Talmud Torah Keneged Kulam: Martin Buber’s Secular Vision of the Educated Jew

Judah Levine

Most contemporary Jews, including many observant Jews, are secularized. They are secular in that they are open to and consider themselves part of the broad world in which they live, and recognize its myriad and diverse influences on what they consider knowledge and what they accept as values. Yet—to borrow Paul Mendes-Flohr’s distinction—in that they still exist in cognizance of and in a certain, even be it tenuous, relationship to their Jewish heritage and tradition, they are not entirely secular, but secularized. Thus, secularized Jews do not recognize the Torah as the exclusive realm of knowledge and values, and may not view the Torah as an ultimate authority on beliefs and practices, but nonetheless still look to the tradition for some sort of influence on their identity and lives. The response of the secularized Jew to the above question is therefore less forthcoming.

What, then, will constitute and sustain Judaism in a secular age? What is secularized Jewish education to provide? A sense of Jewish history? Familiarity with the Bible and the major texts of the Jewish canon? Knowledge of the “essential” teachings or message of Judaism, its ethics and distinct values? The means to contribute to Jewish culture? Positive social experiences with other Jews?

Martin Buber (1878-1965), the eminent and strongly anti-traditionalist Jewish philosopher, in addressing the question of modern Jewish identity, recognized all the above—knowledge of the tradition, social cohesion and the ability to make new contributions to Jewish culture—as basic to Jewish education and continuity. Most essentially, however, he defined the educated secularized Jew as someone with the tools and desire to make Jewish learning, the study of Jewish texts, an enduring fixture of his or her life, independent of beliefs and practices. He held that Jewish education must therefore inspire and prepare the student to be a life-long student.

As a young man, Buber beheld, on one side, traditional Judaism that, in his opinion, was at odds with modernity and celebrated ritual and submission to the authority of the past at the expense of one’s autonomy and spiritual creativity. On the other side, he found modernized, acculturated Jews ignorant of their own heritage, indifferent to Jewishness of substance and spiritually superficial. The failure of both of these types of Judaism was reflected in their respective relationships to Jewish texts: the traditionalist looked exclusively to the text, the past and to the authority of the Torah to dictate beliefs and norms in the present. The acculturated Jew, meanwhile, did not engage the text at all. An educated acculturated Jew was one who studied (minimally) about Judaism in textbooks and in translation but did not study as a Jew, or directly study the Torah at all. That was the task of the expert rabbi or scholar.

Buber sought a return to Judaism as a living reality (though not as an institutional religion) that would address the needs of the modern Jew: community, spiritual vitality, and a substantive connection to Judaism that would not compromise one’s undeniable modern, even secular, sensibilities. Secularization thus did not mean atheism, agnosticism or the denial of spirituality. On the contrary, Buber sought a renewal of “primal” Jewish spirituality “unencumbered” by the accumulations of generations of organized Jewish religion. At first he posited a nearly mystical faith in the power of each Jew’s innate Jewish spirit to be the basis for new creativity and community. He soon realized, though, that without a connection to the existing tradition this type of effort would be but one more example of secular, humanistic spiritual renewal. It would be Jewish only by the descent of its membership, while, from the perspective of Jewish religious continuity, it would be merely arbitrary.

Thus, he proposed that to be unapologetically modern, unapologetically Jewish, free, creative and spiritually dynamic, the modern Jew, irrespective and independent of belief or practice, must be in contact and dialogue with the texts of tradition. Jewish learning is the key to both one’s relationship to the tradition as a secular person, and to one’s relationship to the secular world as a Jew. The ability to live in reference to and conversation with the text will then guarantee the authentic Jewishness of whatever form secularized Jewish life may take. If Jewish learning becomes central to our lives then “no matter how far removed from all tradition we may seem to an insensible glance, we will have committed ourselves to the great course of Judaism” (“Herut: On Youth and Religion,” in On Judaism, 174).

