose for Jewish education, especially in North America.

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, the philosophic and Talmudic leader of Modern Orthodoxy, in his seminal essay “Halachik Man” (1944), makes a radical claim about the goal of Jewish life. He writes in the section entitled “His Creativity” that “the peak of religious ethical perfection to which Judaism aspires in man as creator “The most fundamental principle of all is that man must create himself.”

Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, makes a similar statement less than 10 years earlier in his book “The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion” (1937). In describing the theological meaning of Shabbat, he writes, “Jewish mysticism caught the true spirit of the kind of religion man needs. The keynote is the truth that man shares with God the power to create.”

These two great but divergent Jewish theologians, writing in 20th century America, come to a similar conclusion about the core goal of Judaism, especially as understood in the context of modern, American society. Judaism calls on the human being, and the Jew in particular, to emulate God’s creative nature and to become a creative being.

If we take this theological proposition as a fundamental goal of Jewish living, and thus, a necessary focus of Jewish education, our institutions of Jewish education need to tap into and unleash individual and communal creativity. Jews should experience their Jewish education as advancing their human creativity. Jewish education, at its best, must enhance people’s engagement with the world by providing Jewish resources that enrich and encourage creative thinking and doing.
What follows are some ideas of what we can and should do to reorient Jewish education toward creativity.

  • We need centers of educational entrepreneurship and innovation that foster creativity. Too much of Jewish education looks alike. We need to move away from the generic and toward the generative.
  • Student creativity, problem-solving and the nourishing of imagination should be more central to our pedagogic practice. Jewish education should enable students to generate products, models, solutions, expressions that draw from Jewish resources throughout the ages.
  • Jewish curricula should be developed based on case studies dealing with real individual and communal problems that engage students in a creative process aimed at generating a variety of solutions.
  • Jewish education, at all levels, needs to focus on students’ passions and distinct learning styles, maximizing flexibility in learning modalities, pace and content. We need to develop modular systems that play to differences.
  • Jews need to experience Jewish education as fostering creative networks beyond the four walls of a classroom or synagogue.
  • Brick-and-mortar congregational/day schools are a 20th century model; we need to reconfigure the structure and sponsorship of Jewish schools through technology and global consciousness.
  • New configurations to promote creativity should be developed: Jewish magnet schools, day school/supplemental school collaborations, Israel-Diaspora schools, interfaith learning opportunities.
  • Pluralism needs to be at the center of Jewish educational experience as a source of creativity. Peter Berger, the prominent sociologist, has concluded that what most characterizes our age is not secularism, but pluralism. Creativity is often generated by the exchange of ideas and the intersection of diverse ideas within and between people.
  • Leaders need to be creative thinkers, and we have to invest in facilitating and fostering creativity as a core quality of educational leadership.

How are we going to get there? Based on a book by Harvard Business School professor and innovation expert Clayton Christensen, “Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns” (2008), I would suggest that we will need to redirect our goals for Jewish education on a number of different fronts.

  • Philanthropists, foundations, federations will need to help fund disruptions – innovations that do not just improve and enhance current systems. Funding research and teacher training that focuses on how different people learn and how we can foster creativity will be of critical importance.
  • We need to invest in technologies and their application to Jewish learning: digital games, online hevruta study, JED talks (Jewish Ed presentations akin to TED talks), more online resources, etc.
  • Teacher training has to equip teachers to use technology as well as the best research in different learning modalities and multiple intelligences to foster creativity among students of all ages. Teachers need to be trained to identify, develop and implement user networks and not just standard curricula. Lab schools of Jewish creativity should be at the core of teacher training.
  • Our graduate institutions need to study “the anomalies and outliers: that is where the richest insight can be found.”
  • We need studies – longitudinal if possible – that look at outcomes in terms of how the Jewish educational experience is generative and how it nourishes creative processes.
  • Students and their families need to insist on a Jewish education that feeds their creative spirit and provides access to the resources and nourishment generated by Jewish life throughout the millennia.

We need Jewish educational excellence of a certain type – Jewish education toward creativity.

Rabbi Daniel L. Lehmann is President, Hebrew College.