What is the Purpose of Jewish Education?

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October 26, 2011

So what?

I once attended a grant-writing workshop led by Dr. Debbie Findling of the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Foundation. She lit a match, and requested that participants present a compelling argument for their projects in the time the match burned down. If she singed her fingers before hearing an answer to the “so what” question, we had lost her attention (and needed to buy her some Aloe Vera). If we succeeded, well, we had just caught the interest of a major funder.

The Indo-European root of the word “purpose” is pur, which means fire. There is no question that there is tremendous energy and passion in the Jewish community around Jewish education. But where does the true fire reside? What is the purpose of a Jewish education?


Maimonides, in his Guide for the Perplexed, claims that Judaism’s overall goal is to help us live together in ethical communities: “The True Law…has come to bring us…the welfare of the states of the people in their relations with one another through the abolition of reciprocal wrongdoing and through the acquisition of a noble and excellent character” (Part III, ch. 27.) Jewish law first helps us to perfect ourselves, and then to live ethical lives with each other, navigating our own needs and desires with those of others, under an umbrella of divine guidance.

A Jewish education must not only teach Jewish texts and traditions, but also train youth to use that knowledge to affect their actions, to achieve one of our “so whats,” the creation of ethical relationships that spawn peaceful, just communities.

Today, we must expand that notion of community to the global level. We have never had such facility in establishing relationships with one another. Technology has radically changed the nature of the “relationship” game. Not only do we know immediately what is occurring across the world; we often know immediately the intimate details of strangers. Even the vocabulary of relationships is in radical flux. When Aristotle wrote about friendship in his Nicomachean Ethics, he assumed that friends were face to face contacts, with regular physical interactions. His notion of civic friendship, in which human beings treat each other and themselves with respect, compassion, moral rigor, and justice, depends on this definition (see e.g. Books XIII and IX). Today, though, Facebook has changed the definition of the word “friend,” and therefore, the ethical guidelines about how we relate to people with whom we are in some type of intimate relationship, but with whom we have no true intimacy, must be redefined. We need fresh perspectives regarding how to live together in our global, inexorably intertwined community.

A Jewish educational environment must take seriously the ultimate destiny of the global community. We have a responsibility to train children receiving a Jewish education to use their Jewish knowledge, understanding, tools, and perspectives to make an impact on the world, incorporating a highly developed system of interpersonal ethical attitudes to a fast-paced world of thousands of “friendships” that often leaves people treacherously alone.

I believe that a Jewish education should include training in “ethical activism.” Rabbi Avi Weiss, in his book Principles of Spiritual Activism (2002), writes: “being an activist is about much more than being involved in what some call the ‘big causes,’ those that receive the most attention in the media. The ‘little causes,’ those that touch the lives of relatively few and go largely unnoticed, are equally vital… True activism is the realization that the greatest causes of all involve basic human needs” (p. 13). A Jewish education, regardless of denomination or venue, should, in addition to teaching knowledge, teach students to weave their knowledge into profound understanding, and use that understanding to inform their behavior. No matter what we teach our students about Judaism, we should ensure that they are trained to connect Jewish beliefs and practices with their own lives, with the way in which they treat themselves and others. Ultimately, the Jewish education our children receive should manifest itself in Jewishly-grounded ethical action. Their behavior, private and public, should be richly informed by their Jewish learning, and should contribute to the making of an ethical, just, peaceful world.


Methodology for a Jewish Ethical Activist Education

Interestingly, a very old method of Jewish learning – hevruta – can be a model for how this type of ethical education can proceed. Hevruta is Jewish method of text study that involves two partners coming together to grapple with a third partner, the text. Hevruta partners read a text out loud in small sections, attempt to understand those sections, and then assimilate them together as a coherent whole.

The hevruta classroom is like a laboratory, in which students and teachers alike are experimenting, grappling with difficult ideas, seeking to understand their ultimate purpose, and their relevance. The goal of learning in this environment is not simply assimilating knowledge. The challenge is to see what happens with that knowledge: how does it affect the student, her thinking, and her behavior? How does it affect the classroom, the group dynamic, and group behavior? How does the knowledge conveyed challenge previous knowledge, or set the stage for other learning? What does the student do with it all? In Leadership Can Be Taught (2005), Sharon Daloz-Parks introduces an educational method called “Case-in-Point” teaching. This method approaches classroom dynamics as part of the curriculum. It creates a pedagogical environment in which the classroom is a laboratory of reflection, active learning, student participation, and experimentation. In this environment, students are not only learning a subject; they are also learning about the process of learning, and about themselves, their teachers, and their classmates.

