More and more Israeli parents and children are interested in learning about Judaism, but not as religious teachings. Jews in the Diaspora make their Judaism a religious part of their life. Studying Judaism is different here; it is not religious studies, but part of our culture and identity.
Here in Israel we are privileged to have the Jewish language as the common cultural language of Israelis. Our culture encompasses Jewish ideas, values, and events. In Israel, holidays are celebrated not only in religious ways, and there are new and brilliant ideas being connected to traditional holidays. This is the big victory of Zionism: the state of Israel is not only a shelter for Jews, but it is really a place where Jewish life is flourishing in a broad, pluralistic way.
The problem is that the culture needs an education system to acculturate its young to be a part of this culture. Some of this culture comes from the home, the media, and the street, but you need an education system if you want knowledgeable people that know Judaism is a source of values and ideas. It is not enough to have it in the air.
Being a Jewish state means having students learn Jewish values as part of their education. It is not about enforcing laws of marriage on Jews who do not want that or punishing people who sell chametz on Pesach.
But being a Jewish state also means we don’t want Judaism to become a private initiative. It should be part of the official state school system. That’s why the new law on education is important. This law is saying that the government will take these ideas upon itself.
This new law would not have happened without demand from the ground. The law is a response to the need. The schools are already there, and the law is responding to what is already happening on the ground.
Our programs – Be’eri, Ma’atzim – are needed in the Israeli educational system, and they are successful. The demand is huge – much more than what we can cover. We printed 33,000 copies of Yachid v’chevra (Individual and Society) and it sold out. And the course is recognized by the government for credit toward graduation.
What we present to schools and students is the opportunity to deal with culture within a Jewish framework. It doesn’t mean necessarily that Jewish traditions have exclusive answers to human dilemmas or even one answer to dilemmas. What we are showing is that Judaism has different answers, and we are giving insights students can use to think about these problems.
For example, we take the famous story about the Gentile who comes to Hillel and Shammai, because he wants to convert to Judaism. The approach of Shammai is stringent; Hillel’s is lenient. In the classroom the discussion should be about when to be lenient, and when to be stringent when we build a community.
When you use this method of learning, the student becomes part of the discussion that started 2,000 years ago in the Talmud. An Israeli boy or girl is now taking part in this continuing debate. These questions are always problematic and complex. We give students the opportunity to think about the dilemma and to shape their views on this and discuss it among themselves as if they were part of the bet midrash of Shammai and Hillel.
There are two approaches to Jewish tradition. One says that you as a student must absorb it and accept it as it is. You can’t change it. This is not our way at Shalom Hartman Institute.
The culture is a continuing dialogue, and it is manifested in the Jewish text itself. The Jewish text is always presented as a discussion. It’s not closed, and, therefore, you cannot learn it as a passive observer.
Unfortunately, this beautiful tradition of an open canon seems to have lost its vitality, probably because of the clash with modernity. Some segments of the Jewish community closed down and became dogmatic. And not only that, but they presented Judaism as dogma. By doing that they are denying the tradition itself, which is a tradition of openness.
Although I can understand this approach historically, I don’t accept it. It’s not the way Judaism should go about teaching. This is why Israeli Jews are alienated from Judaism. In an open society, you can’t accept dogma. If it is forced upon them as dogma and truth from heaven, people say they are not interested.
We have assessments of our programs, and they tell us they are working, but the real success is that. they really connect to Judaism as being interesting and having valuable things to say about their own lives as young people living in a modern society. The dilemmas they see discussed in their books are connected to the dilemmas they feel as young people and students. It is not just about texts, but about life.
A Hebrew article by Ariel Picard on this subject was published recently on the Israeli website News First Class. To read it in Hebrew, click here