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Volume 1, Issue 3 (October 2007 / Cheshvan 5768)
Article 3/10

Integrating Education in Jewish Day Schools: Toward a Jewish Great Books Program
By Jonah Cohen

Abstract:Recent studies show that, relative to their small population, the Jewish people have disproportionately and significantly contributed to “the top ranks of the arts, sciences, law, medicine, finance, entrepreneurship, and the media.” Oddly, Jewish day schools have yet to highlight such intellectual accomplishment in a coherent curriculum. This article argues that Jewish day schools are in need of a “Jewish Great Books” program which would introduce Jewish youth to the original works of eminent Jewish intellectuals in the various academic and artistic fields.

Quid ergo Athenis et Hierosolymis, quipped Tertullian, what has Athens to do with Jerusalem? Answer: quite a bit. The metaphor that western civilization rests on two opposing cities, Athens and Jerusalem, highlights one of the major difficulties confronting Jewish day schools nowadays. How do we coordinate secular curricula and influences (Athens) with Jewish courses and values (Jerusalem)?

This is, to be sure, hardly a new problem. When Rabbi Joseph ben Gamla established the first communal Jewish schools in first century Palestine, he was responding in part to the cultural influences of Roman imperial rule upon the young men of Israel; when Maimonides sought to harmonize Judaism and Aristotle, he was reacting to the trendy neo-Aristotelianism of medieval Spain; and when the Cheyders and Talmud Torahs were instituted, they were attempts to conserve Jewish learning and self-esteem amid the various humiliations of 18th and 19th century Europe. In each period, across the world, Jewish educators have wrestled with the question of how to synchronize their ancient heritage with the prevailing worldview of the dominant culture. Each generation, so it seems, must struggle to reconcile Athens and Jerusalem.

Ours too is facing this question. With the unprecedented freedom now enjoyed in modern liberal democracies, numerous Jewish day schools have emerged that, consciously or not, attempt to solve the age-old problem of integrating Jewish education with the surrounding society.  These attempts have included adding secular classes solely because the state requires it; blending secular and Jewish studies through a historical or Zionist approach; and offering small pieces of Jewish electives and cultural activities as supplements to the more valued college preparatory curriculum.

None of these solutions is entirely satisfactory. The result has been a fracturing of the Jewish intellectual community. Some schools now cater strictly to their own religious denomination and foster little dialogue, if not outright hostility, among Jewish youth of different persuasions. Other schools fear appearing “too Jewish” and so actively recruit non-Jewish students, even as some schools now open their doors strictly to Jews. Then there are day schools that serve a broad Jewish community and as a result are frequently and justifiably confused as to how to integrate Judaism into their academic program, because their student body is so diverse when it comes to defining what being Jewish means.

Can any pedagogical cohesion be brought to bear on this Babel of Jewish day schools? Or are they simply destined to continue drifting farther and farther apart, like cooling stars in an expanding universe? Clearly, we are in need of a curriculum that coordinates Jewish education in such a way that it pays due respect to the various Jewish denominations, on the one hand, and the wider secular academic requirements, on the other.

My thesis is that an ideal integrated Jewish education starts with universal human concerns, which is to say, with those bedrock problems that all thinking men and women must grapple. What is the good life? How do we define human nature? What is man’s relationship to the earth? How should we organize society? Can we trust deduction and induction to give us certainty? What is the meaning of logic, of science, of God? And so on. By organizing the curricula around these kinds of elemental questions, by making them central to the culture of the school, we can obviously bring into conversation a large variety of great thinkers and artists from both the Jewish and non-Jewish worlds, as well as from the various Jewish denominations. What do Plato, Einstein and Levinas have to say about scientific methods? In what ways is scientific thinking similar to Talmudic exegesis and reasoning? How do Kant and Soloveitchik understand God? How might Euclidian and non-Euclidian geometries help us understand the kabbalistic thought of Steinsaltz or the abstract expressionism of Rothko? We can approach these thinkers, rabbis and artists as fellow journeymen sharing a common pursuit of truth, and, like Talmudic scholars, we can compare, discuss and analyze their various perspectives on humanity’s fundamental concerns.

It is probably only through this “Great Questions” approach, if you will, that we can begin to formulate a truly integrated Jewish education, and it is notable that such a program of study wouldn’t be all that different from the way in which yeshiva students over the years have rigorously studied Talmudic dialogues with a havruta, a study partner, batting ideas back and forth, struggling with paradoxes, proposing hypotheses, backing up arguments with textual evidence, and so forth. Nor would the program be unlike the impressive system of education that Franz Rosenzweig established throughout Germany in the early twentieth century which, before the Nazis destroyed it, taught Jewish students the methods of dialogue or “speech-thinking” when examining fundamental problems.

