And You Shall Tell Your Child . . .


April 20, 2016

Particular Vision, Universal Redemption

Philip Wexler

There is no simple educational formula that I know, except this one: that in our times, for people to flourish, education must take place between human beings as a communicative encounter and even a “binding” that makes the process and the participants “social.” The alternative to education as social experience is the prevalent suppression of the human and social dimension in favor of commodities—the world of things, of reduction to number, of measurement without meaning, of efficiency over fulfillment. Within that choice, between the participation in the social life of humanity and the aloneness of commodified, thing-like existence, there exists still another apparently binary opposition—between the universal and the particular.

Yet it is actually social experience that provides the key to avoiding both the pitfalls of a hollow universalism and the straits of constraining particularism. Today, modernity’s promise of human equality has become an “empty humanism,” devoid of any concrete sense of our place in history on the one hand, and of the transcendental being of humanity, on the other. We face a generalizing trope that is inauthentic to real living, socially specific, historical, striving human beings. At the same time, the world of modern industrialism has given way to a digital society, which loosens conventional anchors to the universal public sphere and which casts people defensively back upon the identity resources of particularism—often a narrow, parochial, xenophobic nationalism that draws its strength from hatred of everything that is different or “other“ from itself.

But not all particularisms must naturally exclude universalistic aspirations for the full and equal realization of all human being—for the acceptance and flourishing of the other. Through the lens of Chabad’s spiritual teachings, Judaism embraces both the particular and the universal. It can be the conscious reclamation and restoration of our historic identities, replete with its furthest transcendental aspiration for collective transformation and social redemption.

Here, a passage from the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s treatise, On the Essence of Chassidus, is pertinent: “The distilled essence of everything... necessarily possesses the following two characteristics: on the one hand, it is in itself distinct and separate from everything (for were it to be bound to any one particular thing, it could not then be the essential aspect of every thing); yet at the same time, because it is "essence," it must also pervade and be found within everything.”

In that way, Judaism has at its essential core the religious foundation of the universalistic hopes of modern civic, democratic societies, creating the particular vision and the particular means for a full realization of the divine potential of all humanity.

That is what Jewish education could enable us to accomplish: an authentic identity that is true to the self, and simultaneously, a regard for the capacity of the other. It can and should be both. In the well-worn words of Hillel: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I?” In our terms, it means an education that is both particularistic and universalistic at once. Imitation and empty humanism, which might understandably and self-protectively deny its Jewish origins, perhaps recoiling from the historic trauma of the Holocaust, will serve no one well, nor will exclusion and separation. Not in society, nor in Education.

At the present moment, Chasidism, and Chabad especially, is arguably the most dynamic movement in world Judaism. Accordingly, the time and opportunity has arrived for us to ask: What would Jewish education mean if it were infused with this vision of human realization? And what would this mean for education more universally?

Philip Wexler is a Professor of Sociology of Education and Unterberg Chair of Jewish Social and Educational History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Empowerment Through Access

Sarah Wolkenfeld

Jews take great pride in the universal significance of the Torah's story of the Exodus from Egypt, and  with good reason. It is the quintessential story of the triumph of freedom over slavery, liberation over subjugation, and victory over oppression. At the same time, the story has added layers of significance to Jews. We don't just cherish the Exodus as an abstract story of liberation, but we convene a Seder to connect ourselves, personally, to the Exodus from Egypt as the fulfillment of G-d's promise to our forefathers.

The Passover Seder is the paradigmatic model of the way that a story with a universal meaning can become important for an individual's identification with the Jewish people. All of the tools of the Passover Seder are available throughout the year and, when utilized in creative ways, transform stories that happened to someone else into Torah lessons that build Jewish identity and a sense of solidarity with the Jewish People.

The Haggadah tells us: Keneged arba'ah banim dibrah Torah – the Torah speaks of multiple types of learners. At the Passover Seder, each one is encouraged to question. Parents and educators must do whatever we can to spark curiosity and questioning. It is equally important to give the learner the tools to engage in making meaning that will be relevant for his or her own life. In that way, Judaism is not merely composed of stories that happened to others, but rather contains building blocks of identity formation and links in a chain that binds generations to one another.

As Director of Education at Sefaria, a digital library and platform for Jewish texts, I work with educators who use  ours  and other digital tools to empower learners to explore our multi-faceted tradition and create meaningful relationships with the texts of our tradition. Sefaria partners with institutions to help students connect, collaborate, and create individualized paths for learning.

When people can read and understand the sources, including the classical commentaries, create their own resources, and connect to others who are doing the same, the conversation expands. In my work, I have seen that students feel differently about what they learn when they both articulate the questions and chart their own course toward finding answers, furthering exploration and learning. This type of deep connection supports Jewish identity development and long-term engagement. 

