HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal


Jewish Education in the Postmodern Era

by David Bigman Issue: Pluralism

Pluralism, relativism and postmodernism have created an atmosphere that make adherence to any particular mode difficult. This is all the more true when regarding cultural lifestyles that are dissonant vis-à-vis the prevalent mores. The following discourse will describe the Orthodox Jewish community’s reaction to this challenge and its pitfalls; and consequently suggest means to alleviate the distress to some extent. Although my discussion chiefly relates to this particular world, the fact remains that all religious and cultural traditions are in dire straits; and indeed, cultural continuity itself is challenged. Therefore, although the description will be specific, the suggested prescription can be applied universally.

The sincere question is the basis of all Torah learning both in form and content. Healthy curiosity creates motivation and feeds creativity that exhilarates the student.

An intelligent young woman once asked me a halakhic question at the grocery store. Since the issue was rather complex, and since I prefer the recipient of my response to understand the issues at hand, at least in a rudimentary fashion, I opened by asking her what is the standard answer to any halakhic question. She automatically responded: “Forbidden!” I was quite astounded by this reaction, and told that in fact I was referring to “argument.” I then proceeded to explain the various points of view regarding her inquiry, and suggested the mode that I thought most appropriate.

As I walked home in a melancholy mood I thought of the generation gap and the new form of Judaism that was emerging. In this form of Judaism, argument and variety are shunned as they undermine authority and communal confidence. The stringent opinion will always prevail as it seems a sure “bet” for fulfilling Divine Will, and will certainly entail an element of sacrifice and asceticism. Under extreme circumstances, life is viewed as profane and withdrawal as holiness. In almost all cases the Jewish way of life becomes a sheltered mode of living.

The Torah itself is recreated in this image: years ago our esteemed rosh yeshiva, Rabbi Chaim Yaakov Goldvicht, described Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh as Noah’s ark and the world outside as a flood of evil. This imagery seemed strange to us and was not taken seriously. In the wake of postmodernism and the ensuing cultural milieu, this approach can be very appealing and for some may be the most meaningful function of Judaism in their lives.

This mode obviously will not contain itself to practical halakhic modes, but will in fact almost always affect thinking on other subjects. Issues that in the past were tackled by Torah scholars with various degrees of candor, creativity and communal responsibility, meeting the intellectual challenges of their time, are not even addressed today, and are viewed as axiomatic. Rarely do we discuss the struggles of the past and the great variety of opinions. It is even less common to use their struggles as paradigms for our own. Often times, students’ questions are delegitimized for these very reasons, and in some extreme cases, thinking itself becomes anathema.

The lenient and stringent opinions are not only equally legitimate, but should, in fact, both be considered significant and thoughtful expressions of our human endeavor to fulfill Torah, each containing a grain of truth.

The sincere question is the basis of all Torah learning both in form and content. Healthy curiosity creates motivation and feeds creativity that exhilarates the student. New ideas evolve, making us partners in the chain of rethinking in novel ways which has been our tradition for thousands of years. Since questioning and argumentation are such prominent features of our tradition, those who fear challenging young minds tell them that questioning and argumentation are important, though only certain questions and certain arguments are legitimate. Usually only questions and arguments used in the past are sanctioned as they have the aura of being the questions of Torah giants. The near-strangulation of natural curiosity is detrimental to all scholarship but is absolutely lethal to the study of Torah.

How can we meet this challenge without the destructive process? The solution may be in the same cultural milieu that created the problem in the first place. In spite of postmodernism, most students I meet from North America are convinced that scientific truth is the only acceptable truth and the only true measure for any decision. And yet, is it not absolutely ludicrous to speak of religious truths as if they were Euclidian geometry?

I would suggest opening their minds to different kinds of truth and different measures for adopting positions. We need not be philosophically rigorous in order to open their minds; it should suffice to pose the following question at the appropriate time: When we choose our path, what are the relevant values in making a decision? Ethics, esthetics, communal language and culture, universal and particular religious experiences, and last but not least—a discussion over the essence of truth. Almost anyone can recognize the truth in Huckleberry Finn even though it is a work of fiction. Likewise, the apparent non-scientific apparel of modern religion should not be disregarded on the basis of a one-dimensional conception of “truth.”

This, however, is not enough. We can invigorate our way of life; we must talk openly about religious experience without cynicism yet avoid kitsch. We can invigorate Torah scholarship. We are capable of reveling at the great depth and breadth of various opinions. The lenient and stringent opinions are not only equally legitimate, but should, in fact, both be considered significant and thoughtful expressions of our human endeavor to fulfill Torah, each containing a grain of truth. Our sages even took the Sadducees’ opinions seriously.

We can counter the siege mentality. My mentors taught me that nothing should be shunned if it is within the bounds of morality and Halakhah. Within these bounds we can embrace the world: the splendor of His creation from the smallest particle discovered, to the grandest photographs from Hubble. We can embrace mankind created in His image: the thoughts of men, their creativity in the arts, their scientific discoveries, the philosophical inquiries and even their capability to question the Creator and His Torah. ♦

Rabbi David Bigman is Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Maale Gilboa. He can be reached at dmbigman@gmail.com.

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Pluralism

Pluralism is central to the mission and self-understanding of many community day schools. The questions of what that term means, and how it is implemented in the policies and educational practices of the school, are difficult to answer and require reflection and discussion among all stakeholders. Explore larger perspectives on, and disagreements over, pluralism and ways to approach Jewish study with pluralistic methodology.

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