Divergent Jewish Cultures: Israel and America

Divergent Jewish Cultures: Israel and America

by Deborah Dash Moore, S. Ilan Troen

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300130218
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 10/01/2008
Series: Studies in Jewish Culture and Society
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
File size: 3 MB

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Divergent Jewish Cultures

Israel and America

Yale University Press

Copyright © 2001 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-300-08426-9

Chapter One

The Construction of a Secular Jewish Identity: European and American Influences in Israeli Education S. ILAN TROEN

The curriculum of Zionist schools during the half century from the Yishuv (the pre-state Jewish settlement in Palestine) through the early years of statehood was a reaction to Jewish life as most educators experienced and remembered it in Europe. It reflected their impatience with the passive religiosity they identified as a prime target for reform. At the same time, it was rooted in what they admired and wished to retain from the culture of their birthplace. In debates over the content and structure of the new curriculum, educators openly expressed misgivings over their success in selectively rejecting and preserving the cultural heritage of European Jewry. I will argue that the ambivalent response to European origins remains a principal factor in the present crisis of secular Zionist education. The encounter with another model, drawn largely from the American experience, clearly influenced Israeli education after independence. But what Israelis perceived as useful or troubling in the American model only exacerbated a long-term crisis; it did not give rise to it.

The central problem for Zionist educators in the twentieth century was how to provide Jewish children in an avowedly Jewish state with a secular "Jewish" education. Immigrants and native-born had to be loyal citizens, committed to the new state and deeply rooted in the land. At the same time, they had to see themselves as responsible members of the Jewish people, maintaining ties to a common culture which, increasingly, they did not share. Israeli educators were acutely aware of the contradictions inherent in their endeavors. The statement made by Zalman Aranne, minister of education and culture for most of the period between 1955 and 1970, at a session of the Knesset in 1959 is a concise and lucid formulation of the dilemma which echoes throughout the vast educational literature of that generation: "The national school in this country has had to contend with a number of educational contradictions since its very beginning. How to educate youngsters here for loyalty to the Jewish people when the overwhelming majority of the Jews are in other places? How to implant in youngsters here a feeling of being part of Jewish history when half of that history took place outside the land of Israel? How to inculcate Jewish Consciousness in Israeli youth when Israeli consciousness and the revolution it demanded denies the legitimacy of exile and dispersion? How to educate Israeli youth who receive their education in a non-religious school to appreciate the cultural heritage of the Jewish people which for most of its time has been suffused with religion?"

Aranne was more successful in defining the problems than in gaining assent for proposed solutions. He established the Center for Fostering Jewish Consciousness of the Ministry of Education to deal with them, and successor agencies continue to wrestle with the issues he raised. At the root of the difficulty is that Zionist educators like Aranne tried to square a circle. How does one create a new secular national culture for citizens of a modern state that must remain connected to a religious national culture developed over centuries by a dispersed people? The questions Aranne posed have bedeviled Zionist educators since the beginning of the twentieth century, and remained unresolved at its end. Increasingly, these questions confront Jewish educators in the Diaspora as well. They, too, are seeking ways to convey a shared culture rooted in religion to secular Jews, citizens of modern states who no longer yearn to return to Zion and who see Israel as a potential tourist site, at best.

This dilemma and the crisis it poses for education in Israel grew out of Zionism's relation to Europe. At least until around 1970, or twenty years after the establishment of the state, nearly all who had authority in shaping Israel's schools had been born and educated in Europe, and their traditional Jewish schooling as well as their secular learning had been European. Both Ben-Zion Dinur and Zalman Aranne, the ministers of education who presided over and contributed most to the character of education during Israel's first two decades, acquired their traditional Jewish schooling in yeshivot and their professional training in universities. They are representative of the generation that emigrated to Palestine primarily from Eastern Europe in the decades before and after World War I. When they left Europe they were in their twenties and steeped in ideologies highly critical of the traditional Jewish society in which they had been raised. Unlike immigrants who had to contend with the problems of adjustment and assimilation to a host culture, they had become leaders and innovators in a new land where the traditional authorities such as parents, rabbis, and even community were absent. Their avowed purpose was to create a new and independent society, and they imagined a revolutionary Bildung as a part of their program. Thus, by explicit declaration and actual practice, Zionism was a revolutionary educational movement.

Yet, in their deliberations and debates, the men and women responsible for planning a curriculum for the new state shied away from a total rejection of Jewish life in Europe. Something had to be retrieved from the culture they had known, something of value, which could and should be mixed with new elements in order to create the new individual and a new society. There was, as Aranne's statement indicates, a large measure of contradiction and even paradox in their efforts. The chemistry for achieving the appropriate formula of revolt and preservation was complex and often experimental. More than fifty years after the establishment of the state, contemporary educators are still racked by doubt and dissension as they debate what can be salvaged from the European past and how it can be refashioned for use in Israel's schools.

The record of negotiations over the curriculum is extraordinarily rich. Zionists were engaged in the institutionalization of educational ideas from the earliest years in Palestine. By independence, schooling accounted for the largest segment of the Yishuv's budget except for colonization and defense, and it continued to receive a large part of the budget in the new state. The financial investment was paralleled by public interest, and schooling commanded the attention of the political and intellectual leadership as well as the powerful lobby of two prestigious unions, those of the teachers and of the writers. The schools were mandated to accomplish Zionism's primary social and cultural objective of transforming the young into capable citizens of the new society.

