Insofar as Jewish education is something more than a code word for instruction in the Jewish religion, what is it and who needs it?
There already exists a vast literature on this subject outlining the various aspects of Jewish history and culture which young Jews ought to know something about. The big problem, it is generally agreed, is motivating young people to actually want a Jewish education. Wanting a Jewish education requires wanting to be Jewish, and that takes some guts.
Being Jewish means being forced to cope with anti-Semitism. To be sure, there are some Jews who maintain that they have experienced little or no anti-Semitism in their lives, but they are deceiving themselves as well as others. Didn’t they hear the Christians say that the Jews killed Jesus, the Muslims say that the Jews rejected Mohammed, the Marxists say that the Jews love money? We are talking about literally billions of people all over the world who have been taught these things. Even if these beliefs don’t result in outright persecution – and they often do – they still create a climate of doubt and controversy which surrounds every Jew on earth whether they know it or not. Some may choose to react to this climate through evasion and denial, others through confrontation and self-assertion, but however they may choose to react, their lives are shaped to one degree or another by the force of anti-Semitism.
To cope with this force, Jewish education must do two things. In the first place – and all versions of Jewish education agree on this point – it must cultivate a positive Jewish self-image. Religious versions of Jewish education seek to achieve this through the doctrine of the Jewish people as a chosen people, a nation of priests commanded by “God” to act as a light unto the nations. Secular versions of Jewish education may reject this language but they must teach something very similar to be effective. And in fact an objective account of Jewish history would show that the Jewish people has played a progressive role in world history.
In the second place, Jewish education must offer a strategy for counteracting anti-Semitism. Religious versions of Jewish education do have such a strategy, although it is rarely made explicit or discussed as such. The religious strategy is to emphasize the common adherence of the “monotheistic” religions to belief in “God”. Since the Christians and Muslims both claim to believe in the same “God” (or “Allah”) as the “God” of the Jews, religious Jews feel entitled to take the position that we “monotheists” are all in this together, why can’t we just get along? The effectiveness of this strategy may be judged by its results, which are far from impressive. For every Christian or Muslim that does indeed feel a common bond with religious Jews, there are many more who are swayed by the anti-Semitic teachings contained in the Christian and Muslim scriptures to adopt a very different attitude. Promoting a common belief in “God” is clearly a losing strategy so far as combatting anti-Semitism is concerned, because it indirectly validates the Christian and Muslim religions, which are historically the main source of anti-Semitism on a world scale.
Most secular versions of Jewish education also have an implicit strategy for combatting anti-Semitism, which is also not very effective. The basic idea is to teach young Jews to be someone that the anti-Semites can’t disparage. The classical Zionist approach was to create a religion of labor so that no one could say that the Jews were lazy parasites. The Yiddishists teach, “Be a mensch”, meaning be so understanding and self-effacing that everyone will like you. Mainstream liberal Jewish education promotes a spirit of civic-mindedness and devotion to worthy causes intended to prove how useful to society good Jews can be. The trouble with all these strategies is that they grossly underestimate the capacity of the anti-Semites to find fault with the Jews no matter what we do. The spectacular failure of the Zionist effort to win acceptance of Israel as a model nation is a case in point. Liberal Jewish civic-mindedness is systematically depicted by the anti-Semites as a Jewish plot to subvert the social order. And being a mensch can be easily perceived as weakness and lack of self-respect. The sad truth is that there is no version of Jewishness that can prevent the anti-Semites from hating us as Jews.
It follows that the only strategy for combatting anti-Semitism that has any long term chance of success is to find fault with the anti-Semites. In the case of the Nazis, this is generally understood. The word, “Nazi”, has become a term of abuse not only for Jews but also for large numbers of non-Jews. Indeed, many anti-Semites now delight in using it as a term of abuse against Jews in general and Israelis in particular, who are constantly accused of being “just like the Nazis”. But what everyone seems to forget is just why “Nazi” has become a term of abuse. They think it is because the Nazis were mass murderers, but the Christians, Muslims and Marxists have also been responsible for numerous mass murders without being stigmatized for it to anywhere near the same degree. The point about the Nazis is not only that they murdered literally tens of millions of people, including six million Jews, but that they then proceeded to lose the Second World War and see their leaders executed and their organizations banned. Nazism proved a failure, and it is for this reason and none other that the crimes of the Nazis are so universally held against them.
If Christianity, Islam and Marxism have proved more successful than Nazism, it is first and foremost because they incorporate progressive as well as regressive attitudes and beliefs. Ironically, these progressive attitudes and beliefs are derived to a large extent from Jewish tradition. In the case of Christianity, this connection is clear and explicit. In the case of Islam and Marxism, the connection is largely concealed and disguised but no less real on that account. The great difficulty which confronts any attempt at a Jewish critique of Christianity, Islam and Marxism is how to separate out the progressive from the regressive elements and accept the former while rejecting the latter. It is essential to do this because anti-Semitism is such a key component of the regressive elements. Conversely, the progressive elements are really just so many restatements of the traditional Jewish belief in social equality and ethical behavior. The role of anti-Semitism in all three doctrines, which between them dominate a large part of world culture, is precisely to disavow their debt to Jewish ideals, the better to justify their opposition to Jewish national self-determination, the one Jewish ideal they have never adopted.
