The Meaning of Pluralism for Jewish Education

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October 1, 2000
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Peter Geffen

Contemporary Jewish life often hears the word “pluralism” and assumes it to refer to the re-lationship (or lack of it) between different strands of Jewish religious life. Although we do encourage what we might call this “sociological pluralism,” the Abraham Joshua Heschel School in New York City is far more concerned with allowing children to experience the “pluralism” of ideas through the expansiveness of the ideological and intellectual encounter. Our school believes that teaching children to think critically using multiple perspectives enables them to appreciate and respect a wide range of points of view on both Jewish and general issues as they grow into adulthood. It enhances their intellectuality, which in turn can inform and color their spirituality.

Our school was founded on the philosophy of the revered 20th century rabbi, theologian, and social activist Abraham Joshua Heschel. His writings reflect his strong belief in the value of religious pluralism, both within Judaism and in relationship to the other religions of the world. “I think it is the will of God that there should be religious pluralism. Jewish thinking and living can only be adequately understood in terms of a dialectical pattern, containing opposite or contrasted properties.”

But Heschel did not stop there, succinctly conveying his deeper understanding of pluralism: “A central concern in Jewish thinking is to overcome the tendency to see the world in one dimension, from one perspective….The heart of the relationship of God and man is reciprocity, interdependence. The task is to humanize the sacred and to sanctify the secular. (italics mine)

The Heschel School is committed to the teaching of critical thinking skills and the appreciation of multiple perspectives. Our understanding of and commitment to curricular integration derives from the words “humaniz[ing] the sacred and…sanctify[ing] the secular,” which directs us toward the teaching of a Judaism that is itself integrated as well as interrelated to the worlds of history, literature, and social studies as well as the sciences and the arts.

We do not seek to use the teaching of general studies as a backdrop to Jewish events and personalities. Teaching interrelationships with both depth and appreciation enables the student to entertain the non-Jewish world free of fear of either intellectual or historical conquest. It goes to the core of enhancing the child’s sense of both personal and Jewish identity.

We want to help children to understand the Jewish experience as one in which Jews have formed their unique place and perspective through positive assimilation of vast elements of the majority cultures in which they lived. Our art, architecture, costumes, dance, folklore, and music, along with our liturgy, literature, and even our Hebrew language, have been formed in cooperation with the places where we have lived and with the people who lived there.

Our story is, of course, complex and sometimes tragic. But the overwhelming weight of historical and anthropological evidence weighs in on the side of a healthy integration of our surroundings into our midst and essence. Sharing this worldview with children confirms and legitimates their own existence in a world of not just dual, but multiple, cultures.

Pluralism as an intellectual concept also helps children place themselves within the historical chain of Jewish history. It affirms their role as full participants in the evolutionary development of Judaism and the Jewish people. (One does not need to be a Reconstructionist to fully appreciate the genius of Kaplan’s concept of Judaism as an “evolving religious civilization.”) Heschel spoke to this way of viewing Jewish experience in words that directly inform both the mission and the pedagogy of The Heschel School:

“The authentic individual is neither an end nor a beginning but a link between ages, both memory and expectation. Every moment is a new beginning within a continuum of history. It is facetious to segregate a moment and not to sense its involvement in both past and future. Humbly the past defers to the future, but it refuses to be discarded. Only he who is an heir is qualified to be a pioneer.” (italics mine)

This pluralistic model, based on Rabbi Heschel’s philosophy, is being adopted in a growing number of schools across the United States and Canada. Looking to the future, it is clear that Heschel’s wisdom and discernment are critical to meeting the challenges faced by the contemporary day school movement. In the 1960s, educators sought to make their classrooms “relevant.” We did not fully understand the depth of significance of this term. Heschel did:

“In other words, to teach religion means to teach a way of dealing with living problems of human existence, with the problems of the student who sits in front of us. Otherwise it remains trivial. And religion cannot survive as a triviality.”

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Peter A. Geffen is the founder of The Abraham Joshua Heschel School in NYC. He is Senior Educational Consultant to the Columbus Jewish Day School and serves as a consultant to a growing network of schools across North America.

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