Jewish Education – A Progressive Challenge

Some educational musings:

I sense that most of our members in progressive synagogues understand now, perhaps like never before, that they are autonomous sovereign selves who can claim to create their own authentic Judaism – for themselves. They now know this can be as idiosyncratic as they wish and they know that all the old figures of authority have effectively vanished – save when it comes to life-cycle moments and status questions when Rabbis can still cling to a modicum of power.

Progressive Jews may struggle regularly about what it means to be free to choose and what it means for tradition – but on the whole, if push came to shove, I think most would prefer their freedom to determine what is right for them and not an authority beyond themselves. That is, to some extent, a victory for the enlightenment ideals of autonomy and humanism.

Whereas there would have been a time when the authority for what ‘is’ Judaism lay with some external force – rabbi, community, beit din, text. In those days, even if you did not follow what the authority said you ‘should’ do, there was at least an implicit understanding that there was a ‘should’ and there was someone or something defining Judaism other than you.

But those days have long passed for progressive Jews (and those who don’t like the passage of time have reverted to moderate or more severe models of external sources of authority). So the questions I’m mulling over now are: how has our model of education in our communities shifted to keep pace with the partial triumph of the enlightenment? In a world where it seems the violent forces of scriptural literalism or fundamentalism appear attractive, how do we educate our members who are committed to retaining a sense of autonomy, of universalism, of humanity. How do we articulate the significance of learning about their particular heritage, a heritage that speaks in the language of responsibility, authority in text/interpreter/Divine revelator, of particularism and purpose for one’s own people?

It’s a question for day schools and religion schools, adult education, youth work and early years and family education. Are there implicit (or explicit) assumptions at work in our educational philosophy that actually no longer make sense? If ‘we’ no longer define ‘it’ but rather work with a rich tapestry (or perhaps too thin soup) of cultural memes and religious ideas then what is it that we are educating about, why and how? If the destabilisation of authority means that even whilst I might see myself (as Rabbi) as a conveyor of values, texts, history, memory, heritage, experts are not the most important voice for doing this, then what happens to our educational philosophy and practice? Are we tempted to use tools of persuasion, rhetoric, and even communal sanction rather than a higher notion of education?

(NOTE: I can’t quite articulate this question. It’s something to do with the strategy by which we find methods to bring children and families in contact with Jewish learning in ways that are either coercive or unavoidable. The success of Jewish day schools is a case in point – we now have perhaps 50% of our children attending them, but are we prioritising Jewish education or academic results and Jewish friendships? Or why do we insist on minimum periods of learning to become Bar/Bat Mitzvah?)

Let me put it another way: one of the repeated issues I come up against in the pluralist Jewish day school worlds is the way in which a previously accepted norm collides with a contemporary revisioning amongst autonomous adults. This, to some extent, is characterised by the Old Model:

“I don’t do x, y, z (which are usually about kashrut or shabbat observance) but I know there are some ‘shoulds’ that I choose not to do.” In other words, the canon of Jewish practice dictates that certain things are ‘supposed’ to be done a certain way – this canon is external to me, it is defined by rabbis or texts or a revelation of God, but nonetheless, it is not something over which I have power. However, I choose to ignore what I’m ‘supposed’ to do because I’m free to do that. But at least there are standards and rules which we should be following.

The New Model reads something like this:

Judaism is authored by me, albeit occasionally dictated to me by family/community. But ultimately, there is no such thing as authentic Judaism save the expression of Judaism which I find meaningful. As such, when I eat prawns for shabbat lunch having attended synagogue in the morning, there is nothing contradictory in that choice. I choose what is Judaism for me. I’m no longer choosing not to do something or to do something that is defined as what I am ‘supposed’ to be doing, but rather Judaism and my choices are fully integrated. Even if that is idiosyncratic and without ideological purity.

Somewhere between the hegemony of the former and egocentric ‘Me-ness’ of the latter, there is a dialogue which we’re not having. And we’re not having it because we have failed to understand/accept that the self-authorship can be an authentic process when situated within a thick conversation about Jewish life and culture. Jewish life is never solely about ‘me’ and almost always includes a ‘we’. But framing that conversation now needs to be significantly more nuanced and our educators need far greater finesse than ever before. It is not good enough that children come home saying ‘This is kashrut’ or ‘this is Shabbat observance’ – they’re meaningless statements. Meaningless for those who couldn’t care less and meaningless for those who care so much they have constructed their own authentic expression of kashrut or shabbat observance.

Ultimately, how do we demonstrate that there is something deeper, more engaging, more fulfilling and more compelling, whilst understanding of the world in which we now find ourselves? How do we thicken our cultural conversations?


NB if synagogues haven’t figured out how to come to terms with what this means, I think the shift in the rabbinic authority is also something for which we are unprepared. Non rabbis can be as educated (sometimes more) than rabbis and non-rabbis are more and more frequently invited to lead rituals and services like funerals and weddings – a clear influence of humanism and the realignment of authority.