Asking the Right Questions

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February 1, 2013
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Jonathan Woocher

Jews are famous (notorious?) for our love of questions (including answering questions with questions). One could argue, in fact, that our faith is built around a set of ancient questions, both simple and profound, that resonate throughout time: “Where are you?” (Genesis 3:9); “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:9); “Will not the judge of all the earth do justly?” (Genesis 18:25); “What is your name?” (Genesis 32:28).

Questions are at the heart of all Jewish learning, and which questions we seek to answer makes all the difference in the impact that learning will have. Although there are two sets of questions that Jewish education must try to answer today, in much of our teaching, one set dominates. The questions our curricula often focus on ask about how to be “Jewish” — how to celebrate holidays, how to pray in synagogue, how to read Hebrew, how to be a good Jewish citizen. These are important questions, but not the only ones that Jewish learning should be raising and responding to. By restoring a second set of questions — the questions that David Moss poses in his essay, questions that lie at the heart of our tradition — to a place of prominence in our educational thinking and practice, Jewish education becomes about more than just developing “good Jews.”  It becomes a vehicle for helping us to become the “images of God” we are meant to be.

I know the dichotomy I have drawn is too stark. Every Jewish educational institution seeks to impact the lives of its students, to help them be better human beings by being better Jews. But a large proportion of students leave our educational programs without the sense that Judaism has important messages for their lives that merit continued attentiveness and study. This should be a warning signal that for all our best intentions, we are too often missing the mark. Too many students assume that being Jewish is about what one does at specific times in specific places, not how one lives one’s life every day. The existential questions have been muted and need to be sharpened. And we must also return, again and again, to ask: How do we know when we are asking the right questions? How do we refine the age-old questions that will guide our learning journeys?

I see two primary reasons for this failed strategy. First, schools have limited time and much to cover, so it is natural to focus on the concrete, on markers of Jewish distinctiveness and the basics of Jewish tradition. Therefore, we teach Hebrew, some biblical text, the calendar, the lifecycle and its observances, a rudimentary Jewish history, and modern Israel. As we do so, we hope that the Jewish/human values embedded in all of these subjects become evident and make an impression. This curricular focus also reflects a larger historical challenge that faced 20th-century Jewish education: How do we keep Jews Jewish during a period of rapid assimilation into the mainstream of American society and culture? A noble struggle, it was fought largely by providing Jews with ways to be proudly Jewish in an American key — by joining synagogues, observing holidays and lifecycle ceremonies, and upholding ethical values as part of America’s “Judeo-Christian” consensus.

The question is whether such an education is adequate and appropriate today, when Jews are more likely to ask what identifying as a Jew means for the larger framing of their lives. This is why the questions Moss asks must become central to the strategies and implementation of Jewish education.

A growing number of Jewish educators today rightly speak about the need to educate the “whole person,” not just the “Jewish” part of who we are. (For an introduction to whole-person learning in a Jewish context, see jesna.org/main.) Educating the whole-person means embracing the kind of “new Jewish learning” that philosopher Franz Rosenzweig argued for nearly a century ago, a Jewish learning for which nothing in life is foreign and everything can be wrestled with through the lens of Torah. Increasingly, Jewish educators today are focusing on students’ socio-emotional needs and on how their gender identities intersect with their Jewish growth. They are also focusing on what Judaism has to say about our natural world and our charge to tend it, about work and workers and how to treat them fairly, and about our deepest spiritual longings and how to satisfy them. These educators are blazing a pathway for 21st-century Jewish learning that holds enormous promise because it is asking the right questions. And, if we start with the right questions, good answers — answers to be discussed, debated, argued over, and, ultimately, embodied in our lives — are sure to follow.

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Jonathan Woocher is the chief ideas officer for JESNA, the Jewish Education Service of North America, and the head of its Lippman Kanfer Institute, an action-oriented think tank for innovation in Jewish learning and engagement. Woocher is the author of Sacred Survival: The Civil Religion of American Jews and numerous articles on Jewish education, community, and religious life.

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