AIMS OF JEWISH EDUCATION LEADS TO DEBATE ON BASIC JEWISH
"Are there basic Jewish values?" Prof. Menachem Kellner of the Department of Jewish Thought asked the question after Prof. Hanan Alexander, Vice President of the University of Judaism (Los Angeles) and visiting professor in the Faculty of Education this past year ended his presentation by asking, "What are the basic values of Judaism?"
> The occasion was a colloquium on "The Aims of Jewish Education in a Pluralistic Society." Sponsored by the Education Faculty and its Center for Jewish Education in the Diaspora, the forum effectively served as a prelude to the Haifa-Boston conference on continuity. The Center's head, Prof. Emerita Miriam Ben-Peretz, was a co-chair of the latter event and Professors Kellner and Alexander played active roles in it.
Nothing will help to assure the future of the Jewish people if we cannot set up a common set of values for the 21st century, Alexander believes. Today, however, not only is there no agreement among the three main groups comprising the Jewish people--Orthodox, liberal, and secular--there is complete non-agreement among them, he asserted.
Education, for Alexander, who is also a Conservative Rabbi, is the key, even though he admits that Jewish education has failed and must be reformed. He sees education both as a means to bring about Jewish consciousness and as a reflection of basic Jewish values. "The aim of continuity," he argues, "is an awareness of Jewish values." These values, in turn, are taken from education. Continuity and awareness, then, "are means of getting to the basic values of our people."
The difficulty of determining these basic values--or, indeed, whether there is any basic value--is not a new phenomenon, according to Kellner, who pointed to the talmudic dispute over the interpretation of the biblical injunction, "Love thy neighbor as thyself." The dispute revolves around a particularist or a universalist interpretation of the verse. It represents a split, he said, that finds its way into Jewish texts and has created an inner tension in Judaism.
The tension has made itself felt through the generations, he continued, and affected Halachic tradition and even an issue like the "Jewish ownership" of Israel. Usually the particularist interpretation has gained the upper hand. Kellner, however, who wears the knit kippah of the modern Orthodox, claims that texts have in effect been doctored to remove universalist views, which he thinks characterize the Jewish religion more than is or has been admitted. He called for a return to the unedited sources.
Human beings are born in the image of God, Who has no image, said Alouf Hareven, an Israeli social activist, in pointing to this seeming contradiction. Finding religion to be a system of laws, he asked: "What should we accept, those of the religion [i.e., Judaism] or those of the State [Israel]?" He sees the concept of the dignity of human beings, which has been incorporated into Israeli law, as the most important value for this society.
The concept, though, has caused inter-generational, inter-ethnic, and other problems in this country, he pointed out. The non-acceptance of this value, he contends, will lead to a split in the society. Jewish education, he adds, must show "how to maintain human dignity on a practical, behavioral level."
Dr. Daniel Guttwein, a Senior Lecturer in Jewish History, brought a different perspective to the colloquium in referring to Zionism as a rebellion in the history of the Jewish people. The central problem facing the teaching of Zionism, Guttwein thinks, is the lack of distinction made between memory and history. The former is an uncritical recognition of the past; the latter, a critical study of it. Both views are legitimate in their respective areas. The problem arises, as he sees it, when one crosses over into the other's domain.
Israeli memory, he said, presents Zionism as the realization of messianic expectations among Jews in the Diaspora. This perception, he claims, "contradicts not only the findings of research but also the self-recognition of the first Zionists themselves. The latter emphasized their rebellion against existing patterns of the past and the messianic conception.
Memory, the historian commented, blurs the fact that there was a break with the past. This, in his view, makes it difficult to understand the place of Zionism in the historical continuum of the Jewish people. Guttwein feels that a correct teaching of Zionism must replace the memory framework with "critical undestanding."
The teaching of the aggadic aspects of the Talmud and of midrash as well as other texts should be based on a certain outlook, one that creates a sense of belonging, though not necessarily a religious identification. The object is to instill culture, not relgion, argued Dr. Shulamit Valler, who is national superintendent of Oral Law (or Toshba, in its Hebrew acronym) studies in the Israeli state high school system and teaches in the University's Department of Jewish History.
For her, the problem was what of the huge amount of Jewish literature to include in the curriculum. Her criteria were moral values that were both special to the culture but also universal, a language of creativity, and concrete experiences rather than abstract examples.
> Valler was sure that a curriculum could be devised to reflect all these characteristics. A member of the audience who sits on the Haifa Municipal Education Committee pointed out, however, that it was not always easy to find Toshba teachers today. He criticized the government for acting on a report on the situation of science and computer education in the schools but not on the Shenhar report on the state of Jewish education in the Israeli school system. (The report is named for its committee chairperson, Prof. Aliza Shenhar, former Rector of the University and past Ambassador to Russia.) On the other hand, he cited a program involving ten Haifa schools that had made contact with ten Jewish schools abroad for the purpose of initiating educational projects in Jewish studies for students.