Turning on our Future Rabbis: Israel and Rabbinic Education
Daniel Gordis, in his recent essay “Are Young Rabbis Turning on Israel?” published in Commentary, identifies a number of important challenges facing rabbinical education and Jewish communal life in North America. However, the broad brush strokes he uses to paint a picture of our rabbinical students’ attitudes toward Israel and the teaching of thoughtful, committed faculty do not portray with adequate sophistication or nuance the complexity of our educational endeavor.
Gordis is right that some students in our rabbinical school were not raised in homes or communities in which an instinctual commitment to the State of Israel or world Jewry was cultivated. He accurately notes that the memories of younger Jews who grew up in the post-intifada era are vastly different from the memories of those of us who developed our attachment to Israel in the euphoric aftermath of the six day war. It is true that many take for granted the role Israel has played in fostering a sense of self-confidence and pride within American Jewry. He is correct that there is a significant recalibration of the balance between particularism and universalism in North American Jewry that is disconcerting to those of us who were nourished by a Zionist ethos and whose parents narrowly escaped European or Arab anti-Semitism.
Striving to foster a love for Israel among our rabbinical students is a serious educational challenge. The complexity of Israel’s political, religious and social reality requires educators in liberal rabbinical schools to be thoughtful, patient, and open to our students. Let us not forget that Israel still discriminates against our rabbinical school graduates in its state-mandated religious laws. As educational leaders we need to be explicit about our personal and institutional commitments to Israel as we actively engage rabbinic students in Israel education that explores the great achievements of the Jewish state as well as its shortcomings.
In our school, engagement is not, as Gordis describes, a “benign interaction,” but a form of conscious communication that calls upon a profound sense of the uniqueness of each individual that is a reflection of the Divine image. Active engagement with different perspectives and values is a basic requirement of the pluralism that our school embraces, and is not a mere concession to political correctness. It requires intellectual and spiritual capacities that stretch our minds and force us to examine our own beliefs as we simultaneously offer constructive criticism to others. This type of intentional pluralism is lacking in most Jewish communal settings, especially with regard to Israel, and is one reason why we in the Jewish community have such difficulty retaining the allegiance of our young people.
Israel, Gordis astutely points out, is a part of a larger conversation about the balance between the particular and the universal in Jewish life. In the 21st century North American Jewish community, the interaction between the particular and the universal will certainly be different than it was in other periods of Jewish history and even in contemporary Israel. Let us not forget that the Protestantization that Gordis describes has been unfolding in the American Jewish community since our arrival on these shores, and is constantly in a state of reconfiguration. The dialectical dance that moves us between the poles of particularity and universality takes on new forms in light of the shifting ground beneath us. Recognizing that today’s universalism demands a new approach that can and must create room for a changing Jewish particularism, rabbinical schools must discover new ways of connecting our students to Jewish peoplehood and Israel. This is a critical and unique task of American Judaism and requires innovative and creative thinking on the part of schools training future leaders for the North American Jewish community.
Those who choose to spend five to six years of their lives in rabbinical school tend to be individuals with a keen sense of the Divine image that resides in each and every human being. Many, as a result, see the sacredness of life as a connecting link between peoples and cultures. This sensitivity to the dignity of all human beings is certainly a core vision of our prophetic and mystical traditions, and finds expression in the halachik imperatives to treat the stranger with respect and compassion, and the incessant reminders that we were slaves in Egypt. They are drawn to the effort to reduce the number of our enemies through a process of reconciliation that has its roots in the way Avraham Avinu negotiated a pact with Avimelech. Avraham, the Ivri, was also Avraham, the negotiator of co-existence. Who would have thought that Israel would negotiate peace with its sworn enemies, Egypt or Jordan? Who could have predicted that Yitzchak Rabin and Yasser Arafat would shake hands on the White House lawn?
There is no doubt that some of our students have a naïve view that our implacable enemies desire peace and are worthy partners in building a future of peaceful co-existence. We need to help them understand what is necessary to protect the Jewish people and the State of Israel from nefarious and hateful groups and governments, especially those that David Brooks has recently described as “depraved regimes.” We must do a better job in bringing this awareness of our precarious condition to those students who bask in the light of the universal, but we ought not to ignore the powerful messages of strength and independence that the State of Israel sends about its place in the world. The fragile state that Gordis describes is belied by Israel’s own self-image as a bastion of Jewish self-assuredness, and may reflect a Diaspora mentality even among those who live in Israel.
Most disappointing are Gordis’ recommendations for responding to the challenges that beset liberal rabbinical schools with regard to Israel education. While he admits that it will not be easy, he offers little upon which we can build a compelling educational plan. For Gordis, the selection of students, the curriculum and assigned readings and the year of study in Israel hold out the most hope for confronting the challenges that so concern him. The level of vagueness and generality in his list of suggestions is surprising, especially for a founding Dean of a North American rabbinical school. More baffling is his insistence that “raising the flag of particularity and distinctive loyalties high and unabashedly” holds out the most hope for developing rabbis who will be lovers of Zion. The adults that we teach in our Rabbinical School are not so shallow and anti-intellectual that they would be swayed by flag waving. Commitment to Jewish particularity will not be engendered by flowery rhetoric or demagogic charisma. The pledge of allegiance has long been discarded as the method to generate deep loyalty. Thin processes of socialization will not work to nurture the souls and stimulate the minds of adults who seek thick, authentic experiences of Judaism.
