HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

Jewish History: The Neglected Discipline

by Samuel Kapustin Issue: Teaching Jewish History
TOPICS : Jewish Studies

Kapustin explains reasons why Jewish history is often less valued than other pillars of the Judaics curriculum. When taught well, he argues, Jewish history is the subject most capable of shaping mature, sophisticated thinking.

Even a cursory perusal of Jewish studies curricula across North America, at all levels, will attest to the relatively minor role that the study of Jewish history plays in the focus of most schools. In comparison to the Big Three—Tanakh, Ivrit and Rabbinics/Talmud—Jewish history barely receives attention. If one limits the area of study to the post-Biblical period, i.e., from the beginning of the Second Temple on, this situation is even more pronounced. Schools differ in what periods they choose to emphasize and the length of time they devote to them, but most share a reluctance to place emphasis on this discipline equal to all the others.

To be sure, we are all confronted by the challenge of what not to include in our school curricula; there are only so many hours in the day. Yet, for some reason, Jewish history usually tends to draw the short straw. In this article, I will try to explain this phenomenon and why it is wrongheaded and should be changed.

There are a number of reasons for the relative absence of Jewish history in our curricula. It is not considered a part of limmudei kodesh, those studies traditionally viewed essential for an educated Jew. It is not “holy” in the sense of Tanakh or Talmud, and it does not provide a basic, technical skill as does Hebrew language, a prerequisite to study the others. At best, Jewish history is deemed an add-on, something good to have, but not in any sense essential.

If the study of Jewish history is less significant, it follows that whoever teaches it need not necessarily have the same level of expertise or training as required for the other disciplines. In fact, perhaps any teacher can really do it, since the knowledge base can be easily “picked up” from any good textbook, and there appear to be no specific techniques or skills required. Thus, in most schools, those who teach Jewish history, even in a defined course, are often not trained to do so.

It follows, therefore, that any Jewish historical knowledge that is required can be provided by the teachers of the Big Three in the process of teaching their respective disciplines. It simply is not worth the time and thus not justified to have a course or identified period/s devoted to Jewish history. It will only get in the way of the important studies.

Similarly, it is often felt that whatever is the perceived need for Jewish history can be fulfilled through the process of “integration”—Jewish and general history taught together in one course/time slot. The relative merits of this approach really deserve their own article, but suffice it to say that, in such attempts of which I am aware, it usually results in the study of general history—often to fulfill state/provincial requirements—with small bits of Jewish material sparingly introduced. Certainly, one cannot study Jewish history in a vacuum, and knowledge of the general historical setting is essential. The issue, here, however, is not only a quantitative one of emphasis, but also a qualitative question of goals and objectives.

For example, in the teaching Tanakh and rabbinics, there is no question about the primary goal: the development of Jewish identity. Traditional texts are the sources of Jews’ beliefs, practices and experiences. Students need to appreciate that these texts can speak to them as individuals and inform ways they confront contemporary challenges. Traditional Jewish sources connect them to what being Jewish is all about. In contrast, the primary sources of the Jewish past are not normally viewed in this manner, but simply as a means to fill in the blanks, putting the other disciplines in some context, but not contributing per se to the creation of serious, authentic Jews.

At best, emphasis is placed on influential events or outstanding personalities, which are presented as either warnings or lessons, in the case of events, or models of good or bad behavior, in the case of personalities. Little effort is expended on how or why they should, or perhaps should not, be considered influential or outstanding. Past judgments are accepted and transmitted with little questioning of why they are justified. In other words, when it comes to the Jewish past, most of our schools tend to view its educational value in instrumental terms, unlike the traditional Jewish disciplines, as an aid to achieve specific objectives, rather than as worthy of study in itself.

To be clear, what I am advocating applies more to high school than to pre-high school. That is not because Jewish history should not be taught before the age of 14, but because before that age, we are really talking about two different studies. It is usually only in the early years of high school that students begin to develop the skills necessary for the study of history, properly understood. Prior to this, the focus should perhaps be more on the who and what of history, and less on the why, certainly not in the pursuit of memorization, but in the study of major personalities and their contributions. Instrumental Jewish history education does have a role at that level.

However, the study of Jewish history on the high school level should raise fundamental value questions about what Judaism is and what Jews do. This should be reflected less by the choice of events and personalities, than by how we approach them. A few examples may help to illustrate.

1) Rather than claim that the Zealots at Masada were great heroes, reflecting essential Jewish ideals, one should ask the following: Were the Zealots correct in what they did? Is mass suicide a recommended Jewish practice under any conditions? Were the alternatives open to the Zealots worse than suicide? What do the sources, ancient and contemporary, say about this? The teacher’s goal is not to convince the students of a particular view, but to enable them to develop their own, based on careful analysis and thoughtful evaluation.

2) How were the Jews in the Middle Ages able to survive their situation outside of their own land? Is “survive” the correct term, or should the maintenance and enrichment of Jewish identity be considered something more? If their experience is considered a “success,” is perhaps Jewish existence in the Galut preferable to Jewish life in Israel? In short, do the Jews need to be in the Jewish land to be the Jewish people?

3) Was military resistance to the Nazis the preferred response? If so, at all times in the evolution of the Holocaust, or only when extermination was inevitable? What was/is the purpose of resistance: survival, sending a message to those who follow, or something else entirely? What conditions are necessary for “successful” military resistance, and were they present for the Jews?

None of these questions is easily dealt with. They are formulated to challenge beliefs and accepted truisms, not to present specific views or positions. They demand critical skills and self-examination. The path to their successful educational treatment lies in the process of examining primary sources. The past cannot speak meaningfully to the present if we are unwilling to meet it on its own terms. That requires, to the extent possible in the high school classroom, a sensitive attempt to “walk around in the shoes” of our ancestors, to be sensitive to their own motivations and aspirations. Only thus will we enable our students to grow into mature and thoughtful Jewish individuals.

It is not my claim that the serious study of Jewish history is indispensable for the achievement of these goals, only that it is, perhaps uniquely, suitable for the task. It is undoubtedly a neglected means for its realization. If approached by the teacher informed with historical knowledge and the requisite educational training, the study of the Jewish past can facilitate mature, even sophisticated, thinking, leading to honest and fruitful exploration.

There may be some among us who will be reluctant to invest in such an open-ended enterprise. They may feel that it is guaranteed to raise too many problematic issues and is, indeed, too far removed from the “nuts and bolts” of Jewish history, i.e., what happened and when. Others may feel that that their personal or school ideology or educational philosophy does not lend itself to this type of approach.

To such responses I can only suggest the following. Any Jewish studies that we undertake with our students must speak to their values and concerns, demonstrating that Judaism, in whatever form, has something serious and worthwhile to say to them. If they do not confront such issues when they are in our charge, they may never do so, in which case they may leave our schools convinced that Judaism is a simplistic and superficial set of beliefs and practices. Alternatively, they may only first be challenged with such questions in a much less hospitable and sensitive environment—the twenty-first century university campus. I, for one, would leave no stone unturned in the effort to foster opportunities conducive to their developing their own informed Jewish identity.

After all, is that not what we are all about?¿

Samuel Kapustin was for many years the principal of Jewish studies at the Tanenbaum Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto, having previously served as department head in Jewish history. He and his wife are retired in Jerusalem. mskapustin@gmail.com.

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