A School for Ordinary Jews
By Rotem Prager-Wagner | 17/02/2011
Israeli secularism, as it is reflected in the country's school system (and not just there) – has abandoned its culture. A tendency to forget – to the point of erasure – is prevalent not just with regard to classic Hebrew literature, but also with regard to that literature's precursors and founders. Rotem Prager-Wagner writes about the profound cultural reasons that would lead a secular Jewish mother to send her children to one of Israel's combined schools
Rotem Prager-Wagner and her daughter
To the question, “Why would a secular Jewish mother in Israel want to give her children a religious education?”, there is a simple answer: So that they will be conversant in the language of Judaism. In other words, so that they will learn, and even perhaps learn to love, the Bible, Rashi's commentaries, the Talmud (in its two main sections, Mishna and Gemara), midrashic literature, rabbinical literature, Jewish mystical (Kabbalistic) texts, Hasidic texts and Jewish theological texts, and so that they will be familiar with Jewish liturgy. This answer goes under the rubric of “Judaism as a culture”; Ahad Ha'am was the proponent of this approach and Haim Nahman Bialik was the most prominent promoter of that approach in his various public activities.
On the other hand, in order to answer the question, “Why should a secular Jewish mother in Israel want to send her children to a religious school in order to learn, and perhaps even learn to love, the Bible, Rashi's commentary, the Talmud, etc.?”, or, conversely, the question, “Why has secular Jewish education in Israel abandoned the language of its culture?”, there is a need for a much longer, much more complicated story. I will not tell it here, but I will make two comments in this connection. One of them relates to culture and the other to identity.
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Ancient Hebrew literature does not belong to this or that political party or educational stream. It belongs to its carriers, readers, students, speakers and writers. The word “belongs” is misleading. We are dealing here not with the issue of property, but rather with a life-and-death issue. Bialik called that literature the nation's “breath of life (nishmat apo).” One day, in a playground in Boston, I met a young South Korean woman, a student in philosophy and education, who told me, with great excitement in her voice, that the Talmud was the most studied text among her friends in South Korea. We are all free to pursue whatever intellectual paths we want, and we are, of course, free to choose whatever cultural treasures we wish to bring into our lives. Nonetheless, it seems logical that each of us should be familiar with their own culture as well. Israeli secularism, as it is reflected in the country's school system (and not just there) – has abandoned its culture. Hebrew literature, which was the most prominent arena offering a cultural alternative to the modernization and secularization of large segments of the Jewish people, has, to a large extent, abandoned this role. Many of its writers, critics and scholars in the present generation are deaf to the language of their mothers and fathers, and I estimate that most of the doctoral students in Hebrew literature who attended public schools in Israel do not know the Kriyat Shma (Hear O Israel) prayer by heart and certainly do not even know what a page of Gemara looks like.
Why has the cultural approach failed? Many reasons could be cited. Two of the main education systems in Eastern Europe between the two world wars that expressed a serious approach to the issue of Judaism as culture – even though the two approaches were diametrically opposed to one another – were the Tarbut schools and the Bund schools. Together, the two school systems had tens of thousands of students and teachers and expressed a vibrant cultural wealth. Both systems were destroyed in the Holocaust. Although these facts are known, they are sometimes overlooked. The two major alternatives in Jewish education, each of which was founded on a cultural ideology, were mortally wounded in the Holocaust and what developed from them, or along similar lines, in Israel in its pre-state era has lost its vitality in a prolonged process. Why did it lose its vitality? An important role was played by the cancellation of the “labor stream” in the school system here. The significance of the cancellation was that the comprehensive anti-sectorial approach to the state (mamlakhtiut) and the public school system swallowed up secular Jewish education. The more serious significance of that cancellation was the fact that nationalism in its political form replaced Jewish culture.
This process can be linked to the overall dilution of humanistic education. Nevertheless, in Western countries, the awareness that you are a product of your culture is not so diluted. In any bookshop in America, you can find Walt Whitman and Herman Melville, whereas, in Israel, in order to find the writings of Judah Loeb Gordon, Abraham Mapu or Mendele Mocher Seforim (pseudonym of Shalom Jacob Abramovitsch), you will have to pray that you can find them in the pile of books beside the paper disposal bin in the street. The tendency to forget – to the point of erasure – that is characteristic of Israeli secularism is prevalent not just with regard to classic Hebrew literature, but also with regard to that literature's precursors and founders. More than a century ago, Mendele Mocher Sefarim put the following words in the mouth of one of his protagonists: “In order to save written and oral Judaism, which is the true basis of our nationality – Jews must not establish their own state; rather, they must live in the Diaspora. Residence in Palestine as a nation with a distinct culture cannot today be based on the laws and the Written and Oral Law that were suited to the way of life in ancient times and which are vastly different from the way of life today. Thus, most of the laws of Israel will not survive and will be forgotten together with the Bible, and along with many things and customs connected with religious conduct and prayer and with the life of the family and the life of society. And it should be recalled that the life of the nation depends on family and society. Thus, all these things and theories will be forgotten, together with their spirit. And, thus, the revival of Palestine as a home for the Jews will spell the death of the Jewish people. If we believe that the Jews will once more become a nation on their own soil, that nation will be a new Israel, bereft of the written Law and its traditions and without all the acts and ambitions and feelings and all the innermost emotions that are dependent on those acts, ambitions and feelings and which today are the foundations of the personality of Jews today….” (Kol Kitvei Mendele Mocher Sefarim [The Collected Works of Mendele Mocher Sefarim] [Tel Aviv: Dvir, 5766/1965-66], pp. 463-64; in Hebrew).
