HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal


Response to Berger by Barry W. Holtz

by Barry W. Holtz Issue: Religious Purposefulness

Berger has made a powerful argument for day schools as settings for “intentional Jewish communities,” places “that help cultivate purposeful Jewish adults.” In many ways, of course, this position reflects our very best dreams for the potential of the day school. Berger’s view of a school energized by an articulated and embodied vision defines the core of a successful school. I applaud his passionate advocacy of that concept; it recalls the late Seymour Fox’s famous dictum that the greatest problem in contemporary Jewish education is its “blandness.” A school with a vision is a school that rejects blandness in favor of inspiration and a sense of direction. I agree wholeheartedly with his articulation of the power and importance of vision in Jewish education.

I would, however, like to suggest a few modifications to his analysis that may be helpful. To begin with, I would be careful about the dichotomous portrait that Berger presents. He divides the world into two quite distinct camps: intentional day schools and natural day schools, mirroring Martin Jaffee’s distinction of two historical modalities of Jewish communities. But while it may be one thing to distinguish the Essenes from their contemporaneous co-religionists or the Lurianic Kabbalists in Safed from the ordinary “Jew in the street” (circa 1570), categorizing 21st century day schools as either “intentional” or “natural” may underestimate the range and complexity of the day school scene in our time.

True, there are day schools that one might better term “private schools for Jews” as opposed to “Jewish private schools.” That is, these are schools with minimal standards for Jewish content and practices. Their main purpose is to allow a place for Jewish children to go to school together in the way that a Jewish country club may be a place that allows Jews to socialize with people like themselves. These are good examples of Berger’s “natural communities.”

But aside from institutions of this sort, are the distinctions between intentional and natural day schools all that clear? My sense is that we can better see schools as located on a continuum between the two concepts rather than falling neatly into one or the other camp. Not only that but schools themselves may move around on that continuum depending on the particular leadership, parent population, teachers or other factors, present at any given time.

Moreover, even within any particular school there is likely to be a wide range—between classrooms in which students are encouraged to, as Berger has it, “explain one’s practice in Jewishly meaningful terms” to those where such concepts are never addressed. One classroom seems “intentional” and the other not, but what does that say about defining the school as a whole? Where does it fit?

My other hesitation about Berger’s presentation is his notion that leading a deliberate life…entails finding that source of meaning not within oneself or one’s needs, but in Judaism. In a word, the touchstone of one’s choices...is Judaism, not the self.

To me this notion of the way identity is formed and operates may not accurately reflect the process by which human beings conduct their lives. Once again a bipolar opposition has been proposed here, in this case a split between “the self” and “Judaism.” But the self is not an independent contractor working disconnected from powerful plausibility structures such as “Judaism.” In day-to-day life Judaism is integrated within the self, is part of the self and helps create the self. To say that “the touchstone of one’s choices is Judaism, not the self” is to suggest a kind of model of linear personal decision-making that doesn’t correspond to the familiar life experiences that all of us have. Our choices are probably made in a more circuitous fashion. Our Judaism and our selves are bound up with one another in ways that are messier and subtler than the dichotomy of “self” and “Judaism” might suggest.

These emendations do not, I believe, undercut the important challenge that Berger puts before the day school community: Developing schools dedicated both to content and commitment is our best hope for affecting the lives of children and building a Jewish future. It is towards that end that we must dedicate our efforts.

Barry W. Holtz is dean of the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education at the Jewish Theological Seminary where he is also the Seminary’s Theodore and Florence Baumritter Professor of Jewish Education.

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Religious Purposefulness

The AVI CHAI Foundation has promoted the notion that day schools are primary incubators of “religious purposefulness,” developing the capacity to live deep, authentic Jewish lives through regular contact with the sources of Jewish tradition, be they textual, ritual, communal. Authors here probe the ramifications of this notion for our understanding of the mission of day schools and their role in Jewish communal life.

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