A major topic of this year’s General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America is how to combat assimilation. At the conference, which is being held in Jerusalem this week, JFNA leaders have unveiled various ambitious ideas, including free universal Jewish preschool. I’d like to offer a much simpler proposal: Just stop dumbing down Judaism. American Jews overwhelmingly receive excellent secular educations; they are exposed to the most challenging, rigorous, thought-provoking material available in science, philosophy, history, and literature. Yet they rarely encounter Judaism at a level more intellectually challenging than a kindergarten class. And as long as that’s true, Judaism will never be able to compete with the secular world for their attention.
Ironically, the Orthodox were way ahead of the non-Orthodox in grasping this, and it’s one reason why Orthodox retention rates are currently much higher than non-Orthodox ones. As far back as 1917, one of Poland’s leading Orthodox rabbis, the Chofetz Chaim, approved the opening of Bais Yaakov, the first school to teach Torah to girls. His reasoning was simple: It had become normal for girls to attend secular schools, and if they didn’t obtain a comparable Jewish education, they wouldn’t stay Jewish. The same understanding fueled the opening of numerous high-level women’s yeshivas in recent decades: Today, girls routinely attend not just secondary school, but college and graduate school; hence their Jewish learning must also be on a higher level.
But in the non-Orthodox community, Jewish education never comes close to the intellectual rigor of secular studies. Almost every American Jew who has attended a non-Orthodox Hebrew school can attest to this; just last week, the Forward ran a piece by an associate professor, Michah Gottlieb, deploring the lack of opportunities for serious Torah study at his childhood synagogue. My own experience is equally typical: During 12 years of Hebrew school, the numbing boredom was punctured by only two classes that offered comparable intellectual stimulation to my secular public schools–and both were taught by Orthodox rabbis. The difference was that they took classic Jewish texts seriously, insisting that we read, analyze, and debate them with the same rigor I encountered in secular history or literature classes.
The good news is that, given a chance, Judaism can easily compete with the best secular thought has to offer. There’s a reason why Jewish sources have inspired some of the greatest non-Jewish writers and thinkers throughout the ages–including many of the 17th-century political theorists who laid the foundations of modern democracy. As Herzl Institute President Yoram Hazony noted in a 2005 essay, “Hobbes was learned in Hebrew, and his magnum opus Leviathan devotes over three hundred pages to the political teachings of Scripture. Locke knew Hebrew as well, and the first of his Two Treatises on Government is devoted to biblical interpretation … [John Selden’s] 1635 treatise on the law of the sea, Mare Clausum—one of the founding texts of international law—argued for the concept of national sovereignty on both land and sea on the basis of the Hebrew Bible and the Talmud.”
In Israel, serious study of classic Jewish sources has exploded in recent years–not because secular Jews are becoming Orthodox, but because they’ve understood that these texts are their heritage, too. American Jews need to offer their children similar opportunities. For without being exposed to Judaism’s intellectual riches, they will never consider it worth a lifetime’s commitment.