«Progressive educational approaches in the Jewish tradition»

Speech by Alex Sinclair, Chief Content Officer, Educating for Impact, at the International Conference 105-75-35

Dear sirs,

It is my great pleasure and honor to be here representing Educating for Impact and the Philanthropies that constitute its board. We have had the privilege of supporting the Jewish Community of Estonia for many years, and we have seen first hand what an extraordinary group of people they are, committed in equal measure to a thriving Jewish future, and to a thriving Estonian future. How fitting that this event should celebrate both of those noble goals.

In this short talk I would like to offer a few insights about the pedagogical and philosophical foundations of Jewish education, share a little about how we’re helping the Jewish Community of Estonia apply those foundations to their school and their wider educational provisions, and finally suggest some interesting parallels between Jewish educational history and the nation-building project in which Estonia is currently engaged.

Let me begin with a story. That’s a very Jewish way to begin anything!

The story comes from the Talmud, Tractate Baba Metzia. It takes place right after the death of one of the great Talmudic sages, Resh Lakish. Now, Resh Lakish had a lifelong chavruta, a study partner, named Rabbi Yochanan, also one of the great sages of that time. When Resh Lakish died, Rabbi Yochanan, says the Talmud, was plunged into deep grief. The other rabbis, distraught at the sight of Rabbi Yochanan’s grief, consulted with each. “We need to find him someone else. Another study partner. Someone who can ease his mind.” So they looked around, and found a suitable candidate, a rabbi named Elazar ben Pedat, an intelligent, thoughtful, subtle thinker.

So Elazar went and studied with Rabbi Yochanan. But it didn’t go according to plan. Every idea that Rabbi Yochanan had, every interpretation of the text he suggested, every new thought he came up with, Rabbi Elazar said, “You’re right, Rabbi Yochanan. How clever you are, Rabbi Yochanan. And here’s another text that supports your idea, Rabbi Yochanan.”

Yes, yes, yes. Everything that Yochanan said, Elazar agreed with him! Until eventually Rabbi Yochanan exploded in anger. “You’re nothing like Resh Lakish,” he shouted. “Whatever I said to Resh Lakish, he would bring me 24 reasons why I was wrong, and I had to figure out 24 reasons why he was wrong, and that raised the level of learning and thinking for both of us. You think I need you to tell me that I’m right? Of course I think that I’m right. I need someone to tell me that I’m wrong!”

Rabbi Yochanan burst into tears, rending his clothes, weeping “Where are you, Resh Lakish, where are you, Resh Lakish?” He kept weeping like this until he went mad, and then he died.

This remarkable story teaches us two important things about the ideals of Jewish education – or, I would really say, about the ideals of any education.

Firstly, the importance of relationships. Yochanan and Resh Lakish are able to elevate their learning because they see each other as human beings, they respect each other, they see the other, as the German Jewish philosopher Martin Buber would put it seventeen hundred years later, in a deep, soul-to soul “I-Thou” relationship, not a superficial, instrumental “I-It” connection. Positive, respectful, caring relationships are at the heart of all good education: between students and teachers, between students and students, between parents and their children, between adults in a university or community or business.

Secondly, and perhaps more crucially, the importance of disagreement, or, as we say in Hebrew, machloket. The Jewish educational tradition puts more emphasis on the idea of machloket than any other concept. Yochanan and Resh Lakish learn by disagreeing with each other, by challenging each other, by constantly trying to see how things could be different. That’s the Jewish way of learning. The first time you walk into a beit midrash, a Jewish study hall, you’ll probably be astonished at how noisy it is. Jews don’t study the way people study in libraries. Jews study out loud, with voices raised, with arms waving, with adrenaline flowing. We learn through machloket, through argument. Of course, that machloket has to be respectful, it has to be done in the context of an I-Thou relationship, it has to be in service of learning with one’s partner, rather than in service of “winning” the argument. To bounce back again to the 20th century, another Jewish intellectual, the Nobel physicist Isidor Rabi was once asked why he became a scientist. His reply was that when he came home from school each day, his mother didn’t ask him “Izzy, what did you learn today?” Instead, she asked him: “Izzy, did you ask a good question today?” That’s the Jewish ideal of education at its finest. To ask a good question. To challenge. To come up with something new.

What we see, then, is that Jewish educational modes are astonishingly progressive. The cornerstones of progressive educational thought in the 20th and 21st centuries – things like student-centered learning, awareness of multiple intelligences, the impact of independent project-based learning in pairs or small groups, the importance of experiential education, the need to have students demonstrate their achievements to peers and adults – these ideas have all been part of the Jewish educational tradition for centuries. Our goal with the Jewish Community of Estonia is to support them, under the inspired leadership of Alla Jakobson, in developing this kind of educational approach for their next generation of Jewish Estonian children. And what is so powerful about this pedagogical vision is that it fits not just with what we know about good Jewish education, but also with the progressive educational approaches that you, the people of Estonia, are developing for your nation’s future.

Indeed, when I first came to Estonia, and began having conversations with the Jewish community leaders, I was truly amazed by how they described the pedagogical approach of education in Estonia. They described to me, and showed me photos of some of the new schools that have been built here, with open classrooms and flexible workspaces and student-centered pedagogical tools, and, as the children get older, technology-oriented educational spaces and project-based learning environments, and they said, this is what we want for our new Jewish school. This is the education of the future, for the future, and that’s what we want. We don’t want our children to spend all day sitting in a chair, listening to one boring teacher after another. We want our children to spend their time thinking, engaging, challenging, collaborating, analyzing, creating. Asking good questions. That is what the new Community Jewish School located at the Lauder Education Hub on Auna street is trying to do, and, as I understand it, it’s what you want all your schools in Estonia to be doing. And all I can do is salute you for the pedagogic path you have embarked on. You are building an educational future which will be a model for other countries, and other communities.

Before I finish, I would like to offer one other thought about Jewish education and Estonian education. As Jewish educators we know that one of the goals of education, in addition to developing cognitive and thinking skills, in the ways I’ve discussed so far, is to develop commitment to a particular community. As the American philosopher of education John Dewey put it, the goal of education is to enable children to contribute to adult society as good, democratic citizens. How do you do that? By initiating young people into the social, cultural, historical and linguistic norms of the adult group. So we Jewish educators know that if we want young Jews to feel part of the Jewish people, it’s important that they should speak some Hebrew, know some Jewish history, and be able to participate in Jewish cultural behaviors and practices. In Israel, in the late 19th and early 20th century, tremendous efforts were expended to ensure that young people could speak Hebrew, the language of the new nation-to-be, because we knew that language creates national identity, language creates ways of thinking. “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world,” wrote Wittgenstein. As Jewish educators, we want young Jews to speak a “Jewish language” so that they will see the world in a certain way. For example, to return to the beginning of my speech, I would like young Jews to know the word “machloket,” to speak that language, because by speaking that language they will become “Jewish learners.” In the same way, the early Zionists wanted young people to speak Hebrew, in order to become Israelis. And you’re doing the same thing here. You’re using Estonian language as a tool to help revive the Estonian nation. When children speak Estonian, when children learn to think in progressive, Estonian-style schools, they will grow up to be Estonians.

We at Educating for Impact have been privileged to witness the Community Jewish School on Auna Street begin this journey towards an exciting, inspiring, Jewish Estonian future. We wish you all hatzlacha rabah, the best of luck, as you continue this journey together.