Wax On, Wax Off:
A New Paradigm for Jewish Education – Idea #1

By Dr. Bill Robinson

How do we help our learners to thrive in the world by having “Jewish tradition and wisdom … in their life?
Ana Pava, Chair of the JFNA Office of Education and Engagement from a recent eJewishPhilanthropy post.

In today’s article, I will share the 1st of 9 simple ideas, which taken together can transform Jewish education, in ways that inspire and guide learners to “draw on and use their Jewishness to live more meaningful, fulfilling, and responsible lives?” as Jon Woocher (z”l) challenged us to do.

This week’s idea is:
Practicing Judaism cultivates within us the virtues (middot) that we need to cocreate a just and caring world (including our personal wellbeing).

This is not the way most of us have come to understand Judaism or to teach it. Jewish education has tended to take two alternative views of Judaism. In Seymour Fox’s 2003 book Visions of Jewish Education, Abraham Twersky argues that the purpose of Jewish education is the habituation of the Jewish people to the commandments of Judaism as defined in the Talmud. On the more liberal side, many educators (echoing though misreading Mordecai Kaplan) see Judaism as a collection of ancient rituals and folkways. The purpose of Jewish education being to create memorable connections to the heritage of our people. In the former, we are taught how to observe them in order to fulfill our obligations to God under the rabbinic authority of halacha. In the latter, we are taught about these practices so that our traditions can be preserved. While neither is completely wrong; they both miss the fundamental mark of Judaism.

What if the primary purpose of practicing Judaism (and thus Jewish education) was neither the observance of halacha nor the preservation of our people and its culture? What if, instead, to quote JTS Professor Alan Mittleman (from A Short History of Jewish Ethics), its purpose is found in Judaism’s eternalaspiration to achieve a just ordering of communal life and an ideal of individual character? From this perspective, our laws and folkways should be viewed as social practices through which we can develop ourselves in ways that will lead to a better world and a more worthwhile life. In this sense, Judaism is more akin to the discipline of meditation, yoga and certain Chinese martial arts, than it is to the laws of a nation or the cultural traditions of an ethnic group.

This idea is at least as old and as authoritative as Maimonides (following the teachings of Aristotle), who wrote the following concerning Jewish practices (focusing in this case on the purpose of practicing tzedakah to develop within us the virtue of generosity):

[V]irtues will not be attained according to the magnitude of the deed, but according to the multitude of the number of deeds. That is, that virtues will indeed be attained by repeating the good deeds many times. With this (method) he will attain a firm trait – and not when a man performs a single major act of the good acts, for through this alone he will not attain a firm trait. The illustration of this: When a man gave to one who is deserving a thousand gold pieces all at once (that is,) to one man, and he did not give anything to another man, he will not achieve the attribute of generosity through this single major deed, just as it is attained by one who contributed a thousand gold pieces in a thousand instances, and gave all of those gold pieces from the standpoint of generosity. Inasmuch as this one repeated the practice of generosity a thousand times, he attained a firm trait, whereas that one, in only one instance was his soul powerfully stimulated toward a good act, and thereafter it (i.e., the stimulus) ceased from him.

The tradition of Mussar, founded by Israel Salanter (based in part on the writings of Benjamin Franklin), continues and expands upon this virtue-centric understanding of Judaism.

In practice, each person and each community (in which learning is situated) will need to focus on educating for those virtues that they deem most important. Thus, you must have some vision of the worthwhile life that you are preparing to lead, as a way of selecting among various virtues. Yet, as the neo-Aristotelian philosopher Alisdair MacIntyre notes, ultimately the good life is the life spent searching for the good life.

We are not left just to our own imaginations to do so. We can glean wisdom from modern science and from ancient traditions (ours and others) to form our own vision of the good life. Yet, as I argued in a previous article, we certainly must expand our sights beyond the mundane ends that Positive Psychology offers us, such as authentic connections and finding flow.

Martin Buber did not just call for better relationships, he asked of us to treat the other as a valued end in herself (as a “Thou” not an “it”), regardless of the use she may have to us. Martin Luther King, Jr. proclaimed, “I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Abraham Joshua Heschel, challenged us be sensitize to the sublime wonder of the world around us, and to hear the divine call that issues forth from it. And, when he walked with King in Selma, Alabama, as a way of responding to that divine call, Heschel did not just feel flow, he “felt [his] feet were praying.” These are rudiments of the thriving life that will inspire the young and the old alike, visions taken together (along with a care of the soul) that could form the basis of a life of shlemut (wholeness), which should drive Jewish education.

This is even more true in our time of impending climate change, as we seem to need greater fortitude, courage, resilience, humility, and creativity than ever before.

We may then study Jewish (and non-Jewish) texts that deepen and challenge our visions and our understanding of individual virtues. This form of text study has become fairly common, as more educational programs see their mission as cultivating menschlichkeit. Yet, by itself, text study is insufficient. You can’t become more gracious, courageous, curious, righteous, humble, thankful or any other virtue simply by reading about it. If you want to become a more generous person (for example), you need to practice generosity.

The way you do that is through engaging in everyday practices in which that virtue is an internal good. For the virtue of generosity, Maimonides recommends the daily practice of giving tzedakah. If you want to live a life of gratitude, you can cultivate this as a habit of your character by getting up every morning and saying the Modeh Ani, as well as by uttering various blessings for different moments as they occur in your daily life. These practices discipline you to then respond in the moment to the often arbitrary world in which we live with a stance of equanimous gratitude, come what may.

As Mr. Miyagi instructed Daniel in the Karate Kid, he was to begin his learning simply by waxing on and then waxing off, over and over again. Through this he developed the muscle memory to learn Karate. Saying Modeh Ani and blessings (for example) help us to develop the ethical and spiritual “muscle” memories we need to respond with gratitude even (or especially) when life throws you a virtual kick in the face. And these are not the only Jewish practices through which we can develop the various virtues needed to co-create a just and caring world. There are many more practices that will be explored in this series, such as Shabbat, the holidays, and text study, along with the middot that they may cultivate.

If we see Judaism from this perspective, then the purpose of Jewish education is not foremost about ensuring Jewish identity or the observance of any particular laws or folkways. To borrow the title of a recent eJewishPhilanthropy piece by Casper ter Kuile, the purpose of Jewish education is to help us becometo help us grow into empowered and ethical selves who have found in Jewish practice and Jewish relationships the resources to lead lives of wellbeing for our own sakes and for the sake of the world in which we live. And, yet, in so doing, these learners will come to value Judaism and Jewish community, and form a robust Jewish identity, because the lives they lead and the stories they tell about themselves will be organically Jewish stories. But, more about this in later articles.

The above paradigm for Jewish education emerged out of the Fellowship in Educating for Applied Jewish Wisdom, a Leadership Commons initiative, which was supported by Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah, the Melton Research Endowment of JTS, and the William Davidson Foundation. To read more about it and a general description of this new approach, go here.

Dr. Bill Robinson is the dean of the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of JTS.