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Political culture creates mechanisms that control the spirit, or, at least, the awareness of the individual, and sometimes achieves success in this area. Thus, in the symbolic order of the establishment of identity in Israeli society, the secular-religious dichotomy can compete only with the Ashkenazi-Sephardi dichotomy. Both dichotomies are maintained and preserved by political mechanisms, and, although, for several decades, cracks have appeared in the floor on which “Israeli identity” rests and although all sorts of weeds have sprung up from the chaos and are disrupting the natural order of things, the power of habit, of phraseology and of what is self-understood overcomes all resistance.
In the reality in which I live, identity is a liquid experience; rather than being distinguished through sharp definitions, it moves and changes, multiplies, is not subject to the Law of Contradiction, and creates differences. In the standard terms of Israeli identity, the closest thing to a non-categorical experience of identity could be called traditionalism. Meir Buzaglo has written important things on this subject. Most Israeli Jews – and, apparently, a considerable number of Diaspora Jews – if they were to be asked to respond to the questions of survey-takers, would answer that they are traditional Jews. However, the Israeli school system has no traditional stream and the term “traditional” in the politics of Israeli identity is currently reserved for Sephardi Jews. My grandfather, who was born in Tartakov, which is now part of Ukraine, came to pre-state Israel in the early 1930s as a Hebrew laborer and, according to the terms of Israeli sociology, was a secular Jew; nonetheless, he regularly attended prayer services in the synagogue and would sing traditional Jewish melodies to himself. Nothing in Judaism was foreign to him. Nor was he the only grandfather who both prayed and stopped praying, who studied and did not study, who spoke with God and did not speak with God. However, in the ideological net that determines the system of signs, he was a non-consistent hybrid, an ordinary Jew, and ordinary Jews did not have any sign or school, let alone an educational stream or a political party.
The urban religious-secular model in Israeli education was developed at the Keshet school. This is an unusual kind of educational institution. However, in terms of the central goal for which it was established, Keshet turned against its own creators, or at least made life difficult for them. Originally, it adhered to a strict definition of “religious” and “secular” Jews. The school's approach in the beginning was that religious and secular Jews could – and should – study together in the same setting on the basis of recognition of, and respect for, the Otherness of the Other. The religious students attended prayer services; the secular ones did not. All the while, the strict distinction between the two groups was maintained. In the context of – and in relation to – Israeli awareness, the distinction was an understandable necessity; however, there was a thin line separating this approach from a ratification and a replication of an unnecessary dichotomy. The fear of the secular parents was that their children would be “converted” and would participate in the prayer services. In other words, more than anything else, prayer defined the boundary lines of identity. The secular students, who were not fastidious about these boundary lines, sometimes participated here and there in the prayer services, if only out of curiosity as to what their circle of prayerbook-holding schoolmates were doing. Thus, today, at Keshet, in the prayer services for the Jewish New Moon, or new Jewish month (Rosh Hodesh), all the children sing the psalms in the Hallel prayer recited in the celebration of a new Jewish month and they chant passages from the Mishna. Recently, after long discussions, it was decided that “traditional” would be recognized as a legitimate category among the families of the students at Keshet. I do not underestimate the importance of the fact that the children, their parents and their teachers now sing the “Lekha Dodi” prayer recited in the Friday night service in synagogues and that they do so in all the different variations they have brought from their respective homes. Furthermore, when they sing that prayer, it is not so important to them whether they are traditional, religious or secular. At Keshet, as I understand the situation, the beginnings of an Israeli Jewish education are now appearing. However, that education does not view Judaism as a culture; or, at least, that is not the focal point. Instead, the focal point is a new perception, and a new experience, of identity. In short, a school for ordinary Jews.
Rotem Prager-Wagner is the founder of the Seder Nashim Beit Midrash for Judaism and Gender at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem
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Translated by Mark Elliott Shapiro