Ronald Heifetz explains this type of environment in his book Leadership Without Easy Answers (1994), as one in which the learner is able to move between the “dance floor” and the “balcony” – Consider the experience of dancing on a dance floor in contrast with standing on a balcony and watching other people dance. Engaged in the dance, it is nearly impossible to get a sense of the patterns made by everyone on the floor. Motion makes observation difficult… To discern the larger patterns on the dance floor – to see who is dancing with whom, in what groups, in what location, and who is sitting out which kind of dance – we have to stop moving and get to the balcony.

The hevruta classroom can help create a “case-in-point” learning environment, in which students are not only encountering knowledge on the dance floor, but also have the skills and opportunity to move to the balcony, to attempt to grapple with the understandings that emerge from their ongoing learning.

Specifically, the process of Hevruta learning can inform and enhance the Jewish ethical activist classroom in the following ways:

Responsibility for the Other. The student is not alone, but is responsible for the learning of his partner. If one person “gets” the text and the other doesn’t, the pair is stuck, together. The partners are responsible for each other’s ultimate success. The hevruta learning environment necessitates that each individual learn that the perspective of the other is critical not only for the advancement of the group, but also for the advancement of the individual – that we are interdependent and must grapple with the perspectives and opinions of others a) to grow as human beings, and b) work effectively together to achieve our goals.


Ideas are Multi-faceted and Complex. Often, hevruta partners will have radically different understandings of what a text is saying. This reinforces the notion that people have multiple, and often conflicting, perspectives. When students study in hevruta, they learn how to navigate those conflicts, learning to respect the views of others, and orchestrate the conflict it may cause.

Deliberate Partnering – Paving the Way for Critical Relationships. Often, the best hevruta relationships are between the most unlikely individuals. Integral to the philosophy of successful activism is the notion of partnering – developing the structures and relationships to gain perspectives that one cannot have on one’s own. Hevruta can help either model or create the “unlikely partner” relationship, and give that relationship a continuing structure, as well as depth and content, teaching students how to be in relationship with those with whom they disagree.

Cultivation of Compassionate Listening. Critical to successful ethical activism is the ability to genuinely learn to hear and interpret what is occurring in one’s environment. Each hevruta partner must learn to listen on at least three levels – to the text, to her partner, and to her own interpretations – and engage these three levels in dialogue, ultimately learning about the text, about the partner, and growing in selfunderstanding. On a concrete level, the hevruta process always involves one of the partners reading the text aloud and the other listening; this can be interpreted as a symbolic gesture that the activity of listening is at the core of learning, understanding, and successful action.

Movement between Intellectual Discussion & Personal Contemplation. A critical aspect of the hevruta philosophy is that personal tangents are integral pieces of the learning, and that personal experience sheds light onto the understanding of text, just as text sheds light onto the understanding of personal experience. When students bring in examples from their life to help them understand their text, they are beginning to develop the skill of transference. Hevruta study provides students the opportunity to experiment with using “real life” to understand text, and then using text, its concepts and ideals, to inform “real life.”

Nature of the Educational Relationship. The Hevruta approach breaks down the traditional notion of the educator as one who has knowledge to impart, and the student as one who is unknowing and must absorb information. The student must be perceived by the educator, and must perceive herself, as an active participant in the educational process, and as one who has the authority and responsibility to make valued contributions in this process.

Study to Action

The Talmud, in tractate Kiddushin (40b), recounts a story of Rabbis grappling with the following question: “What is greater – study or action?” They ultimately conclude, “study is greater.” Why? Because “study leads to action.” Jewish learning, while infinitely valuable, should ultimately lead to ethical actions and interactions. Hevruta is a powerful tool in facilitating the movement from study to action, and thereby helping Jewish wisdom stay relevant and agile in today’s world. Jewish education can contribute invaluably to the challenge of striving to define and create an ethical global community. In our Jewish educational environments, we must ensure that we train the next generation to engage in this process, armed with a set of values, texts, and tools unique to our tradition. The philosophical methodology behind hevruta learning to create an ethical educational environments should be considered as one vehicle to help ensure that the Jewish education our children receive is one that will stay with them for a lifetime, and inspire and challenge how they behave as human beings in this world.

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