The specifics of Buber’s new Jewish learning comprise his own philosophy of Jewish education and address directly what it means to be an educated modern Jew. This philosophy speaks to the tensions between particularism and universalism, religion and reason, traditionalism and secularism, and between traditional authority and modern autonomy that are still familiar to Jewish educators. A brief sketch of these specifics must precede our consideration of some of his theory’s ramifications for contemporary day school education and beyond.

Building on the rabbinic notion of the Torah’s endless meaning, on the tradition of creative interpretation, and the value of Torah study as a spiritual process and experience, Buber formulated a new model of Jewish learning: study of the text provides the student the context and vocabulary to explore and articulate his or her own spiritual journey. Here “mankind’s wordless dialogue with God is condensed for him into the language of the soul…to which he himself can add new expressions, as yet unspoken. Without this language, he could do no more than stammer and falter.” (Herut, 155) Studying canonical texts is not aimed at submission to the viewpoint of the tradition, but at the contribution of the student to the age-old discussion. Through familiarity and contact with the text, the student is to discover a vocabulary—the words, images and symbols—with which to express the contours of his or her own personal experience.

This renewal is, in fact, a Jewish tradition. In Judaism, it is impossible “to draw a line between preserving and producing…Everyone is convinced that he is doing no more than further advancing that which has advanced him to this point, and he may, nonetheless, be the originator of a new movement” (“Teaching and Deed,” in Israel and the World: Essays in a Time of Crisis, 139). The diversity within the canon, e.g., the rabbinic revision of aspects of biblical ethics, the inclusion of kabbalists and philosophers alongside mainstream Judaism, attests to the tradition of innovation as long as that innovation is in reference to the text. Furthermore, Buber’s notion of the text as providing context for each new perspective means that nothing of oneself or one’s modernness is to be denied through study. Buber envisioned Jewish learning that was open to the contributions of academic scholarship, and viewed criticism as an additional tool with which to understand and appreciate the development of the particularly Jewish discussion.

Now, Jewish spirit is neither innate nor renewed simply through will. Rather, Jewish spirit is “activated” through the student’s own discovery of the text. When teacher and student of Torah truly meet, “the holy spark leaps across the gap. Transmitted content and form are subordinate to the tradition of existence as such and become valid only because of it.” One becomes spiritually Jewish through the process of dedicating oneself to Jewish study, while the content of that study becomes the means for innovation and renewal.

The notion of responsibility is central to Buber’s pedagogy. The true teacher does not look to dictate or interfere, but to facilitate and influence. The teacher guides the student toward his or her own choice to take personal responsibility for his or her relationship to Judaism. Buber argues that Jewish texts must be central to this endeavor and must be presented in a manner by which students “may acquire the power to make the original choice, that—listening to the voice [of the text] with that power—they may hear the message it has for their hour and their work” (“On National Education,” in Israel and the World, 162-3). Education via the text must be “philosophical training for spiritual resistance in the conditions of freedom and personal responsibility.”

A life of learning, he argues, assures that despite one’s distance from the Halakhah or any other form of affiliation, one’s life, values and deeds will become distinctly Jewish because of the inevitable place the text will play in one’s thought process and worldview. As Emmanuel Levinas articulated it: the text becomes the intellectual “living space (Lebensraum)” of the modern Jew. Thus, Buber believed learning would lead to a secularized form of midrash u-ma’aseh.

It is surprising perhaps to expect the modern Jew who is not seeking dogma or law from Judaism to center one’s Jewishness around study, to be concerned with broad and continued contact with the text and not “essences.” It is likewise surprising to base the education of secularized, post-traditional and perhaps non-observant Jewish youth primarily on text-study. But Buber believed that the secularized Jew educated in this way would by default be living a dedicated and substantive Jewish life. Moreover, he or she would have the tools to create new modes of belief, practice or self-perception to bridge the gap between the secular and traditional, in both directions.

