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Galilee Diary: Public Education II

Galilee Diary: Public Education II

by Marc Rosenstein
(Originally published in Ten Minutes of Torah and Galilee Diary)

It's already been a long time that the complaints have been unceasing regarding the Hebrew school [system in Palestine] - that the pupils there... have no "aroma of Torah," no Jewish spirit, no love of Judaism...
         -Joseph Klausner, historian and Zionist leader, 1921

In 1982 I had the opportunity to begin a PhD at the Hebrew University.  I approached Prof. Jacob Katz, a noted historian whom I very much admired, to help me pick a topic (he was retired at the time).  I told him that based on my experience as a principal in a Jewish school in the US, I was interested in the challenge of socializing children into a non-existent society (for example, trying to teach them the customs and prayers included in the curriculum, knowing that they would not actually experience these in the context of their families), and wondered if there might be a historical model I could study.  Among the topics he suggested was the Zionist education system in Palestine before the state, and its attempt to re-define Jewish identity for the state which didn't yet exist.  I accepted the suggestion, and spent three years on a fascinating adventure exploring education and culture in pre-state Palestine.  And the results have served me well in the decades since, in the US and in Israel.

It turns out that the dilemmas facing theeducators in the Yishuv in the first decades of the 20th century nevergot resolved, and are still with us.  On the one hand, Zionism was arebellion against Diaspora Judaism, which meant, for many, a rebellionagainst Jewish religion as an artifact of the Diaspora which wouldbecome obsolete once we returned to a normal life as a nation.  On theother hand, it seems that trying to separate Jewish national culturefrom Jewish religion is a bit like trying to separate Siamese twinsjoined at the brain - neither is likely to survive the operation. Among the educational frameworks that developed out of this tension, atone end were the schools influenced by the socialist Zionists, whowere hostile to religious traditions; at the other end were theOrthodox Zionists, who saw the Zionist enterprise as a manifestation ofthe beginnings of the messianic redemption, and who therefore taught asynthesis of Zionism and religion.  The mainstream, influenced by AchadHa'am, sought a different synthesis: the secularization of thetradition; i.e., keeping the main elements of tradition - holidays,texts - but viewing them as manifestations of a secular nationalculture.  Thus, the Talmud became not a book of law, but a classic, tobe read the way English-speakers read Shakespeare - as a formative textof their culture.  To a large extent, it can be said that thistransformation worked.  For many Israelis, everyday life and cultureare definitely Jewish - framed by the Jewish calendar, conducted inHebrew in the land of Israel, where theater and  literature - and evenpop music - are rich in allusions to the Jewish classics.

And yet, it can also be said that thissuccess is rather superficial, leaving a certain hollowness underneath -and formidable educational challenges.  For example, it seems obviousthat the prayerbook is a central classic of our literature; yet canyou really teach it as literature, without any experience of prayeritself?  If you try to teach prayer as a practice or an expression ofbelief, you are accused of religious coercion.  Those of us who arguefor separation of religion and state would have trouble defendingprayer services in public schools (never mind the impossibility offinding a denominational consensus on the choreography and content). Yet how can an educated Jew be ignorant of such a central pillar of ourliterature and experience?  Likewise with respect to the Talmud,perhaps THE classic text.  But, alas, it's not Shakespeare or evenDickens, and the skills needed to decipher it are daunting.  The resultof this dilemma has been a century of dilution and diminution and aconstant litany of complaints about the failure of the system toprovide the New Jews with roots in the sources of Judaism (thus leavingthem more New than Jewish) - and blue ribbon commissions, and diktatsfrom the Ministry of Education, and new curricula, and trips toAuschwitz, and trips to North American Jewish communities - and morecomplaints. 

Professor Katz has since passed away.  I'msorry I never actually asked him: Is it possible to socialize childreninto a non-existent society?

Published: 11/01/2011

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