Jewish national self-determination is nonetheless the ideal which more than any other has defined the Jews as a people throughout our history. For more than a thousand years the Jewish people fought to establish and maintain an independent Jewish state on the soil of the land of Israel. When this effort was undermined by the mass murders and devastation inflicted by the Romans, restoration of the nation of Judah became the Messianic dream of rabbinical Judaism. This dream was incorporated into every facet of Jewish life: in the constant study and use of the Hebrew and Aramaic languages; in the continued application of Jewish law; in prayers and religious ceremonies; in legends, songs and folk tales; and in actual efforts in every generation to return to the land of Israel and settle there. The modern Zionist movement was but the culmination of almost two thousand years of struggle to reverse the verdict of the so-called “Jewish Wars” and right the wrong which had been done to the Jewish people by the Roman mass murderers. Those who deny the legitimacy of this struggle do so because they do not believe in national self-determination but rather in the supremacy of some empire, be it Christian, Muslim, Marxist or Nazi.
In order to cultivate a positive Jewish self-image, and in order to oppose anti-Semitism, it is therefore essential that a program of Jewish education promote understanding of and support for the nation of Israel. The way to do this is first through the study of Jewish history and culture, second through the study of the history of modern Zionism and the state of Israel, and third through political action in defense of Israel and in opposition to anti-Semitism. But there is also a fourth element which an effective program of Jewish education ought to include and which is in some ways the most important of all. This is the study of the relationship between Jewish history and world history.
Jewish history as it is commonly taught is usually ghettoized and presented in isolation from the history of the rest of the world. Insofar as world history is brought into the picture at all, it is usually in order to depict the rise and fall of the various empires which affected the Jewish people in some way. Largely ignored is the complex dialectic whereby the Jewish people shaped and was shaped by the surrounding environment. Christianity, Islam and Marxism are only the most prominent examples of the way in which Jewish ideals have been appropriated, often in a disguised or distorted form, and spread throughout the world. And Jewish culture in turn has been strongly influenced by such forces as the Zoroastrian religion, Hellenistic ideology, Arab philosophy and Western secular thought. Nor has the interplay between the Jewish people and the surrounding environment been limited to the sphere of the history of ideas. Alphabetical writing was invented by Semitic miners in the Sinai and probably first adopted by the Hebrews, from whom it then spread to the Phoenicians and Greeks. Glass-blowing and silk-weaving are among the many technical skills which were first introduced into Europe by the Jews. Many of the nautical instruments which the European explorers of the early modern period used in their voyages of discovery were invented by Jews. As to the Jewish contribution to the development of modern science, the name of Einstein is only the best known on a long list.
If the history of the world were taught in such a way as to include rather than exclude the Jewish people, it would have to be entirely rewritten. Two factors have conspired to prevent this inclusion. In the first place, the ideologists of Christianity, Islam and Marxism have consistently sought to present their beliefs as the creation of a few inspired individuals, whom they are always careful to separate from the Jews, rather than as the result of an ongoing process of social interaction between large numbers of Jewish and non-Jewish people. And in the second place, the modern anti-Semites have succeeded in discouraging the study of Jewish influence on world culture by substituting in its place the myth of the Jewish conspiracy to rule the world. Fear of contributing to the spread of this myth has made most scholars reluctant to notice the massive impact on the modern world of the Jewish struggle for social equality, ethical behavior and national self-determination. We are speaking here not only of ideals but of a readiness to live those ideals and, if necessary, die for them. If the purpose of Jewish education is ultimately to instill this same readiness in young people, then we must realize that essential to this goal is an understanding that the martyrs of the Holocaust, of the pogroms and of all the other persecutions did not die in vain. Their struggle has transformed the world, and it is in the continuation of this process of transformation that the only hope for the eventual abolition of anti-Semitism is to be found.
Anti-Semitism is basically nothing other than political opposition to Jewish ideals. Starting back in the days of the Greek and Roman empires, this opposition learned to mask itself in the form of one absurd accusation after another. The great absurd accusation of the present day is that the tiny state of Israel is eager to pick a quarrel with the Palestinians despite the fact that they form a part of the large, wealthy, well armed and aggressive Arab nation. Concealed behind this myth is the desire of the many authoritarian Arab regimes to prevent Israeli influence from resulting in the introduction of democracy into the Middle East. It is this desire which has given rise to the sustained campaign of warfare, terror and incitement which these regimes have waged against Israel since the day of its birth both directly and through the agency of the various Palestinian terrorist organizations. This campaign will undoubtedly persist in one form or another until democracy is in fact introduced throughout the Arab world. And in general anti-Semitism will persist until the authoritarian and imperialist doctrines of the anti-Semites are thoroughly discredited and democratic and egalitarian ideals accepted in their place. The true purpose of Jewish education is to facilitate this process. What then is Jewish education? It is a light unto the nations. And who needs it? Everyone..