Education is what is required, and it takes hard work, ongoing relationships, and a respect for the seriousness of the students we teach. True education is open-ended and unpredictable, but, unlike indoctrination, holds out the promise of transformation. Michael Oakeshott, the great philosopher of liberal education has described liberal learning as “an endless unrehearsed intellectual adventure in which, in imagination, we enter into a variety of modes of understanding the world and ourselves and are not disconcerted by the differences or dismayed by the inconclusiveness of it all.” Oakeshott captures a sense of education that I believe is also expressed in Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Hagiga when our rabbis state that Torah study requires “that you make your ear like a hopper and get a perceptive heart to understand the words of those who pronounce unclean and those who pronounce clean, those who prohibit and those who permit, those who disqualify and those who declare fit.” This is the type of education, with all of its risks, to which we devote our energies, talents, and skills
Our rabbinical school has been doing the hard work of this type of pluralistic education in the trenches of American Judaism, and part of this work is attending to the challenges of teaching a love for Israel. We have expanded and intensified our requirement for students to spend a year in Israel where they study classical texts as well as contemporary Israeli culture. They meet with Israeli thought leaders who represent diverse points along the political and religious spectrum. This Spring I was with our rabbinical students when they met with Natan Sharansky, the leader of the Jewish Agency, generating a lively and respectful conversation about the future of Israel-Diaspora relations. Their questions and comments revealed a strong identification with Israel that was strengthened by the experiences they had while studying in Israel on our program.
At our Newton campus this year our rabbinical school focused significant energies on creating a serious, year-long seminar on Israel. Indeed, Rabbi Gordis himself was one of a number of rabbis who presented their perspectives to our students, and I found it disconcerting that he did not mention his participation in his Commentary essay. There is certainly more we can and will do to infuse our curriculum with opportunities to connect to Israel through classical texts, Zionist history, Israeli contemporary culture, and interactions with Israelis from across the political and religious spectrum. As the newest full-time rabbinical school in America, we will continue to enhance Israel education as we develop a uniquely pluralistic, American approach to envisioning and enacting the partnership between Israel and North American Jewry. Rabbinical schools will even create new ways to celebrate Israel’s achievements and commemorate Israel’s heroic sacrifices that reflect the emerging perspectives of our future rabbis.
Our Yom Hazikaron ceremony poignantly captured the appropriate mood and focused on the ultimate Israeli sacrifice for the Jewish State. It expanded our consciousness to include wider circles of mourning, but in no way created a moral equivalency between Israeli soldiers and the enemies of Zion. The service was co-led by a rabbinic student who lived in Israel for years as an adult, and who is an outspoken Zionist. One of our faculty members, an Israeli who served in the IDF, spoke about his friends who died while serving in the Israeli army or who lost loved ones in wars that defended the Jewish State against its enemies. He then chanted the El Maleh Rachamim, the memorial prayer recited for those who died in defense of Israel. As someone who occupies a more conservative place than many in our school when it comes to Israel, I was moved by the Yom Hazikaron service and felt it did justice to the particularity of the day. The next day, in that same room, I sang Hallel on Yom Ha’atzmaut with members of our faculty and student body, in joy and gratitude for the blessings Israel has bestowed upon us. Later that day, we gathered as a Hebrew College community to celebrate Israel Independence Day. We read aloud Israel’s Declaration of Independence in both Hebrew and English and I spoke about the centrality of the State of Israel to our Jewish lives.
Hebrew College from its inception has been and continues to be a Zionist institution with strong bonds to Israel and the Hebrew language. Our rabbinical school shares our commitment to foster a deep attachment to the land, people and state of Israel. And yet, the world is so different than it was when Hebrew College was founded as a secular institution in 1921. At that time no one at Hebrew College could imagine that we would be ordaining rabbis or that Israel would evoke such different perspectives among our students. We must respond to the new reality of our situation, grappling with it honestly and with the courage of our educational convictions. Zionism in the 21st century, and I dare say throughout the 20th century, takes on many forms. As a pluralistic institution, we make room for multiple voices to express divergent ideas and attitudes in relationship to the challenges facing Israel.
We are dedicated to training rabbis who are passionate learners of Jewish texts, committed leaders of the Jewish people, seekers of spiritual insight, practitioners of Jewish pluralism, and inextricably connected to Israel and its citizens. The path we have chosen is not well paved, and we need the help of those who share our vision. We will make mistakes along the way and constructive criticism is welcomed, especially when offered with the covenantal love that Jews should display to one another.