Connect: People can't celebrate the uniquely Jewish aspects of our heritage unless they are connected to the primary sources of our tradition. Children today are “digital natives,” and they expect to gain knowledge just by clicking. Let them see that Torah and technology do mix, and that there are 21st century methods for exploring ancient texts. Today's digital culture presents us with the opportunity to easily access the full library of Jewish texts at the touch of a button, and the flexibility of these tools allows individuals to help shape their own learning trajectory. Knowing firsthand what is in the verse and what the classical commentaries have to say gives these students a strong bond with the tradition. 

The educators I work with encourage students to work directly with the text, whether that means adding their own photos and videos to illustrate it or by writing their thoughts and reactions. This is not merely a matter of creativity; students feel ownership when they can actually work with the text directly, and finding and creating these resources online lends legitimacy to these messages. 

Collaborate: Enthusiasm is contagious, and so is love of Judaism. As people look for community beyond just those who live nearby, technology allows people to connect with others throughout the world who share their interests. Seeing others engaging in the texts and lessons of our tradition can be inspiring for children and adults alike. Sefaria is one platform that encourages people, even elementary school students, to engage with a community of learners and to see and appreciate what other people are studying. Our publicly available source sheets, our activity log, and the collaborative tools we have created all allow people to learn and teach together.

Create: Learning should always be a generative process. As we study and internalize the texts and stories of Judaism, we must decide what these timeless messages look like in our own lives. Every holiday and every observance gives us the opportunity to create something new, whether it is a piece of art, a book, a ritual item, or just a new idea. For example, Sefaria has the full text of the Haggadah as a ready made source sheet. Having the traditional Haggadah in a digital format  makes it easy for students of all ages to add pictures and commentary as well as to print and share. This is the kind of empowerment that takes creativity to a new level by allowing people to have a direct connection with the texts of our tradition.

This mindset and these strategies can allow all of us to enter the Seder, and all other nights, ready to learn.

The Call of Stories

Stuart Zweiter

I must admit that in my role as an educator as well as personally, I have never found it difficult to embrace both the particular and universal trends inherent in Jewish tradition. Throughout history and especially today, individuals define and emphasize different aspects of the universal v. particular debate. In whichever way they are explained, however, Jewish tradition, as well as classical Jewish sources, from the Torah through modern writings, reveals the inclusion of both tendencies, at times in harmonious complementarity, and at times in seemingly dialectical tension. To view and interpret the tradition or sources as exclusively particularistic or exclusively universal in outlook is an unambiguous distortion.

It should be understood that universalism is actually an inherent aspect of Jewish particularism, just as particularism is the source and heart of the universal lesson of Judaism. Of course all Jews are, like all other people, members of the family of man, but they are first of all, areivim zeh bazeh, part of one unit, of one existential, experiential, and integrated whole. Concern for the "other," for the stranger, for the unfortunate in the world, is of great significance in the Jewish tradition. It is particularistically Jewish to be universal in a particularly Jewish way. For how can  people  truly understand or feel for the other, if they do not first know and understand and attach themselves to their own identity and their own roots?  It seems to me that to claim to connect to and care about everyone in the same way results in not knowing how to deeply and genuinely care about anyone at all. Caring in depth and knowing how to care deeply can only emanate from personal knowledge and identity, as well as the experience of closeness and attachment.  

How, can we communicate a compelling message of the value and richness of the particular Jewish tradition and approach in a world and in a Diaspora Jewish community that is familiar with so little of Jewish thought and tradition and, at the same time, attaches overriding value to radical liberal ideals and  principles  (e.g., cavalier absolutism in the area of human rights)? When knowledge of Judaism among the masses of Jews is diluted to the extent it has been, it surely loses its distinctiveness, its attraction, its personal and communal meaning. Whither Judaism and whither the Jewish people, if the unique, particular and historical Jewish story and contribution is allowed to fade into oblivion simply because of obliviousness?

As usual, the answer lies in education. But what kind of education? 

Robert Coles, the Harvard professor of psychiatry and medical humanities, in his book The Call of Stories, demonstrates how the power of stories enhances our understanding of ourselves and others, our values, our past and future, and of issues in general. One could call Coles' description a modern statement of the role Aggada has always played in Jewish tradition and history. Jewish stories from the Biblical, Rabbinic, medieval and modern periods are rich in messages that encourage and mandate concern for the other, that place value on multiculturalism, that promote tolerance of difference.  But they also stipulate priority for Jewish concerns and traditions and allow us to see things through a Jewish lens. They provide direction for a healthy balance and a complementarity between what can be viewed as opposing norms, demands, and values. I believe strongly that dissemination and deeper knowledge of the Jewish stories and traditions that reflect the demand of Tikkun Olam in the larger context of Jewish values, principles and philosophies, can serve in an unthreatening way to engage and inspire the disengaged, indifferent, and uninformed.

Stuart Zweiter is the director of the Lookstein Center for Jewish Education at Bar Ilan University.  An instructor in Talmud in Bar-Ilan University, he was a Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute. In the U.S., he served as a principal at the HAFTR High School and at the Frisch School in Paramus, New Jersey. He has served as an educational consultant to communities throughout the world.

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