Nation-Building and Curriculum Innovation in Israel

Suzanne Last Stone

Against all current trends—from the dismantling of the project of the Western canon to the devaluation of a liberal arts degree as a useless pursuit—in 2013, a group of Princeton alumni who had emigrated to the State of Israel established the first liberal arts college in the Jewish state. Shalem College, which will welcome its sixth class this October, was envisioned as a nation-building enterprise, paralleling the mission with which numerous American universities once identified: the preparation of leaders and citizens who could serve the nation. As the 2007 prospectus put it, Shalem was envisioned as a “College of the Jewish People,” a college that would raise up a “different kind of Israeli and Jewish leadership.”

The nation-building model of college education traditionally sought to create future leaders in the political and cultural sphere of the nation-state by exposing students to Western moral and political philosophy, to literature and the arts, and to other disciplines collectively known as the “humanities,” as well as to the cultural resources of their own particular national tradition. The hope was to produce individuals with a deep appreciation of both their particular national tradition—including its inevitable failings and the creative responses crises engendered—and the broader achievements of human civilization.

The idea of a core curriculum arose in the context of this nation-building model. It relied on the view that the study of a set of common texts could provide society with a common language and play a formative role in the shaping of that society.1 These texts are sources of values, examples of aesthetic achievement, or, simply, texts that a culture “thinks with—reads, interprets, and re-interprets—-as it progresses through time.” Yet, despite the strong nation-building focus of early Zionism, which found expression in elementary and high school curricula in Israel, no liberal arts colleges existed in the state until Shalem College opened its doors. Israel’s universities follow the European model. Students enter college at a relatively advanced age, after years of army service, and plunge immediately into a major designed to lead to professional advancement. Israel, moreover, is known for its technological ingenuity and accomplishments, which has led to the increasing siphoning off of resources from the humanities to the scientific disciplines that have contributed to Israel’s international status.

The establishment of Shalem College along the lines of this older American model was not merely an attempt to relocate a version of Princeton University to the Middle East. Rather, the project required a complete rethinking of Jewish education. For, if the goal of Shalem College is to produce leading citizens in Israel, a state that is the direct product of nearly 4,000 years of Jewish history, that has a majority Jewish population and a Jewish public culture, then a Shalem college education must also include broad understanding of the origins, history, ideas, and values of the Jewish people. Yet, at the time Shalem College was first envisioned, no models for a Jewish liberal arts core curriculum—a so-called “Jewish Civilization” track—existed. Moreover, the design of any such curriculum would have to contend with the ongoing public controversy over the respective roles of the Hebrew Bible and the Talmud in fashioning leaders of the Jewish people.

Jewish education has traditionally been religious education and this religious education was, and continues to be in orthodox study circles, centered on the Babylonian Talmud and the tradition of commentary it launched.2 While ritual recitation of the Hebrew Bible was the focus of the synagogue, the Talmud was the focus of the study hall. Before the modern period, Judaism did not contribute to the humanities at large in any straightforward way. Instead, Judaism’s singular cultural asset was the Talmud, which was perceived as the central repository of the values, ideals, and imaginative energies of the Jewish people. Moreover, the Talmud is the cultural form in which the rabbinic tradition discusses ethics, moral philosophy, theology, political theory, the ideal life, etc., albeit in highly elliptic fashion.3 Challenges to the Talmud as the near-exclusive focus of education occasionally were mounted by Jewish philosophers and Jewish mystics, who attempted to reduce the Talmud to a law book for legal specialists and introduce into the educational curriculum either philosophy or theosophy.4 Followers of Maimonides, for example, introduced Aristotelian philosophical inquiry, opening up a space for civilizational wisdom in the Jewish curriculum that went beyond Jewish cultural borders. These attempts largely failed.5

The Jewish Enlightenment of the eighteenth and nineteenth century marked a turning point in the Jewish educational curriculum. This period was marked by the implementation of citizenship rights for Jews and, with it, a hope for the full integration of Jews into the public life of the various nations in which they resided. It was also marked by a new understanding of Judaism as a social identity and a historical awareness of belonging to a people apart from religion. The Jew could enter into private conversations with other Jews about the future of this people and also enter into public conversations with non-Jewish fellow citizens about their shared society. The Bible was the appropriate bridge to this new life of citizenship, in the view of the Enlighteners, because it is a book shared by Christians and Jews. Moreover, the Bible, especially in the prophetic section, offers a universal vision of ethics in contrast to the particularist focus of the Talmud. For the Enlightenment thinkers, a universal idea of justice, shared by Jews and non-Jews alike, underlay the Jewish particularist tradition. Jewish Enlightenment thinkers insisted therefore that education must refrain from presenting the Jewish world as all-inclusive and all-encompassing and they called for a return to the Hebrew Bible, in place of the Talmud, as the centerpiece of Jewish education.