Here it is also worth adding that we would do well to borrow aspects from the “Great Books” theory of education. This theory has it that, rather than reading textbooks and other secondary sources, students are better off studying and discussing the masterpieces of their tradition, from Homer and Herodotus to Wittgenstein and Waddington. What better way to develop an appreciation of mathematics, logic, science, history, art, music, philosophy and literature than by studying the actual works of the geniuses who made those subjects important and stimulating in the first place?

Let me quote a very beautiful statement by Robert Hutchins, one of the founding fathers of the Great Books movement, which nicely sums up the reasoning behind this program of learning. He says:

We do not think that these books will solve all our problems. We do not think that they are the only books worth reading. We think that these books shed some light on all our basic problems, and that it is folly to do without any light we can get. We think that these books show the origins of many of our most serious difficulties. We think that the spirit they represent and the habit of mind they teach are more necessary today than ever before. We think that the reader who does his best to understand these books will find himself led to read and helped to understand other books. We think that reading and understanding great books will give him a standard by which to judge all other books.[1]

I think that in order to successfully integrate Jewish education our day schools need a kind of Jewish Great Books program which would underline what scholar Charles Murray recently called “Jewish Genius,” that is, an academic program focused on studying those Jewish intellectuals whose brilliant works would remind our youth of “the extravagant overrepresentation of Jews, relative to their numbers, in the top ranks of the arts, sciences, law, medicine, finance, entrepreneurship, and the media.”[2] Murray points out some fascinating statistics about recent intellectual history that Jewish day schools would do well to keep in mind when formulating curricula:

In the first half of the 20th century, despite pervasive and continuing social discrimination against Jews throughout the Western world, despite the retraction of legal rights, and despite the Holocaust, Jews won 14 percent of Nobel Prizes in literature, chemistry, physics, and medicine/physiology. In the second half of the 20th century, when Nobel Prizes began to be awarded to people from all over the world, that figure rose to 29 percent. So far, in the 21st century, it has been 32 percent. Jews constitute about two-tenths of one percent of the world’s population. You do the math.[3]

Highlighting such extraordinary intellectual accomplishment ought to stand out as the unifying theme of all Jewish day schools. Required secular courses—math, science, literature and social science—could easily be organized around studying the contributions to these fields by the great Jewish thinkers, all the while remembering to put them into dialogue with the thoughts of eminent non-Jewish intellectuals who are struggling with the same questions. This program of study would not only harmonize Jewish education with the state’s demands for a secular curriculum, it would also enlighten our young to the splendid fact that, whatever their particular Jewish denomination, they are heirs to a magnificently accomplished and gifted people, a tradition that they should strive to carry on.

Current Great Books programs such as can be found at St. John’s College, Thomas Aquinas College and the Paideia high schools tend to exhibit a bias toward authors of a non-Jewish background. This bias, however, is not a result of bigotry but of a methodological flaw in their selection of readings. [4] If you consider Robert Hutchins’ and Mortimer J. Adler’s Great Books of the Western World collection, which was pivotal in sparking the Great Books movement in American education, you find an emphasis on texts written during those periods before the 20th and 21st centuries—in other words, when Jews were barred from full participation in western civilization. Again, Murray points out some interesting facts that are relevant here:

When writing a book called Human Accomplishment (2003), I compiled inventories of “significant figures” in the arts and sciences, defined as people who are mentioned in at least half of the major histories of their respective fields. From 1200 to 1800, only seven Jews are among those significant figures, and only two were important enough to have names that are still widely recognized: Spinoza and Montaigne (whose mother was Jewish). The sparse representation of Jews during the flowering of the European arts and sciences is not hard to explain. They were systematically excluded, both by legal restrictions on the occupations they could enter and by savage social discrimination. Then came legal emancipation, beginning in the late 1700’s in a few countries and completed in Western Europe by the 1870’s, and with it one of the most extraordinary stories of any ethnic group at any point in human history.                

Is it any wonder, then, that Jews are so thinly represented in most current Great Books academic programs when, of the 130 authors selected for Hutchins’ and Adler’s collection, nearly 80 percent of them were born before 1870? It is clear that a Jewish day school that adopted a Great Books curriculum would have to highlight the explosion of Jewish genius after 1900.[5] At the same time, such a school would also be in a position to restore to Jewish consciousness a number of ignored but influential ancient and medieval authors—Philo of Alexandria, Ibn Gabirol, Leone Ebreo and other superb thinkers and poets who were translated into European languages, plagiarized, appropriated, and their names sometimes erased from the western canon, all because they were Jewish and presumably fair game. Jewish students would then finally become acquainted with the primary sources of every Jew who has won a Nobel Prize in science and literature, as well as the many other great works of distinguished Jewish intellectuals, businessmen, artists, composers, doctors, lawyers, judges, journalists and scientists. These giants of our people would and should be held up as heroes for our young to emulate.[6]

