Pluralism, Ethos, Creativity and Israel
Lehmann’s essay “Beyond Continuity, Identity, and Literacy” offers a rich, textured, and starkly honest appraisal of the state of Jewish education in America as we move more deeply into the twenty-first century. The essay correctly assumes that the “day school,” largely a postwar American Jewish phenomenon, has now become a mainstay of American Jewish education but has not kept up with the changing fabric of American Jewry or American society. The project of “Americanization” in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that prevented the day school from emerging, and the rise of multiculturalism in the 1980s that provided a cultural foundation for the day school’s success, are both things of the past. While the day school persists and continues to grow, Lehmann argues that it remains mired in an educational paradigm that no longer meets our students’ experiences as they mature into young Jewish adults in what David Hollinger has called “postethnic America.”
In some way, this is understandable. The challenges of postethnic America require more than tinkering with an existing system; they require a complete reappraisal of the educational goals of identity formation. This is because we live in an era where religion has ceased serving as the primary anchor of Jewish identity. Ethnicity, loosely defined, is now how many young American Jews identify as Jews. Religion serves more as a secondary, or tertiary, means of ethnic expression rather than a foundation of belief and practice upon which Jewish identity is forged.
Yet today that ethnic anchor has been destabilized by numerous factors including the reality that the American Jewish community, like Americans more generally, are increasingly multi- or post-ethnic. Being “ethnically Jewish” is now far more complex than it was even in the 1970s. And the acceptance of “Jewishness” as an integral part of the American landscape, in culture, literature, film and politics, makes “Jewishness” as something exclusive to Jews more complicated and nuanced. Ironically, Jewish success in America makes Jewish identity formation more, not less, difficult. In what follows I would like to present a series of challenges to Lehmann on four points: pluralism, ethnicity, creativity and the role of Israel in Jewish education in America today. My point is less a critique than an attempt to sharpen the relevant issues and think about the price we may pay by addressing them in a systematic fashion.
I begin with a short comment on pluralism as it is presented in this essay. Lehmann stresses the importance of pluralism as an ideal that extends beyond acceptance, or tolerance, of the “other” to include the destabilization of truth and certainly as the center of the religious life. That is, pluralism as a theological and not only a social or cultural category. This is certainly courageous, and correct, in my view, but for it to have lasting effect I think it requires an entirely new theological framework, one that in many ways undermines the classical texts that serve as the basis of our educational program. Living with “complexity, contradiction, and ambiguity” as Lehmann states, is certainly something to be celebrated, but how can this model resist the more absolutist models that young Jews may confront as they enter the Jewish world? Cultivating roots to sustain this idea would require more than simply introducing a series of classical texts that can be read “strongly” to support our claims of theological relativism. As we know, these texts can be read otherwise, and often with far more consistent and convincing support.
Rather, this goal of celebrating complexity and ambiguity as theological foundations for human reaction would require a new, and arguably radical, theological subversion of much of what the Hebrew Bible and its tradition espouses. Subversions are not unprecedented in Jewish history; one might argue that Jewish subversive thinking has made some of the most important contributions of Judaism. We find them in works such as the early rabbinic corpus, a radical break from Temple-based Israelite religion (now normalized as “Judaism”), Maimonides’ Aristotelian radically transcendent God, the Zohar’s theory of the fragmented godhead, Isaac Luria’s notion of creation as rupture, Hasidism’s idea of divine immanence bordering on pantheism, Mordecai Kaplan’s notion of Judaism as a civilization and not a religion, and Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi’s New Age “Paradigm Shift” Judaism.
Adaptation through re-interpretation, or the attempt to redeem the past without undermining it, is a more conservative attempt to move Judaism forward. It is a safer but in my mind a weaker model than open subversion, even as the former may better assure continuity than the latter. This is because open subversion honestly acknowledges that our values often stand in contradiction to the texts we read rather than suggesting a more seamless line between the values of the past and our present state of mind. In his call for theological as opposed to cultural pluralism, Lehmann is calling us to rethink the very roots of the Jewish theological project. The potential price for this, a price that may result in nothing less than the accusation of heresy, may be higher than he wants to pay. I fear, however, that anything less will not sufficiently achieve Lehmann’s goals as set out in this essay.
