Thursday, December 01, 2016

The Purpose of Jewish Education: Transformation Through Meaning

Recently, Dr. David Bryfman proposed that the purpose of Jewish education ought to be to empower people to "thrive in today's world." He followed that sentence with "For Jewish education to be successful, it must hold at its core the mission to make people happy." He then qualifies:
"Not ‘happy’ in the smiley or laughing sense of the word, although the world surely needs a whole lot more of both these days. But ‘happy’ as in fulfilled; enabling young people to flourish by helping students feel like they are putting forth the best version of themselves."
 I fundamentally disagree with Dr. Bryfman's view and would like to propose an alternative approach.
The purpose of Jewish education should be to transform individuals through making them aware of the meaning in and of their lives.
This may be what Bryfman intended when he talked about happiness as fulfillment or as enabling young people to present the best version of themselves. Additionally, he indicated that Jewish education should enable individuals to answer existential questions such as:

  • Who am I?
  • Where do I fit in this world? 
  • How can I live a more fulfilling life?
  • How can I make the world a better place? 

I would agree that personal fulfillment and identity creation are important. But I do not agree with the idea that these are the ultimate goals and that in order to achieve them, Judaism should be marketed to people based on what appeals to them. I do not agree with a learner-centered focus in the way that Bryfman suggests it. Bryfman believes that a learner-centered focus involves appealing to individuals with the Jewish traditions that will be most meaningful and valuable to them as opposed to trying to transmit an entire canon of Jewish practice. (Examples from his article: "For some, it could be that the concept of Shabbat signals a welcome break from the frenetic pace of everyday life. For others, it will be when a connection to Israel offers a deeper relationship to one’s heritage or people. Or perhaps it could be when Jewish teachings offer confidence to respond to the demands, stresses, frustrations and even tragedies that one encounters in life.") I would agree that sharing what is immediately valuable to a Jewish individual is a starting point but it is by no means an end point or an end goal.

I am reminded of a scene in the Harry Potter series. Sirius Black is able to keep sane while at Azkaban, a feat few others can achieve. He is surrounded by Dementors who suck every happy thought out of a person. So what is it that sets him apart? Why can he stay sane? He explains:
"I think the only reason I never lost my mind is that I knew I was innocent. That wasn't a happy thought, so the dementors couldn't suck it out of me...but it kept me sane and knowing who I am...helped me keep my powers." 
Knowing the truth is what keeps Sirius grounded. It isn't happiness or personal fulfillment that saves him- it's meaning. Judaism is not about helping people thrive solely in today's world. Today's world is very self-centered. We perform our lives for social media. Happiness tends to be about hedonism and personal pleasure. Granted, there are certain individuals who will find their deepest happiness in helping others, but ask your typical teenager and they will talk to you about how materialism (having the newest iPhone etc) is what makes them happy. Even in Bryfman's piece, he talks about the goal being ensuring that individuals are personally "fulfilled." It is, once more, about the self. I disagree with that approach. No, happiness is not the solution. Judaism is about helping people find meaning in their lives, being inspired by the heroes and heroines of Jewish text and determining how to transform the self in order to be more like them. It is not about the self, fulfilled. It is about the self even when that self is unfulfilled. It is about that self when that self is struggling. There will be many occasions in life where one will not be happy, but a true grasp of one's Judaism will assist that person in surviving the seemingly insurmountable challenge. Judaism offers a connection with God, a connection with incredible characters, and blueprints of how to deal with tremendous challenge and pain. This is what will assist an individual in the invariable ups and downs of life.

Judaism is larger than self. It is, as Rabbi Soloveitchik once explained, not a panacea but more of a Pandora's box. Being Jewish means asking questions and struggling with man and God (the meaning of the word Israel). It is not about ourselves on a journey to fulfillment. Moses was not fulfilled when he died within sight of the Land, forbidden to enter. Saul was not fulfilled when he was told David would take his throne. Jeremiah was not fulfilled when he was appointed a prophet, chosen by God for a difficult mission. Judaism is about meaning and the kind of meaning that is so important that personal fulfillment becomes secondary. It is about ourselves on a journey to find meaning, meaning that will influence who we should strive to become, not who we are today.

Happiness is a low bar to set. Judaism should be about transforming individuals, meeting them at first by offering what is of immediate interest, but making a long term goal of allowing people to access the teachings that speak to what must be accomplished. This should refer to growth both in oneself and in the world at large. No, Judaism should not be made to cater to one's personal beliefs about what will make one happy or fulfilled. Rather, the individual should shift in accordance to the questions posed to them by the Jewish tradition.

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