The emphases of text study, student empowerment and intellectual and spiritual creativity that are so central to Buber’s notion of what it means to be an educated modern Jew can provide a vision for community day schools. He argues that social, historical and cultural ties to Judaism will not endure the pull of assimilation and secularism without the added existential and spiritual investment in Judaism that will only be legitimate for the secularized Jew through an ongoing, open exploration of and relationship with the texts. The ultimate goal, then, is the cultivation of independent learners, which in childhood must begin with the development of language skills, textual skills and the continued exposure to the texts that will make the literary tradition a familiar and comfortable domain. This is no small task. But Buber further requires that these skills be acquired in an environment that conveys the diversity, dynamic nature and relevance of the canon through which one might find one’s own voice. As such, Buber demands a balance be struck between mastery of textual skills and material, and an emphasis on study as a spiritual process and experience; between an openness to scholarship and criticism, and the message that the Torah is the unique record of the Jewish spiritual discussion; and between the demands of formal education and the desire for students to remain autonomous and ultimately choose responsibility for the perpetuation and renewal of Judaism.

How can this balance be achieved? Firstly, the basic foundational texts through which skills are developed should be supplemented with other texts that reflect the diverse and even competing opinions and viewpoints that comprise the canon in its different eras so that even in the technical realm, the message of diversity and interpretation is already being conveyed. Further, the curriculum should include courses aimed at exploring this diversity through surveys of the varied biblical, rabbinic, philosophic, kabbalistic and other approaches to the same basic elements of the Jewish narrative (e.g., topics in ethics, theology, different interpretations of biblical texts and concepts etc.).

Buber’s vision promotes the notion that sacred texts must also be understood within their historical and cultural context, that there is no contradiction between secular, objective, critical studies and Jewish dedication to the texts. As such, Buber would support an integrated curriculum in which one studied about the ancient Near East alongside the Bible, and about Hellenistic and Persian culture alongside the Talmud. However, in both skill development and historical studies, Buber would demand that the text nonetheless be conveyed as transcending the context of each: biblical Hebrew is not studied for the same reasons one might elect to study any other language, and historical studies do not exhaust the meaning and reach of traditional texts. In each realm, the students should be reminded that through these tools and this knowledge they can be empowered to shape their own understanding of Judaism and its place in their lives. Exposure to the far-flung descriptions of the power and creativity of study in rabbinic literature, for example, could serve as a model to consider Jewish studies as a separate realm from general studies. As such, though benchmarks for achievement and standard forms of evaluation cannot be discarded, perhaps Jewish studies should also encourage and value demonstrations of independent efforts to grapple with the ideas encountered in the texts.

Promoting life-long Jewish learning as a value must start by dispelling the attitude that the text is irrelevant to contemporary Jewish life that does not accept dogma or far-reaching Jewish law. Most basically, the realization of this vision of the educated secular Jew begins by convincing youth that they are entitled to “see for themselves” what Judaism comprises, and that this can only be done through encountering the text for themselves. Finally, Jewish education of this sort must inspire students to choose responsibility for the perpetuation of Judaism by appealing both to their spirit and intellect. As such educators must seek to strike a balance between presenting an authoritative approach to the text and serving as a guide to students’ own explorations. In that community day schools do not seek to promote specific agendas, they are an optimal setting for this type of pedagogy. Education of this sort that integrates this message from early education on can produce young adults with the skills and perspective to set Jewish learning apart and view it as an indispensable tool to one’s self-understanding and connection to Judaism in a largely secular world. ♦

Judah Levine, PhD in modern Jewish thought (University of Chicago), recently completed his dissertation entitled Talmud Torah in Modern Jewish Thought: Martin Buber and the Renewal of Text-centered Judaism. He lives in Modi’in, Israel. He can be reached at [email protected].

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HaYidion The Educated Jew Summer 2010
The Educated Jew
Summer 2010