The greatest effort was expended in the liberal or bourgeois schools and in those sponsored by labor Zionism during the Yishuv, two streams that amalgamated after independence. From at least the 1920s through the present, these schools have instructed no fewer than three-fourths of the children in Zionist society, becoming the largest school system ever established for Jews. Yet the divides described by Aranne in 1959 still plague Israeli education today. A curriculum that will, at the same time, define and transmit an agreed Israeli secular Jewish culture, engender loyalty to the state, and provide a firm basis for cohesion with world Jewry remains elusive.


In Europe, the United States, and other Diaspora communities, secular Jewish education has been a minority phenomenon and generally of limited duration. There Jewish education remains largely in the hands of rabbis, whether ultra-Orthodox, Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, or Reconstructionist. While many of those who support and attend Jewish schools are not themselves religious, the Jewish education framework is typically provided by a religious establishment. Consequently, even significant alterations of traditional schooling within such religious frameworks do not approximate the radicalism found in secular Zionist schools.

A fundamental difference between Jewish education in the Diaspora and in Israel stems from the fact that, whether implicitly or explicitly, secular Zionism denies that the connection between the Jewish people and Divine authority is the operative modality for interpreting Jewish experience. While acknowledging that Jews believed in this connection in the past, secular Zionists have reinterpreted the history of the Jewish nation, substituting a secular national culture for the religious national tradition. This substitution is manifest in curricula as a reinterpretation or suppression of traditional texts and the invention of new ones. The place of the central text of traditional Jewish life throughout the European Diaspora-the oral law as expressed in the Talmud and rabbinic literature-was diminished. Instead the Bible was made the central text of modern secular Jewish culture, and it is read as a historical and ethical document with a humanistic rather than a theological orientation.

The substitution of Hebrew for Yiddish as the language of instruction throughout the entire curriculum changed the status of what had been lashon hakodesh (the sacred language). The use of modern Hebrew literature and Jewish history as moral and political instruments reinforced the view that people have shaped Jewish culture. Historicism similarly influenced the approach to the study of the Bible and of Jewish history in a radical reassessment of human affairs. The immanence of God was excised from Jewish history even as the Divine was removed from the Bible and all other writings previously considered sacred. The direction was humanistic in the fundamental sense of that term, that is, oriented toward humanity.

Although it has obvious roots in European culture, this Zionist humanism was also a direct response to a dangerous reality. Secular Zionists claimed that in the absence of Divine intervention Jews had to reinsert themselves as actors in history by confronting rising anti-Semitism. Leaving Europe for Palestine was essential, but it was only a first step toward forging a new national character.

The Israeli national curriculum of "Jewish consciousness" as initiated by Aranne's ministry at the end of the first decade of independence provides numerous illustrations of the new Bildung secular Zionism invented. A comparative analysis of public school curricula for the Mamlachti (secular Zionist) and the Mamlachti Dati (religious Zionist) schools indicates the character and direction of the proposed change. Both offered courses in the sciences and modern languages. Both systems (zeramim, or "streams") offered the same Jewish subjects - Talmud, Bible, Hebrew language and literature, and Jewish history - but in markedly different proportions. The degree of radicalism in the secular Zionist approach to the past and the future is clearly exposed by its revolutionary treatment of ostensibly similar subject matter.


The gulf between secular Zionist and religious Zionist education is especially striking in the treatment of the oral law, the essential core of Jewish education for centuries. The 1957 curriculum for Zionist religious high schools retained the traditional rationale: to "deeply involve the student with the appreciation that the Oral Law is an integral part of the Torah which has been given by G-d so that the student may perceive it as a base for practical mitzvoth [commandments] to strengthen his faith and further the fulfillment of mitzvoth and to ensure that he will see in the life of the Jewish people a reflection of the Oral Law and will have an appreciation for the Rabbis and their work through the generations." In addition to civil jurisprudence, the tractates selected deal with religious law, regulations, and ritual. That is, they provided information vital to the conduct of holidays, prayers, family life, and public affairs.

In the secular high schools the Talmud was treated solely as a historical document. "Typical portions" of the text were presented "in the context of the continuity of original Jewish creativity." Those portions selected for study were largely related to civil jurisprudence, particularly laws concerning liability and workers' rights. Seen in this light, the Talmud was a source of universal ethics that were accepted by contemporary humanism, liberalism, and Labor Zionism. Moreover, the text was divorced from Divine revelation. Students were directed to appreciate the cultural, economic, political, and social experience of Jews who lived when the Talmud was composed - that is, "especially within the framework of Babylonian autonomy." The Talmud was thus effectively disassociated from the European Jewish world - the ghetto, shtetl, heder, and yeshiva - where for nearly two millennia it had been the central text. In the secular Zionist schools it reverted to being a historical artifact, a creation of the proud and autonomous communities of Babylon. The measured doses of talmudic texts had an additional benefit in a secular curriculum. They could contribute to the revival of Hebrew, enriching the student's vocabulary with phrases and concepts that had been part of the speech of educated Jews.

The Bible, too, came to be treated as a historical and ethical text, and not the Law given by God. This perspective was enshrined in the opening paragraph of Israel's Declaration of Independence, perhaps the most important single document created by secular Zionism. The first sentence proclaimed a widely accepted understanding that "The Land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people." The last sentence was revolutionary: "Here they wrote and gave the Bible to the world." This claim to authorship dramatically and decisively overturns the principle, adhered to for more than three millennia, that God gave the Torah to Moses at Sinai and through him to the Jewish people.

Children in secular schools studied "the world of the Bible," delving into the economic, cultural, and social life of their people in the ancient period. There was also a patent attempt to employ such study to advance contemporary Zionist ideology. The ancient Hebrew "kingdoms" were referred to as "ha-medinah"- the "state. " The idea of "the state" rather than "kingdoms," of course, was not a construct that existed in the ancient past. The anachronism takes the biblical period as a precedent for contemporary events.


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