Commentary Magazine


Teaching Jewish Teachers

Though the American Jewish community in recent years has shown a good deal of nervous concern over its own prospects for survival, there seems to be little sense of how survival should be promoted and scarcely any thought about what its purposes might be. If it is survival for Jewish country clubs and bowling leagues, for sisterhood luncheons and fashion shows, for monuments to collective ego in million-dollar synagogues, one can hardly be surprised that young people want no part of it. The insistence, moreover, on such a survivalism, at this critical moment in American history, may seem to some an offensively myopic preoccupation with self: while this nation is conducting a disastrous war and tearing itself apart from within in an intensifying cycle of protest and ugly repression, all we can think of as Jews is how to insure that in the next generation the Cohens will still be Cohens and the Goldsteins real Goldsteins.

Survival might not seem so crassly irrelevant if all that it ought to involve or all that its failure implies—even for the proverbial “alienated” Jewish intellectual—were carefully thought through. One of many symptoms that there has been little thinking on this score among American Jews is their general indifference to serious Jewish culture, despite all the unctuous lip-service to our “glorious heritage” and despite the continuing vogue of a sentimentally recollected shtetl world.

A case in point is the painful condition of the American Hebrew teachers colleges, which have existed now in a cultural, social, and financial limbo for nearly half a century. I would assume that only a small minority of American Jews is even dimly aware of the presence of these institutions, yet these are the schools, supposedly, that train the teachers of our children, and the activity first undertaken within their walls has considerable bearing not only on the implementation of survival but on its definition as well.

The mere existence in this country of the Hebrew colleges, with their peculiar ideology, curriculum, and personnel, strikes me as anomalous and improbable, but I think there may be something of broad applicability to be learned from the very peculiarity of the enterprise, the difficulties it has encountered, and the modicum of success it has achieved. Most of the essential facts about the Hebrew teachers colleges are now conveniently available in a volume of brief essays edited by Oscar Janowsky,1 though it must be added that the individual contributions to the volume, with only a few exceptions, are flat, dull, and repetitious, operating on the level of stylistic and intellectual sophistication of perhaps a very dutiful high-school sophomore. I say this not to be gratuitously unkind but because the lackluster quality of the essays suggests something of the miasma of mediocrity that pervades so much of American Jewish education at all levels. To be perfectly frank, reading the Janowsky volume stirred in me feelings of both apprehension and depression: if this is the degree of intellectual and imaginative energy with which we are confronting the vast problems of training those who are to transmit Jewish culture, how much hope can there be for the enterprise?

Despair, however, may not be altogether an appropriate response to this whole phenomenon, for the situation of these schools in 1930 or 1940 must have looked a good deal bleaker than it does now, and one would hardly have predicted that the same institutions would still be flourishing, whatever their faults, in 1968, with augmented registration, staff, and program. The first institution of this nature in America was Gratz College of Philadelphia, founded in 1897; twelve years later the Teachers Institute of the Jewish Theological Seminary was established in New York City. (The J.T.S. school today remains the strongest of the Hebrew teachers colleges in most respects, certainly in the quality of its faculty and in the structure and variety of its course offering.) In the years immediately after World War I, similar schools were begun in Baltimore, Boston, Cleveland, Chicago, and under other auspices in New York itself. There are now eleven accredited Hebrew teachers colleges in the United States, five of them in New York City, just one west of the Rockies; only two of the eleven were founded later than 1928—the Stern College for Women of Yeshiva University and the Teachers Institute of the University of Judaism at Los Angeles, both of which began in the early post-World War II period.

Though there have been certain obvious differences of emphasis within the schools depending on whether the institution was supported by a denominational group or by a communal organization, there has been a remarkable degree of agreement about the basic shape of the program, and, indeed, the general course of studies in the various schools has not changed substantially in the passage of forty years. The study of Hebrew language and modern Hebrew literature usually takes up about a fourth of a student's total course-work; Bible is a fairly close second in emphasis, while the rest of the student's program is likely to include a scattering of courses in rabbinic literature, Jewish history, education, and, occasionally, religion or philosophy of religion.

