Jewish Education in a World Adrift

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By the time Eliezer Berkovits wrote “Jewish Education in a World Adrift” in 1970, the “value system” that had sustained the West had collapsed. Relativism, nihilism, boredom, and permissiveness characterized the age–and the education of the young. Here Berkovits issues a call to arms, urging Jews to counter the nihilism of the broader culture by bolstering the Jewish subculture and rearing the next generation within a morally confident Judaism.

We have to face the problems of Jewish education in the midst of a civilization in the process of disintegration. In a sense this may be our opportunity. In former times Jewish education had an authentic competitor–another educational system, the high school, the university, a strong, self-assured civilization that was not Jewish and that exerted a tremendous influence on our lives. It shaped and formed the Jew more than did Judaism. It was education par excellence. Beside it, Jewish education was indeed a pale and sickly plant, a not terribly attractive adjunct, something marginal and secondary to it. Today the situation has changed fundamentally. The competitor is no longer an authentic one; the competitor is dissolution itself, the disintegration of value standards that threatens to engulf our homes, our families; the competitor is emptiness, the loss of vision, the loss of faith, the loss of trust. Are we going to leave the major education of our children to a general educational system which is itself overwhelmed by a chaos of the spirit and a moral helplessness in the face of the challenge of disintegration?!

I do not know what other segments of the general community are going to do, attempting to cope with the sickness of the times. One thing I do know: we have to turn inward, on our resources of the soul and the spirit. We cannot stem the tide of disintegration with borrowed strength and borrowed values. Strength, borrowed, is weakness; values, borrowed, are worthless. As Jews we have to do something we should have done a long time ago: we should give Judaism a genuine chance to guide us and to shape our lives. Jewish education must no longer remain a marginal affair, it must move to the center of our educational responsibility toward our children. It has to fill the vacuum of values and meaning; it has to provide guidance in a time of confusion; it has to teach a way in the midst of chaos. As far as our children are concerned, Jewish education has to provide for them the vision of the future, without which youth cannot prosper and mature; moreover it has to be done at a juncture in history when the youth of the world is afraid to look beyond the passing moment and seeks its salvation in the deceptive enjoyment of a futureless Now. In this hour of a sick civilization, Jewish education can no longer be a mere adjunct to a general education which has betrayed the youth of the world. It has the responsibility to lead our youth to the sources of faith, trust, and hope; faith in life itself, trust in the meaningfulness of existence, and hope for man on this earth. If Judaism will not do it for Jews, there is nothing else left in the world to do it for them. The question is no longer, how to preserve our Jewish heritage, but how to preserve life itself in dignity and meaningfulness.

We are charged by destiny with an awesome responsibilty. We need homes that in all seriousness are wiling to give Judaism a chance; personal conduct on the part of parents and teachers that exemplifies the realization of Jewish values in dignity; a community at large that manages its own affairs guided by ethical principles that are drawn from the spiritual resources of Judaism. We need time for Jewish education. We need a teaching profession that enjoys the first claim on the respect of the community and deserves it. We need a Jewish community in which those very values that we undertake to communicate to our children are alive, practiced and respected. But most of all we need the understanding and the enthusiastic acknowledgment that Jewish education has to have first priority among all our local responsibilities. Indeed, it is no longer a matter of preserving Judaism, but of preserving lie by the only means at our disposal.

Read the whole essay in Tradition.

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