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October 6, 2015 | 23rd Tishrei 5776

Public Education II

Galilee Diary #554, November 2, 2011
Marc Rosenstein

It's already been a long time that the complaints have been unceasing regarding the Hebrew school [system in Palestine] - that the pupils there... have no "aroma of Torah," no Jewish spirit, no love of Judaism...
         -Joseph Klausner, historian and Zionist leader, 1921

In 1982 I had the opportunity to begin a PhD at the Hebrew University.  I approached Prof. Jacob Katz, a noted historian whom I very much admired, to help me pick a topic (he was retired at the time).  I told him that based on my experience as a principal in a Jewish school in the US, I was interested in the challenge of socializing children into a non-existent society (for example, trying to teach them the customs and prayers included in the curriculum, knowing that they would not actually experience these in the context of their families), and wondered if there might be a historical model I could study.  Among the topics he suggested was the Zionist education system in Palestine before the state, and its attempt to re-define Jewish identity for the state which didn't yet exist.  I accepted the suggestion, and spent three years on a fascinating adventure exploring education and culture in pre-state Palestine.  And the results have served me well in the decades since, in the US and in Israel.

It turns out that the dilemmas facing the educators in the Yishuv in the first decades of the 20th century never got resolved, and are still with us.  On the one hand, Zionism was a rebellion against Diaspora Judaism, which meant, for many, a rebellion against Jewish religion as an artifact of the Diaspora which would become obsolete once we returned to a normal life as a nation.  On the other hand, it seems that trying to separate Jewish national culture from Jewish religion is a bit like trying to separate Siamese twins joined at the brain - neither is likely to survive the operation.  Among the educational frameworks that developed out of this tension, at one end were the schools influenced by the socialist Zionists, who were hostile to religious traditions; at the other end were the Orthodox Zionists, who saw the Zionist enterprise as a manifestation of the beginnings of the messianic redemption, and who therefore taught a synthesis of Zionism and religion.  The mainstream, influenced by Achad Ha'am, sought a different synthesis: the secularization of the tradition; i.e., keeping the main elements of tradition - holidays, texts - but viewing them as manifestations of a secular national culture.  Thus, the Talmud became not a book of law, but a classic, to be read the way English-speakers read Shakespeare - as a formative text of their culture.  To a large extent, it can be said that this transformation worked.  For many Israelis, everyday life and culture are definitely Jewish - framed by the Jewish calendar, conducted in Hebrew in the land of Israel, where theater and  literature - and even pop music - are rich in allusions to the Jewish classics.

And yet, it can also be said that this success is rather superficial, leaving a certain hollowness underneath - and formidable educational challenges.  For example, it seems obvious that the prayerbook is a central classic of our literature; yet can you really teach it as literature, without any experience of prayer itself?  If you try to teach prayer as a practice or an expression of belief, you are accused of religious coercion.  Those of us who argue for separation of religion and state would have trouble defending prayer services in public schools (never mind the impossibility of finding a denominational consensus on the choreography and content).  Yet how can an educated Jew be ignorant of such a central pillar of our literature and experience?  Likewise with respect to the Talmud, perhaps THE classic text.  But, alas, it's not Shakespeare or even Dickens, and the skills needed to decipher it are daunting.  The result of this dilemma has been a century of dilution and diminution and a constant litany of complaints about the failure of the system to provide the New Jews with roots in the sources of Judaism (thus leaving them more New than Jewish) - and blue ribbon commissions, and diktats from the Ministry of Education, and new curricula, and trips to Auschwitz, and trips to North American Jewish communities - and more complaints. 

Professor Katz has since passed away.  I'm sorry I never actually asked him: Is it possible to socialize children into a non-existent society?

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