In virtually all these areas, the language of instruction is Hebrew, but not for exactly the same practical reasons that may lead a college department of French, say, to conduct all its advanced literature classes entirely in French. The Hebrew teachers colleges are of course interested in transmitting a useful fluency in the language to their students, in enabling them to think in Hebrew and feel at home in it; but beyond this there persists a powerful feeling inherited from the earliest days of the institutions that the Jewish intelligentsia has a sacred obligation to use Hebrew as its own language of communication, that to read, write, and speak Hebrew constitutes a continuous affirmation of identity, the expression of a higher Jewishness that is at once eternal and boldly modern.

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When I said there was something anomalous about the existence of these schools in America, it was this, above all, that I had in mind: that the programmatic Hebraism of the Hebrew colleges is less a product of progressive pedagogy than of the cultural pluralism of late 19th-century Russia, where ethnic identity meant linguistic identity, and where the vision of a transformation of Jewish life therefore led in some circles to a dream of an autonomous Hebrew culture on European soil, a culture with its own newspapers, publishing houses, theaters, schools. Determined attempts have been made, in fact, to sustain all these Hebrew-language activities in this country, much of the initiative coming from people associated with the Hebrew colleges. Predictably, such efforts have achieved only the most dubious successes, and even then only within a circle of followers scarcely larger than a coterie, though the Hebrew day-school movement is today fairly vigorous, at least in the Eastern metropolises, and a distinctively American expression of Hebrew culture, the summer camp, continues to flourish. There are now a dozen or so Hebrew summer camps in the United States and Canada attended each year by several thousand young people, and though the use of Hebrew in many of them seems to be progressively attenuated, they are the closest thing we have to a homegrown Hebrew cultural movement, and they are supplying a good part of the student body for the Hebrew colleges—in the case of J.T.S.'s Teachers Institute, 75 per cent—which used to depend mainly on the children of Orthodox or Hebraist immigrant families.

The vision of an indigenous Hebrew culture in America is clearly quixotic, perhaps pathetically so, and yet I think there is something heroic about it as well, and it seems to me that this double aspect of the Hebraist impulse reveals both the peculiar strength and the weakness of the Hebrew teachers colleges. If they have existed, as I said to begin with, in a limbo, that has been partly the fault of the men teaching in the colleges over the years, so many of whom have been latter-day maskilim, European-bred proponents of a vanished Hebrew Enlightenment, culturally displaced dreamers who remained autodidacts even when they had a university education, rigid and quirky in their erudition, doomed to be intellectual misfits in any conceivable setting, certainly out of touch with their students and with what was going on in America at large. Yet for all their limitations, these passionate Hebraists embodied a positive value not easy to come by anywhere else in American education—singleminded dedication to a noble idea. Thus in a country where the fascination of size, numbers, and money encourages most institutions to be constantly on the make, the Hebrew teachers colleges have remained genuinely idealistic in this one central respect, content with small numbers, often impoverished circumstances, and obscurity, in order to keep faith with the idea of creating a modern Hebrew culture in America. If that idea will never be realized in the way its older adherents envisaged, it nevertheless has more relevance to the cultural predicament of American Jews than might first appear.

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I cannot believe that any Jewish culture, whether religious or secular, that subsists entirely or even primarily in translation, can provide lasting or meaningful continuity with the Jewish past. This is not by any means to suggest what some of the more ardent Hebraists maintain, that the only “authentic” kind of Jewishness, now or in the past, has used Hebrew as its medium; but Hebrew does remain the one, indispensable key to three thousand years of Jewish experience. It may be a futilely misplaced utopianism to entertain the old impelling idea of the teachers colleges that substantial Hebrew-speaking enclaves can exist in this country. Nevertheless, I would contend that we have little prospect for surviving as a distinctive community unless there are appreciable numbers of Jews—however strong their linguistic loyalty to English—who are capable of reading the Bible in its original language, who understand the Hebrew of the prayer-book and of rabbinic law and legend, and for whom the reborn language of Israel, if not always fully intelligible, is at least not a foreign tongue. We are, by general standards, a highly educated community, but in regard to knowledge of Jewish culture, rank ignorance prevails, as much among Jewish Ph.D's as among Jewish cab-drivers. At least something, I think, must be preserved of the vision of the European-style Hebraists, however much our world differs from theirs. In 18th-century England no one would have thought himself truly educated without a reasonable familiarity with the original Latin, if not Greek, texts that were conceived as the well-springs of modern humanistic culture. We should aspire in our own situation to a Jewish intelligentsia (one, at any rate, that still cares to think of itself as Jewish) that will have, as a matter of course, some precise textual knowledge of the classic Hebrew sources from which the rich and troubling confusions of modern Jewish identity derive.

