The Tikvah Foundation (Mosaic) published a remarkable essay last week that merits wide circulation and study. Written by Eric Cohen and Rabbi Mitchell Rocklin, the work is entitled, The Spirit of Jewish Classical Education. It is a marvellous collaborative effort, an intellectual tour de force. At its core, it is a history of ideas that shaped western civilization and culture from the first stirrings around the Mediterranean basin of humankind’s various curiosities and questioning of the ultimate nature and purpose of human existence.
Cohen is CEO of Tikvah and the publisher of Mosaic. He is also one of the founders of the new Lobel Center for Jewish Classical Education. Rabbi Rocklin is the academic director and dean of the new Lobel Center for Jewish Classical Education. He is also director of the Jewish classical education concentration track at the University of Dallas.
The essay is some 18-pages long. It invites serious examination. For this reader, it also evoked a sense of head-nodding inspiration.
Through numerous examples and careful marshalling of the facts and layering of history, the authors assert that Jewish teachings have shaped Western civilization in vital ways from the beginning. Not only did Jewish teachings shape Western civilization, they maintain, but that those very teachings were vital to the evolution of our society as we know it today. The authors identify those teachings, the proponents through the ages and they explain their larger impact.
Finally, they plead for a return to meaningful Jewish classical education today for the sake of the Jewish community as well as for the sake of larger Western civilization. (Our emphasis) Their conclusions are quite head-turning.
We quote merely a few truncated passages from the essay to enable readers to taste a bit its meaning for us.
“In their confrontation with Christian civilization and eventually with the post-Enlightenment world, the architects of Jewish learning sought to pursue three goals at once. They developed a unique Jewish approach to education.
“The first purpose of Jewish education was Jewish resistance against assimilation: resistance to paganism, resistance to the high pagan culture of Greece and Rome, resistance to embracing Christianity as the potential ticket (in Heinrich Heine’s famous phrasing) to the intellectual, cultural, and economic riches of the Christian world. The rabbinic system thus focused on the inculcation of Jewish law, the mastery of Jewish ritual, and the observance of the Jewish calendar. Learning Talmud became the highest possible intellectual pursuit. This allowed Jews—even in poverty and exile—to understand themselves as aristocrats of mind and spirit. It also allowed the Jews to continue their role as sacrificial partners with a covenantal God—embodied in the physical acts of Jewish ritual life—de- spite outside insistence that such practices were peculiar, parochial, and unnecessary.
“The second purpose of Jewish education was integration of the discoveries, insights, and achievements of Greco-Roman (and eventually Christian) culture in a uniquely Jewish way. Jews could not ignore Western achievements in natural science, medicine, architecture, art, literature, and political economy. These novel human accomplishments and insights thus needed to be incorporated—both practically and theoretically—into the Jewish vision of life.
“The third purpose of Jewish education was to make a uniquely Jewish contribution to the West itself: to see the Israelites as a moral and metaphysical light to the nations, whose core ideas might influence the ultimate direction and meaning of the Western story and thus the human story. This includes offering Hebraic remedies for Greco-Roman disorders; and providing “Old Testament” wisdom when the Christian (or post-Christian) world goes astray.
“Holding these three purposes together was—and remains—no easy challenge, and the relative urgency and weight of each distinct purpose necessarily changed from age to age and place to place. Yet the ideal form of Jewish education—past, present, and future—aimed to advance all three purposes at once: resisting anti-Jewish ideas in the name of Judaism, integrating the best of Western developments into the Jewish way of life, and contributing Jewish wisdom to Western culture. This was—and remains— the guiding spirit of Jewish classical education.”
The authors prescribe the wide possibilities for a Jewish classical education. They also call to the Jewish people to reject the polarity of models of either living as Assimilated Jew or as an Isolationist Jew.
“In radically different ways, the Assimilated Jew and the Isolationist Jew both declare that Western civilization is not their problem: the Assimilated Jew falsely takes Western “progress” for granted; the (Isolationist) Yeshiva Jew falsely sees Western decadence as inevitable; and neither takes any Jewish responsibility for the very Western culture that the Israelites helped create. (Our emphasis)
What then, is the authors’ proposal as an alternative for Jewish life and education today?
“Let us celebrate, instead, the Menorah Jew, who proudly seeks to help renew the West by shining a Jewish light in the modern age: one teacher, one classroom, one Jewish day school at a time. For whether we accept it or not, the Jews will never be a normal nation. We have an exceptional place in the human story. As the Jewish intellectual Milton Himmelfarb famously quipped, the Jews are no bigger than a rounding error in the Chinese census, and yet we always find ourselves at the center of the hu- man drama. And so, we will either prepare the rising generation of Jews to navigate the Western world—and to help save the woke West from canceling itself—or we will send our Jewish boys and girls down the lesser paths of assimilation or isolation. The heroes in this story—as in so many eras of Jewish history—will be the school-builders.”
The authors conclude by quoting Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch who lived in 19th century Germany. Cohen and Rockling referred to him as ‘the most significant modern example of Jewish classical education in recent times.”
“If ever a cause required the clarity of profound insight, the eloquence of deep-felt conviction and the impetus of ardent zeal, if ever there was a cause for which we would rouse all those hearts that can still be moved to genuine feeling for the sacred heritage of Judaism, then it most certainly is that of education—Jewish education.
“Create schools! Improve the schools you already have!” This is the call we would pass from hamlet to hamlet, from village to village, from city to city; it is the appeal to the hearts, the minds and the conscience of our Jewish brethren, pleading with them to champion that most sacred of causes—the cause of thousands of unhappy Jewish souls who are in need of schools, better Jewish schools, for their rebirth as Jews.”
In light of the passage that the authors chose to conclude their impressive work, it will surprise no-one that GAJE commends the authors and recommends their essay for wide reading.
The Cohen and Rocklin essay is available at:
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Grassroots for Affordable Jewish Education (GAJE)
February 17, 2023