Those who contend that western civilization rests on the struggle between Athens and Jerusalem, as if the two were locked together in a mad culture war, ignore how vigorously the sons and daughters of Jerusalem have embraced and contributed to the rational, empirical and artistic traditions of Athens. A Jewish Great Books program in our day schools would go a long way toward correcting the fallacious notion that the two cities were ever at irreconcilable odds. It would harmonize the demands of secular and Jewish studies. It would enable Jews of different denominations to attend the same school, with each making special contributions to the intellectual discussion on campus. It would remind our youth of the intellectual legacy of their people. And it would show, once and for all, that successfully integrating education in our Jewish day schools was indeed always possible.

About the Author
Jonah Cohen is contributing editor to Covenant and chair of the history department at The Dr. Miriam and Sheldon G. Adelson School, the first Jewish high school in Las Vegas, Nevada, where he is currently developing a Great Books curriculum. He has a first-class honors BA and PhD in comparative religion and philosophy from the University of London.

© Covenant - Global Jewish Magazine 2007


[1] Robert M. Hutchins, The Great Conversation: The Substance of a Liberal Education (Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1952), p. xiii.

[2] Charles Murray, “Jewish Genius,” Commentary, April 2007. The two other Charles Murray quotes found in this article come from the same essay.

[3] In an email to me, Murray pointed out that his numbers don’t include the Peace Prize or the Economics Prize. Other lists and statistics about Jewish Nobel laureates can be found at the following websites:  www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Judaism/nobels.html; www.science.co.il/Nobel.asp; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Jewish_Nobel_laureates;and www.jinfo.org/Nobel_Prizes.html.

[4] Against my opinion, one might cite Joseph Epstein’s book Friendship: An Exposé?, where we find on page 159 gossip suggesting that the chief decision-maker in the Encyclopaedia Britannica’s  Great Books collection  harbored antisemitic sentiments and behavior: “I once worked for Mortimer J. Adler, who was born a Jew but for many years attended an Episcopal church, and who once instructed a friend of mine who was his office manager not to hire a Jewish girl as his secretary (Adler converted to Catholicism shortly before he died). Around me this man, who identified himself as little as possible as Jewish, would occasionally bring out a Yiddishism or recount stories of his immigrant father. Something about me, apparently, brings out the Jew in people.” If this story is true—and in fairness Adler’s side cannot be heard since he is unfortunately no longer with us—then bigotry might well have played some role in the slim selection of Jewish writers included in the Encyclopaedia’s  Great Books collection. Certainly, one is justified in questioning their decision to enshrine Chaucer’s “The Prioress’s Tale” as part of the great works of western civilization, while excluding far worthier and loftier texts of medieval Jewish poets.    

[5] In his wonderful essay “The Great Conversation,” Robert Hutchins offered the following explanation for the collection’s emphasis on pre-20th century authors: “The Editors do not think that the Great Conversation came to an end before the twentieth century began. On the contrary, they know that the Great Conversation has been going on during the first half of this century, and they hope it will continue to go on during the rest of this century and the centuries that follow. They are confident that great books have been written since 1900 and that the twentieth century will contribute many new voices to the Great Conversation. The reason, then, for the omission of authors and works after 1900 is simply that the Editors did not feel that they or anyone else could accurately judge the merits of contemporary writings.”  Robert M. Hutchins, The Great Conversation: The Substance of a Liberal Education (Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1952), pp. xvii-xviii.

[6] Let me point out here that I am not the only one advocating for recognition of a Jewish Great Books program. The Avi Chai Foundation, in collaboration with the Great Books Foundation, has produced a very worthy anthology of Jewish literature, The Soul of the Text. Professor Ruth Wisse meanwhile has written a splendid work of scholarship, The Modern Jewish Canon, exploring many of the greatest Jewish novels of the twentieth century. And the National Yiddish Book Center—with the help of such distinguished scholars as Ruth Wisse, Glenda Abramson, Robert Alter, Hillel Halkin, Gershon Shaked, Ilan Stavans and Kenneth Turan—recently offered their list of “The 100 Greatest Works of Modern Hebrew Literature.” While I applaud and encourage all of these efforts at defining the literary aspect of the Jewish Canon, I note that such efforts are simply too narrow a base on which to build a Great Books day school curriculum, focusing as they do on literature exclusively. A Jewish Great Books day school would obviously need to include the original works of Jewish genius in mathematics, logic, science, medicine, history, philosophy, law, politics, economics, and thus not just fiction and theology. Accordingly, the Jewish people are still in need of a panel of eminent thinkers from a variety of academic fields who will come together and discuss, judge and delineate all the great books of the Jewish people—which would, one hopes, ultimately be published as a collection for homes and libraries. 


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