The rise of Zionism and a Jewish national, rather than religious or even social, identity only intensified the Jewish Enlightenment shift away from the Talmud to the Hebrew Bible. The Zionist turn to the Bible had nothing to do with fashioning a shared Jewish-Christian heritage, however. Rather, the Bible was viewed as a national document, not only shoring up historical claims and attachment to land but also offering a vision of Jews living in a sovereign Jewish polity. “The Bible offered a picture of a complete political and economic life,”6 and therefore provided a model for citizenship in a modern Jewish state. The Talmud, by contrast, was the product of the long diaspora—written in the then lingua franca of Aramaic and not Hebrew, the new national language and the language of the Bible. More significantly, Zionism was a secular, revolutionary movement. It wished to instill in Jews a new sense of human agency, and of the ability to self-fashion and take control of history. In the eyes of many early Zionists, the Talmud reflected a quietist, apolitical, and submissive worldview at utter odds with the task of nation-building.

The turn away from the major cultural resource built up over the 2000 year long diasporic period, meant that the Jewish ethical and political discourse embedded in the Talmud was lost as a cultural asset. Moreover, it created a large gap in Jewish self-understanding of Jewish history. As Ahad Ha’am wrote, in response to an early call, later adopted by David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, for an unmediated return to the Bible: “If you remove middle links from the chain of history then its beginning and end will never fit together.”7 This debate over the Bible as the national text, and the near-exclusion of rabbinic texts from the curriculum, which took place in the early period of Israeli statehood, is ongoing.

Shalem College, from the start, embraced the vision of Ahad Ha’Am rather than that of Ben Gurion. As early as 2006, when work on the Shalem College curriculum began, its curriculum committee stated that the curriculum “would encompass a basic familiarity” not only with Jewish and Zionist history and the Bible but also the Talmud and later rabbinic literature. Moreover, “effort would be made to apply and extend classical Jewish ideas in areas of concern for . . . public life, including human nature theory, ethics, epistemology, political theory, economics, and metaphysics.” Nonetheless, the early stages of the curriculum were still heavily Bible-centric, with the Hebrew Bible juxtaposed to Greek philosophy.

I was tasked with re-designing a core curriculum for Shalem College in 2012, less than a year before the college opened. I came with my own intellectual predilections and experiences. For one, I am a scholar of Talmud and comparative legal theory and so predisposed to emphasize the value of exposure to the rabbinic tradition as a cultural asset not only for Jewish self-understanding but, more pertinently, for the creation of a vibrant Israeli public sphere.

First, unlike the Bible, the Talmud is not an account of revelation but rather a mirror into a human society in formation—a society very clearly living with and interacting with others.

Second, the Talmud famously models how to engage in public debate. The Talmud is an extended, collaborative argument about human obligations in which the argument is key, not the rule of decision. My experiences teaching in Israeli universities also made clear to me that many Israeli students bemoaned the shrinking of the Jewish bookshelf. My students desired to retrieve the Talmudic tradition as a cultural resource in a non-religious, egalitarian setting.

Finally, I had come to appreciate how deeply contemporary Israeli public debates and schisms are rooted in the Jewish ideational past, a past obscured for many young Israelis and most especially for members of minority groups in Israel. The ongoing and fractious debates about the proper relationship of religion and state, about membership rules of the state (who is eligible for citizenship and ‘who is a Jew?’) and about social solidarity between the diverse and plural groups, both Jewish and non-Jewish, that comprise Israeli society cannot be grasped completely without a firm understanding of rabbinic thought and of the ideas, crises, and responses that arose in the 2000 plus years of Jewish history between the close of the Hebrew Bible and the rise of the Jewish State.

In what follows, I will be reporting on (and quoting from) the Shalem curriculum as I (and my team)8 envisioned. Not all elements of the curriculum have been adopted to date, given the practical realities of matching gifted instructors and courses offered, though with each year that passes, I am told, the curriculum increasingly reflects the vision articulated here.

We faced three chief dilemmas. The first was how to weave together, in a chronologically coherent fashion, courses on Western and Jewish civilization respectively. The second was how to bridge the gap between the Jewish interpretive tradition, a tradition of unfolding discourse and commentary rather than discrete works of individual authors, and the “Great Books” approach that a core curriculum in Western Civilization is ordinarily based on. (We used the Columbia University core curriculum as our model for the Western Civilizational track and that curriculum is heavily slanted toward “Great Books”).9 The third, was how to model genuine cross-civilizational discourse.

