Room to Breathe: Creating Air in Pluralistic Jewish Education

Rabbi Eliezer Sneiderman

It is challenging to design curricula for a pluralistic school. Central to the concept of pluralism is the belief that there is no one correct way to “be Jewish.” When it comes to behavior, no pluralistic educator would say, “This is how a student should behave.” Yet there does not seem to be the same reluctance to say, “This is what a student should know.


Yet this line of thinking smacks of an essentialism that should make pluralistic educators uncomfortable. Do we accept that there are essential and necessary qualities that define a Jew? If a student does not need to keep kosher or observe Shabbat to be considered a Jew, why should they need to know Tanakh? The classical idea of education, that there exists a canon that students must absorb to be considered educated, seems antithetical to pluralism. How can we test students on their approximation to an ideal if we do not accept the concept of an ideal? Classical texts may not resonate with all students. Is Jewish education then about forcing relevance?


Some educators have recognized this. There are schools that have moved away from classically defined Jewish knowledge. Their curriculum is not organized around Tanakh or Mishnah, but around topics and themes. These schools offer courses in Judaism and the Environment, Judaism and Freedom, Judaism and Kindness, etc. The thinking behind this curriculum is that if we can demonstrate to students that their personal values are also found in Judaism; we can create, rather than compel, relevance.


But a thematic curriculum is not the perfect solution. First, it disenfranchises the more traditional student who is looking for classical texts. Can pluralism exist if a school attracts only Jews from a narrow range of practice and belief? Second, it also assumes an ideal. The environment is assumed to be a universal ideal, and Jewish texts are selected to support this ideal. But the existence of an “ideal,” any ideal, is essentialism, just packaged differently. The thematic curriculum often skews Jewish sources heavily toward a liberal ideal, at the expense of careful engagement with the text on its own terms.


Finally, this type of organization creates what Brad Hirschfeld calls “Paint by Numbers” or what I refer to as “connect-the-dot Judaism.” Some universally accepted truth is found to be supported by Jewish texts, and the job of the learner is to connect a series of out-of-context short text selections. “Torah learning” degenerates into waiting for the teacher to present the next series of dots. Creative thinking and a personalized identity becomes almost impossible in this model.


Educators committed to pluralistic education are thus presented with a dilemma. An ideal connected to classical texts can limit a student’s self-expression and autonomy. Yet an ideal connected to “universal” values does the same thing. As soon as one says, “This is what one must do, believe, espouse or accept to be Jewish,” one disenfranchises those who disagree.


Today, pluralistic educators accept Bethamie Horowitz’s idea that there are multiple Jewish journeys. These Jewish journeys are incredibly diverse, both internally and externally. As pluralistic educators we seek to encourage those journeys, not stifle them. Today, no one would argue that there exists an essentially defined ideal Jew, a single path that one must follow. Yet, if there is no single ideal, what goal are we educating to? Does our discomfort with essentialism then force us, as critics of pluralism argue, into a limbo of relativism?


The solution lies in realizing that pluralism is not merely an environment, method or outcome. Rather, pluralism is an epistemology. Pluralism is a way of making sense of and understanding reality. This way of knowing is grounded in postmodernism and is rooted in a sophisticated understanding of, and relationship with, text.


As Franz Rosenzweig said, “Modernity is the secularization of Christianity.” Modernism, like Christianity, advanced that there was one truth unfolding in the world. Faith in the trinity was replaced by faith in a positivist causal model of nature. In the positivist model, there exists one truth. The job of the teacher was to convey that truth to students.


I would argue that postmodernism is the secularization of Judaism. Jews never accepted the concept inherent in Solo Scriptura, that there is one true message in biblical texts. Jewish tradition says that there are multiple truths embedded in the text, at least shivim panim laTorah, 70 faces that relay meaning. Words for Jews have always had multiple meanings, and these meanings were conveyed through the lens of a cultural tradition of textual interpretation.


The postmodern world has internalized the Jewish understanding of text. There no longer exists a “right” way to interpret reality. It is not just that we tolerate multiple narratives. Rather, the whole concept of the metanarrative, a rational explanation of how the world works, has been judged and found wanting. Hegel, Freud and Marx have all seen their ideas crash against the chaos of a complex reality. Every cognitive model, every narrative, that we can develop to describe reality is merely that, a cognitive model. There is no ontological all-encompassing truth to be uncovered.


An entire field of Curriculum Theory has arisen to defend teaching against the modernist trend of elaborate testing toward a single ideal, and to reintroduce craft and creativity. As William Pinar, a leading proponent of Curriculum Theory, says, “Curriculum is not a destination. It is a process, a complicated conversation rather than a debate.” The question “What knowledge is of most worth?” cannot be answered for others. Pinar asserts that “without the agency of subjectivity, education evaporates and is replaced by the conformity compelled by scripted curricula and standardized tests.” Agency is impossible in an environment of carefully crafted connect-the-dot lesson plans. Curriculum Theory calls on teachers to avoid tailored minute-by-minute scripts and decontextualized cognitive puzzles. If the goal of teaching is to bring students to a “right answer,” to drag their minds across a cognitive finish line, then the true essence of pluralism has been lost.


How does the educator create agency for students? Ted Aoki calls on educators to give them air.


I have seen amazing presentations of pedagogical content knowledge, classes implementing varied techniques to address multiple intelligences. Some even covered different narratives. But there was no room for the students to breath. Each narrative, each conclusion was laid out by the teacher. The only perspective that the student could come up with was one of those that the teacher had presented. The experience is exhausting and it leaves little room for creative thinking.


Central to pluralism is the idea that the world is not positivistic. There exists no truth that needs to be uncovered. Rather, truth is something that is developed in a process, a hermeneutic relationship between reader and text. Textual study is not something that is done. It is something that we as Jews, we as sophisticated learners, do.


Pluralistic education needs more conversation and less debate. In a pluralism grounded in postmodernism, there is no need to constantly forge consensus. Pluralism exists when the viewpoint, and approach, of the minority is given space. Space is created when we allow people to be. Students do not always want to be forced to defend a position. Do we?


In studies of denominational affiliation, few teachers were able to articulate the beliefs of their movement. If rabbis and teachers are not able to accurately describe and defend an approach, why should we expect this behavior of students?


So where does that leave the pluralistic Jewish educator trying to create a curriculum? We arrive back where we started and a relationship with classical texts. Curriculum Theory calls for education to become complicated conversations centered around texts. Don’t give excerpts or provide selections out of context. Give the whole text with all of its inherent contradictions and questions. Let students chew and digest their own thoughts. Allow students to create their own meaning. Realize full well that this created meaning will not be static.


There is no such thing as an educated Jew. The traditional question isn’t “What do you know?” but “What are you learning?” If learning becomes something rooted in the past, merely an adjective, then we, as Jewish educators have failed. There is a reason that we, as Jews, read the Torah again every year. Each year we look at the material with fresh eyes. We draw out a new understanding.


This is also the reason that traditionally Torah study is incumbent on everyone. Each person is unique, and the perspective that each brings to Torah understanding is unique. Give your students room to breathe. Give them room to be unique and create their own understanding. If done properly, study will cease to be something done before an exam and it will be, as it always has been, a fixture of Jewish intellectual life.

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HaYidion Jewish Literacy and Curriculum Spring 2016
Jewish Literacy and Curriculum
Spring 2016