The Art of Pluralist Jewish Education

Brad Hirschfield

I take for granted, given the readership to which this is addressed, that the value of such education need not be demonstrated here, nor does anyone need my particular list of classical sources upon which one might base their commitment to such education. Instead, I hope to offer an alternative metaphor which might guide our efforts in doing pluralist education.

Ultimately, pluralist education is best viewed as neither a science nor a technology, but rather as an art, and its goal should be the creation of Jewish spiritual/intellectual artists. For me, pluralist Jewish education is not simply one in which multiple forms of Jewish practice and thought are given equal weight and consideration. Instead, it is one in which the pursuit of Jewish learning and the use of Jewish practice itself nurtures a pluralist approach to both Judaism and life in both students and teachers.

Once that decision is made, the issues of pretty much everything from prayer practices within a school, to kashrut policies, to every other practical issue which challenges the communities with whom I have worked, can be addressed relatively easily and in ways which respect the integrity of all members of the community. It is not that such challenges simply vanish, but what it means to “solve” them is redefined.

The pragmatic challenges shift from those of structural arrangements and practices to ones of values and consciousness. The challenges move from how we make space for each other in what we think of as a pluralist community, to how the decisions we make about any given issue bring to life the community’s commitment to pluralism.

Of course, all of this assumes that when we speak of pluralist or community education, we are speaking of something greater than structural arrangements which assure that the greatest number of Jewish children turn out a specific way. And it is certainly about something more than working backward from a pre-conceived notion of what is “really” Jewish and simply getting as many people as possible to move closer to that goal. That is not pluralism, it is utilitarian communitarianism—it may be useful, but it is hardly the art form about which I am writing.

Pluralist Jewish education, like much Jewish education in general, is too often like the old Venus “Paint by Numbers” kits, albeit with more colors included in the set than is offered by non-pluralist providers. In either case, the challenge is to get people to paint the pre-set pictures according to the color scheme the experts indicate with those little numbers which appear in the outlined picture.

At best, that approach will create a culture of technicians who may become increasingly adroit at coloring within the lines, but, like all technicians, will lack a sense of larger purpose and be more inclined to take a dim view of those who paint differently from themselves. How could it be otherwise when they have been educated into a system in which the picture is already drawn, the appropriate colors already determined, and their task has been reduced to filling in someone else’s conception of how things ought to be?

While there is of course room for such directed processes—in even the most radically pluralist settings, they’re often what distinguish them from relativist ones—the goal of genuinely pluralist educations must be to create people who see both themselves and others as artists engaged in a creative process. To be sure, such creativity demands both discipline and a genuine command of the paints upon one’s palette, but it celebrates the artist’s work even when many consider what has been produced to be “bad art.”

It does so, because in a culture in which the production of art is valued above the particular pieces being produced, more great art is produced, and more importantly, the value of art increases, even as debates rage about what is good art and what is not. Is that not a reasonable description of how we hope Jewish ideas play in the lives of people who get a Jewish education?

In such settings, we acknowledge that the more paint that is found on artists’ palettes, the more creative options they will have to express themselves. That is how texts, practices, and teachings need to be seen in pluralist education. They are not simply proofs for conclusions already reached, but tools that can be used (or not) by those who are given access to them. And as with artists who may never paint from certain ranges of the spectrum, but who value that full range, students in pluralist settings come to see the value of even those “colors” of which they may never avail themselves, yet are seen as invaluable to the overall project of making art in the world.

Ultimately, artists don’t make art because they are compelled to from without, or because it assures their identity as artists, or because others tell them that what they are producing is the “right kind” of art. Artists make art because they feel they have no choice, because it is the highest expression of who they are, because the world needs art and they can make it. My hope is that would be how all those engaged in Jewish education, particularly pluralist Jewish education, would think about it.

We need not agree on what constitutes good art, or art that will last, or art that assures that there will be artists in the future. We need to get as much spiritual/intellectual “paint” into the hands of as many people as possible and invite them to begin painting. We need to help them use the paints that we call Torah and Jewish living to do just what artists do—i.e., use the “paint” we provide them as the medium to express their best selves and make the richest possible contribution to both their fellow artists and the world.

Imagining for them what that will look like will never work, at least not on a truly grand scale. But if we trust that a culture of artists, empowered by their knowledge and experience of the resources of their collective past, will ultimately be good for the arts, the future is ours to create and it will be a rich one. ♦

Rabbi Brad Hirschfield serves as President of CLAL – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, and is the author, most recently, of You Don’t Have To Be Wrong For Me To Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism. He can be reached at

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HaYidion Pluralism Winter 2009
Winter 2009