Two or three years ago I made roughly this suggestion at what I'm afraid must be called a prearranged confrontation between several “committed” Jewish intellectuals and a number of Jewish communal leaders, flanked by a couple of their own style of “emancipated” intellectuals, and I was a little surprised at the edge of contempt in the response I aroused. One of those present, a prominent social commentator, a man dedicated to liberal-radical movements and ecumenical causes, was especially taken aback by what clearly struck him as my smug parochialism. It's perfectly all right, he argued, if I and a few other birds of the same odd feather choose to spend our spare time as academic hobbyists in esoteric areas like Hebrew literature, medieval Jewish philosophy, or biblical history, but such concerns are surely irrelevant to any sane conception of what the life of a Jewish intellectual should be. I am aware of how peculiar the serious study of Jewish culture must appear to many American Jewish intellectuals, but this criticism still seems to me as wrongheaded as it is shortsighted. Being an intellectual, after all, should mean making active, personal use, even if only through opposition, of an intellectual tradition. An intellectual would hardly think of talking about political theory without ever having read a word of Machiavelli, Hobbes, Burke, or Marx, or pretend to place and assess contemporary writing without any knowledge of the national literary past, indeed, without some minimal awareness of the broad Western literary tradition from Homer onward. I would contend, then, that if a Jewish intellectual insists on the Jewish component of his intellectual identity (of course he is free not to), he at least ought to feel a suspicion of incongruity in the fact that he has never read a word of Maimonides, that he wouldn't know a sugia in the Talmud from a sura in the Koran, that Akiba and Rashi, Judah Halevi and Bialik, are no more than names in an encyclopedia to him, that his closest approach to the Bible experienced by Jews over the centuries is the King James Version.

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This is not to imply that the Hebrew teachers colleges have done anything like an adequate job in conveying to their students a mature knowledge of the multifaceted Jewish tradition, but they have kept alive in this country the idea of a liberal education in Hebrew culture, and that, rather than the training of teachers, is the ultimate service they have rendered to the American Jewish community. As a matter of fact, in regard to the staffing problems of the Hebrew elementary schools throughout the country, the teachers colleges have not been able to make more than a minimal contribution. There are now approximately eighteen hundred students enrolled in all eleven institutions, with about two hundred graduates each year, but of the latter, only seventy or so actually take jobs, even part-time, as Hebrew teachers, and it would appear—the statistics are not altogether clear—that the colleges fill no more than 25 per cent, probably considerably less, of the annual need for additional Hebrew teachers. (The rest are recruited from itinerant or émigré Israelis and others who may or may not have acquired informally a certain degree of Jewish knowledge in this country or elsewhere.) Most of the students at the Hebrew colleges are simultaneously enrolled at a general college or university, many already preparing for a profession other than Hebrew teaching, and not more than 30 per cent, perhaps as little as 15 per cent, actually end up permanently as Hebrew teachers. A very small additional proportion, moreover, less than 5 per cent, go on to careers in the rabbinate or in Jewish communal work.

