6/10/09

Why You Should Not Confuse Jewish Studies with Jewish Education

Jewish Studies at colleges and universities should never be confused with communal Jewish Education. The two processes may look alike at first glance. But in their goals and methods they are quite distinct from one another.

Jewish Education is supposed to help make people better Jews. That process, whether at a Day School or a Talmud Torah or in adult programs, has a deliberate agenda. Yes, the precise list of purposes may vary depending on the sponsorship. Federations want Jews to have a stronger identity. That means they should know enough to feel an affiliation to the community, to contribute financially to Jewish needs and, in some cases, to participate in the governance and decision making of Jewish organizational life.

Synagogues want Jews to know enough to feel that they ought to belong to the institution. The major religious movements also need to convince their membership that they are the true Jews and the other forms of Judaism are not. As we know, some expressions of this form of polemical argument are more polite than others.

Jewish schools serve the needs of Federations and synagogues. They serve to foster social solidarity by imparting knowledge and by shaping attitudes. At their best, they also serve the spiritual needs of the individual student. They contribute to his or her personal growth as a Jew for no extrinsic purpose. Hence the finest Jewish education correctly nurtures the student's soul. And quite obviously, Jewish educators presume they will serve the needs of Jews exclusively.

Jewish Studies within higher education is directed at making college students better people. That process has its own agenda. The study of the Jews and Judaism helps the student understand the development of Western civilization. It opens up vistas into our own contemporary pluralistic society. At a basic level, Jewish Studies helps students become more sensitive and knowledgeable citizens.

The analysis of Jewish culture in the liberal arts curriculum makes use of the most current methods available for social scientific and humanistic investigation. Students in Jewish Studies learn how to dissect culture through the specific study of Judaic examples. When it is done best, this form of learning nurtures the student too. But it directly serves the intellect, not the soul. Sure, some may argue that a strong and cultivated mind feeds the growth of the spirit. That may be a great fringe-benefit of the finest examples in liberal arts education.

Needless to say, most teachers of Jewish Studies do not expect to serve the needs of Jews exclusively. Naturally, Jewish students are likely to be interested in Jewish Studies courses. Many may take advantage of what is available to try to further pursue the goals they sought in earlier Jewish education at a Day School, synagogue or Talmud Torah. However, it may come as a surprise to learn that the majority of the students in Jewish Studies courses nationwide are not Jewish.

True, at the major Midwestern research institution, the University of Minnesota for example, where we taught for eighteen years, a significant percentage of the Jewish students did take a course in Jewish Studies. A popular offering, Introduction to Judaism, which we taught each year, frequently ranked among the largest courses at the college with 200-300 students. One Jewish student remarked to me about attending the lectures of this course, "It's like you go to a friend's Bar Mitzvah three times a week. You get to see all your Jewish buddies in one place." Yet, year-in-and-year-out, we estimated though that more than two thirds of the students in the large courses in Jewish Studies at that University were not Jewish.

So, what were all these goyim doing in Jewish Studies courses? These offerings fulfilled the needs of the intellectual agenda of the liberal arts student. They also fulfilled college distribution requirements for World Studies, Historical Studies and Literary Studies. These courses were a significant part of the humanities in the liberal arts in the public discourse of the life of the University. They were integral to the purposes of the academic mission. And they were interesting and consistently well-taught.

We educators know that the goals of the liberal arts curriculum are deliberately broad. College should prepare all students to be good citizens at the very least. Professors should strive to instill in each student a commitment to leadership in whatever profession or occupation or civic activity they pursue. And at the optimum level, the teacher must attempt to do more than instruct the student on the objective tasks of how to think or the impersonal ways to analyze phenomena.

But most certainly, the Jewish Studies professor's ultimate goal is to nurture the intellect of each individual. We do this for our Jewish students. We do it for all our students. And correctly so, we leave it to the Jewish educators to nurture the souls of the next generation of Jews.
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Tzvee Zahavy was ordained at Yeshiva University and received his Ph.D. from Brown University. He taught Hebrew and Jewish Studies at the University of Minnesota for eighteen years. He currently resides in Teaneck, N. J. [Reposted from June 2006.]

1 comment:

Drew_Kaplan said...

that's a very nice piece :)