On the question of ethnicity, it seems that Lehmann’s model of Jewish education still assumes a stable ethnic anchor; that is, that Jewish education is largely about Jews teaching Jews about Judaism, although the “Jew” here is never defined. Increasingly, though, the Jewish community is becoming a more complex amalgam of “biological” Jews, non-Jews and various gradations in-between. Jewish education is thus now not only about the tolerance of the non-Jew “outside” the community but needs to think about ways of incorporating the non-Jew who lives “inside” the Jewish community. Jewish education in the next generation needs to consider ways the non-Jew can be incorporated as an integral part of the American Jewish collective, not as a convert (ger tzedek) but as a righteous gentile (ger toshav) who has a positive role to play in the Jewish community.
Lehmann introduces “creativity” as the educational focus that he suggests should supersede the older model of transmission and the obsession with continuity. Fully cognizant of the dangers that “creativity” presents when faced with training a minority culture to survive in a society where they are not threatened from the outside, Lehmann writes, “Our students can take creative risks as Jews because the Judaism at the center of our day schools communicates is strong enough, old enough and flexible enough to hold, support and celebrate their creativity.” I wonder how much Lehmann is willing to enable this creativity to flourish when it resists, even undermines, basic tenets of Jewish life. What are the parameters of creative control?
A good place to look for advice here is Rav Kook’s 1908 letter to the Bezalel Art School, where Kook both encourages and warns budding art students in Mandate Palestine that the Jews need them to open the wellsprings of the Jewish heart though creative expression. Kooks knows that creativity potentially undermines the tradition, and he warns against this, but also knows that without the freedom that give rise to that possibility, the artist cannot succeed in his work. Creativity is a form of rebellion, and thus the call for creativity as a centerpiece of Jewish education must consider the price of that call. I am not suggesting we choose conformity over creativity. I only ask that we as educators be fully aware of the danger creativity wields.
The question of Israel is indeed a vexing one. Many of us who remember Israel before 1967 and who were raised on Leon Uris’ Exodus and Otto Preminger’s film version of that mythic novel must remember that our students only know a much complex Israel, more Western, economically stable, and also mired in managing a 45 year occupation. Many students may ask why Israel should be important at all, or why they should learn about Israel when Israelis learn almost nothing about the contemporary diaspora. Many will argue that Israel does not embody the democratic values they learned were sacred in America.
I think the question “why Israel?” should be an operative one in Jewish education today. We may take that for granted but they may not. Their experience is very different than ours. Assuming Israel is or should be a central part of American Jewish identity formation is more indoctrination than education, at least along the lines Lehmann suggests. Can Jewish education in American today have room for Jewish non-Zionism or even anti-Zionism? If not, why not? I think the Israel curriculum in American Jewish education is in dire need of reformation. It rests on a foundation that is simply outdated and does not speak to the reality of Israel today. The question “How do we teach Israel as a centerpiece of Jewish identity?” should include, in my view, the question “Why teach Israel as a centerpiece of Jewish identity?” allowing for contesting viewpoints and arguments.
In sum, Lehmann’s essay is a forceful prolegomenon for thinking about Jewish education for the next generation. Replacing rote transmission and an obsession with continuity with creativity and experimentation should be encouraged. I think, though that this transition is more precarious than Lehmann thinks and could easily result in a radical break with the past as a consequence. As I mentioned above, this would not be unprecedented but does require the willingness to stake a claim against the mainstream that may place us very much on the margins. I, for one, am in favor of paying that price. In fact, I think it is necessary. I wonder how Lehmann would respond.
Shaul Magid, the Jay and Jeannie Schottenstein Professor of Jewish Studies at Indiana University in Bloomington, is the author most recently of American Post-Judaism: Identity and Renewal in Postethnic America and the forthcoming Hasidism Incarnate: Hasidism, Christianity, and the Construction of Modern Judaism, and is also the rabbi of the Fire Island Synagogue in Sea View, New York. firstname.lastname@example.org
To comment, sign up for your own account on Genius.com and add your thoughts.
To read comments, click on a highlighted block of text. You can respond to individual annotations via the Genius website after you have created a free account.
*Genius.com is a public website that contains many different forms of literature and writing. RAVSAK is not responsible for the content that exists on the genius.com site.