A Humanistic Jewish Education

The Jewish Humanist, January 1977

 

‘Education’ is a sacred Jewish word. ‘Jewish education’ is a sacred Jewish phrase.

In Jewish social mythology no ethnic group values formal education more than Jews. Going to school is so universally Jewish that not going to school requires an apology.

Jewish education began with the study of the Torah and the Talmud. But it transcended that parochial beginning and moved on to physics, chemistry, psychology and the humanities. The Jews became in the twentieth century the arbiters of intellectual achievement.

The secular state school became a ‘sacred’ institution for European and American Jews. It was the most reliable road to social advancement. What Jews could not achieve through pedigree and inherited wealth they achieved through certificates of education.

Jewish children night complain about the boredom and tedium of public school. But they never questioned its value and its power. Only the recent glut in the market of educational degrees has aroused a new skepticism.

The emergence of secular education created a new institution called the ‘religion school’. The ‘religion school’ was a kind of academic garbage can. It taught all those peripheral and denominational subjects that the public school was unwilling or unable to teach.

To Jewish children ­ and to Jewish parents – the power distinction was very clear. Public schools had the power to make you either a social winner or a social loser. Their rewards were economically significant – and their punishments were terrifying. They had the ‘with it’ prestige of the future.

Sunday Schools had only the power of the past. They were concessions to residual guilt, fading nostalgia and the pain of persistent anti-Semitism. Their rewards were economically insignificant (except for Bar Mitzvah and Confirmation) and their punishments were ludicrous (especially with the vanishing of the afterlife.) As educational places they suffered from pleading postures, resentful students and indifferent parents.

Sunday Schools and religion schools only work when they have purposes which the society deems important to personal success – and when the parents who require their children to attend recognize this importance. If the parents do not recognize that the religion school possesses worthwhile power then the children – who generally read their parents very well – will not.

Theoretically, a humanistic Jewish School is committed to a vital training program. Ethical education is the acquisition of ethical skills which children need for personal survival and success. Cooperative, generous self-reliant and rational people are usually more successful than their opposites in fulfilling their basic needs.

The purpose of a humanistic Jewish school is to help its students become more cooperative, more generous, more self-reliant and more rational – using whatever is relevant in the Jewish experience to reinforce these values. Since it meets at odd hours – weekday afternoons and Sunday mornings – and since the parents are the most important authorities in the lives of their children, the school is viable only if the parents make it viable.

Humanistic Jewish parents – who are behaviorally sincere – act in the following way.

  1. They find out what their children are studying in the Temple school and continue the discussion at home. They inquire about specific information and specific attitudes. They never settle for meaningless vague questions like ‘Did you enjoy Sunday School?’
  2. They never settle for a babysitting service. They insist that whatever time their children invest in the Temple school (including the Mitzvah and Confirmation programs) be related to the important task of character development. They are less interested in having their children temporarily amused or entertained and more interested in seeing a long-run improvement in self-esteem and ethical behavior.
  3. They do not treat Jewish activity as only vehicles to group identity. When they celebrate holidays together with their children, they choose ceremonies, readings and statements which strengthen humanistic values.
  4. They assume responsibility for the character development of their children. They are not afraid to make demands when demands are appropriate. They know that reliability and the completion of tasks are valuable moral skills.
  5. They let their children know frequently why humanistic Judaism is important to them and why ethical training is as significant to ultimate success as secular academic work.

Parents are ethical role models. So are teachers. They have to work together.