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Thursday, July 24, 2014

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Posthumous essay collection sheds light on Jewish identity

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Although I’ve worked as a university-based Jewish educator for my entire adult life, I have to admit that I don’t find most academic literature about education, even about Jewish education, engaging.

Perhaps I’m being unfair, but such literature usually seems either obvious or full of jargon (or both). But one Jewish educational thinker whose teachings, personality and writing have interested and inspired me for more than 40 years is Prof. Michael Rosenak of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Rosenak, born in Germany in 1932, grew up and was educated in New York. Soon after the creation of the State of Israel, he made aliyah and lived the rest of his life there. A friendly and generous person, his death a few months ago was a sad occasion for his family, friends and his many students. Rosenak often visited Toronto and was instrumental in helping set up the Jewish teacher education program at York University, which has since trained dozens of teachers who work in Jewish day schools in Canada and beyond. This summer, a collection of his essays was published posthumously, Covenant and Community: Six Essays on Contemporary Jewish Life and Education. (The book is available both in a hard-cover edition and as an ebook.)

Rosenak, a modern Orthodox Jew, respected all varieties of Jewish expression. He asked important and difficult questions about how to educate Jews to commitment. His approach was philosophical, but his book is refreshingly free of educational and philosophical jargon. The essays cover topics that all concerned Jews should think about: what is the significance of the establishment of the State of Israel? What, if anything, can be said by an educator about the meaning of the Holocaust? What does Jewish peoplehood mean, both for Jews who accept the idea of a covenant with God and for those who see it in terms of a people’s shared fate?

One chapter outlines six different ways in which thinking Jews have related to the impressive and perhaps “miraculous” victory of the Israeli army in the Six-Day War, ranging from “active messianism,” to “gratitude for God’s miracles,” to “anti-Zionist negation of religious-historical meaning.” In this chapter, as throughout the book, Rosenak doesn’t really advocate one position (although the astute reader will immediately notice that some positions are not to his liking). And while I’ve always found “gratitude for God’s miracles” a meaningful approach when thinking about the Six-Day War, I had to think hard about Rosenak’s concern that, from an educational perspective, “one may learn from the experience of Elijah [in I Kings 18] that miracles have little staying power.”

The chapter that spoke most strongly to me and has challenged me to rethink how I teach was about the problem of “translation” in teaching. By translation, he means explaining a text to students as reflecting a set of values that probably was not what the author had in mind.

Rosenak tells two stories involving visits to Bible classes in Israeli high schools. A teacher in a religious high school was teaching the story of how King Saul’s monarchy slowly unravelled and David became the king. When the teacher came to the verse, “The spirit of God departed from Saul” (I Samuel 16:14), he explained that this meant that Saul became clinically depressed and “he was in a deep melancholia.” A bright student in the class challenged the teacher: “Why do you call Saul’s problem melancholy? The Bible says exactly was his problem was: God’s spirit had departed from him. Everyone knows what it means. It happens at some time to everyone. Who has not had this experience of God leaving him?” The teacher tried to defend himself: “I am just explaining what these words ‘God’s spirit departed’ can mean to the reader today; what explanations help him ‘get the picture.’”

In the second vignette, a teacher in a secular Israeli high school was teaching the moving “Valley of the Dry Bones” vision in Ezekiel chapter 37. Ezekiel lived and prophesied after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Babylonians 2,600 years ago. The teacher explained that the Jews were despondent after the destruction of the Temple, and Ezekiel decided to rebuild their morale by describing his vision of a valley filled with dry human bones that suddenly come back to life. Again, one of the students pointed out to the teacher that it seems inappropriate to attribute any particular motive to Ezekiel. According to the Bible, Ezekiel said what he said because God told him to.

These stories exemplify for Rosenak one of the biggest challenges of Jewish education today. We have a tradition and a set of traditional texts in which God and God’s covenant with Israel are front and centre. But for many contemporary Jews, Jewish education and Jewish identity have a humanistic and cultural orientation. Note that one of Rosenak’s examples took place in a religious school. Even modern religious Jews also often turn to humanistic and psychological explanations of the Bible instead of talking about God.

Rosenak doesn’t argue that this “translation” is bad (nor that it’s good). But he wants educators and other thinking Jews to realize what they’re doing and think through the ramifications of a Judaism where God has a more circumscribed role than in previous generations. Here Rosenak makes one of his rare judgements, suggesting that “cultural” Jewish education can work only if we assume that “the artifacts of Jewish culture are themselves the values to which we educate,” a position that he calls dubious, since “one cannot in good conscience demand of anyone that he or she do what previous generations of Jews did, simply because they did it.”

Educators and anyone interested in Jewish identity will find much of value in this work of a fine scholar and a true gentleman.

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