To solve the chronological dilemma, we treated the Hebrew Bible as its own cornerstone, which autonomously shapes and informs Western and Jewish Civilization respectively. Accordingly, the first semester contained three independent cornerstones: Bible, Western Civilization I (Greek philosophy and literature), and Jewish Civilization I (the early rabbinic tradition which produced the Talmud). The second semester covered medieval civilization, both Jewish and Western, each of which is the heir of all three traditions studied in semester one. The third semester covered early modernity and the fourth, the contemporary period. In this way, Jewish civilizational courses could be taught chronologically in parallel with their counterparts in the Western civilization track.

To bridge the gap between a Western great books tradition and the Jewish discursive tradition, we organized Jewish Civilization courses around primary sources (passages from the Talmud, medieval and modern rabbinic material, and modern thinkers) illustrating central themes and ideas. These themes and ideas were carefully chosen to show how contemporary political concerns and social schisms in the State of Israel followed from tensions encountered by the tradition in its earliest period and consistently argued about and fought over in the classical texts and throughout Jewish history.

Specifically, the primary sources of Jewish Civilization 1 (the early rabbinic tradition) highlight the basic dimensions of Jewish existence: the definition and boundaries of the community (and, with it, the competing notions of how one acquires membership in the community), its internal organization, the logic of its normative system, and how the community relates to those outside of itself. Jewish Civilization II, which covers the medieval period until the Jewish Enlightenment is divided into two units. The first, entitled Authority, Ideas and Community in the Middle Ages, covers the Halakha and its explanatory systems/rivals (philosophy and mysticism); sectarianism and reconstructions of Jewish history and law; esotericism; codification and rabbinic authority. The second unit, entitled Disintegration, explores changes to Jewish communal structures and notions of identity in the context of the slow rise of the modern absolutist state, the beginnings of capitalist economies and early enlightenment thought. Jewish Civilization III, entitled Jewish Responses to Modernity, covers Jewish intellectual, political, social, and religious responses to developments after the French Revolution and the Enlightenment. It centers on three themes.

First, how is Judaism defined after the decline of feudal and corporate societies? Is Judaism an ethnos, a religion, a nationality, an autonomous law, or a culture? Second, what is the balance between particularism and universalism for modern Jews? Does the integrity of the Jewish community or universalist humanism take precedence? How do we explain the conflicting impulses of Emancipation and Ultra-Orthodox isolationism? Third, what is the social position of Jews in the modern world? After emancipation, when do they remain pariahs in new states, and when do they feel fully integrated? Does marginalization provide a particular critical or ethical stance? Through these themes, the students encounter the major movements, ideas, and impulses of modern Judaism, including the Jewish Enlightenment, the rise of Reform, Orthodox, and Conservative Judaism, modern Jewish historiography, nationalism, territorialism and language politics.

The culmination of the series is Jewish Civilization IV, entitled The Israeli State: Vision and Reality. The central aim of this course is to provide the students with a sophisticated understanding of the dialectics of cultural and intellectual forces together with social, political and economic forces and to apply such understandings to their own society and culture. It covers basic ideological notions of Jewish nationalism and Zionism and examines Israeli society and culture, mainly through literature, art, film and music.

To model cross-civilizational discourse, our final concern, we suggested courses in which the students explore the dialogue (including similarities and differences) between Jewish and Western civilization with respect to perennial questions of human existence as well as specific dilemmas relating to Israeli society. One proposed course centered on the modern nation-state and its relation to the global order, inviting the students to examine whether the Jewish or Western vision of nationalism is sacred or secular and whether nation-states inevitably require political secularization and separation of church and state or, conversely, sacralization. Another unit, entitled, Time, addressed finitude, collective memory, obligations of forgetting and remembering, messianism and historical teleology. These topics are particularly salient in contemporary Israel, where national holidays such as Holocaust Day and Remembrance Day are interwoven with yet sometimes conflict with traditional Jewish patterns of constructing memory. Here, we wanted the students to explore how the Jewish and Western traditions address the most elemental existential question—i.e., death—and also to become aware that political processes and events are often woven into historical narratives involving the destiny of man and the cosmos.

My adored colleague Stanley Fish has made the case, over and over, that the humanities and a liberal arts education need no external justification, including the external justification of serving the public good by creating model citizens and leaders; rather, the justification of a liberal arts education is internal to it.10 I agree (and, of course, disagreeing with Stanley is simply too dangerous). The issue is not whether liberal arts needs an external justification, however; rather, the issue is whether curricula that offer a broad classical education along with immersion in a particularist, national tradition, such as that of Shalem College, are intellectually challenging in their own right and perhaps, uniquely so.

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