Though these statistics spell serious trouble for Jewish elementary and secondary education, where competent teachers are desperately needed, they suggest an interesting conclusion about the uses to which the Hebrew teachers colleges have been put by their students, who by and large seem to have regarded them as places for higher Jewish learning, not as training institutes. In concrete terms, over a ten-year period perhaps as many as four thousand young people, in the process of preparing to be general schoolteachers, academicians, doctors, lawyers, accountants, businessmen, and, of course, housewives, feel it important to devote ten or more hours a week during their undergraduate careers to acquiring in Hebrew the elements of a liberal Jewish education. The impact of this group on American life has hardly reached seismic proportions but products of the Hebrew colleges do sometimes turn up surprisingly at centers of creative and intellectual activity, as writers, editors, critics, and in the universities, not only among Judaica specialists—where graduates of the Hebrew colleges are among the most prominent of the younger generation of scholars—but in other areas as well. (Thus, Noam Chomsky, M.I.T.'s brilliant linguist, is a former student of Gratz College; Benjamin Schwartz, the distinguished Harvard sinologist, attended Boston Hebrew Teachers College; Sidney Morgenbesser, Columbia's highly-regarded professor of modern philosophy, studied at the Jewish Theological Seminary.)

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Now, one may legitimately wonder whether the encounter with some kind of higher Jewish education has made any difference in the lives of those who have been brushed, bumped, or occasionally even engaged by it. The answer will obviously depend on the nature of the encounter and the individual, but here some observations are in order on the approach to the study of Jewish culture in the Hebrew colleges. From my own experience, there have been two very different approaches, sometimes competing in adjacent classrooms, sometimes resting in uneasy balance in the person and methods of a single instructor.

The latter-day maskilim among the Hebrew college faculty have clearly operated on different assumptions from those that inform the academic enterprise elsewhere. I remember vividly when, in my first year at Columbia, after a heady session of refining out the good from the great (or so it seemed) in Baudelaire through painstaking explication de texte, I suggested in an evening class at the Jewish Theological Seminary that a certain image in Bialik was incongruous with its poetic context. The teacher, a Hebrew poet himself who must have known most of the Bialik corpus by heart since his own Russian boyhood, responded with uncomprehending shock—he stared at me for a moment, shook his head in disbelief, then simply proceeded with the class. Though I was of course much annoyed at the time by what seemed to me an unreasonable failure to speak to a legitimate critical issue, I can see now that the teacher's reaction was perfectly consistent with his own cultural premises. Bialik's poetry, after all, was not for him a neutral object to be evaluated, but a kind of sacred text, a triumphant demonstration of the eternal power of Hebrew creativity, ultimately, almost a way of life. The attitude proper to such a text was not critical cogitation but allegiance.

There is, I suppose, a real value in having encountered and in trying to appreciate this kind of mentality because it does represent an important turning in the sinuous paths of modern Jewish consciousness, and perhaps much of value would not have been accomplished without it. Appreciation, to be sure, comes easier retrospectively than in the encounter, and it is clear that this peculiar Hebrew loyalism of the elders has scarcely been imparted to two generations of their students, most of whom, as people coming of age in an American intellectual climate, have naturally assumed that the guide of critical intelligence should not be abandoned in matters of the intellect. All along, however, there has been another way of treating the materials of Jewish culture in the teachers colleges. If passionate Hebraism can be broadly ascribed to Russian-Jewish antecedents, the colleges have also attempted, occasionally with singular success, to ground the teaching of both classical Hebrew texts and Jewish history in a modern scientific method that has its roots in the Judentumswissenschaft of 19th-century Germany.

Here an instructive paradox ought to be noted. The 19th-century founders of this historical “science of Judaism,” who were in some cases subtle or even overt apologists despite their scholarly method, tended to imagine that they had come to praise Judaism because the time was near to bury it; the implicit aspiration of much of their work was to polish and illumine the artifacts of the Jewish past as splendid museum-pieces. The Jews, however, for reasons having to do both with themselves and with their treatment by others, have persisted as a distinctive presence in the modern world, ambiguous, ambivalent, troubling, embarrassing, sometimes even stirring. In the light of that unexpected persistence, the scientific study of Jewish culture has made possible for Jews a new kind of unblinking confrontation with their own past, a critical reexamination of what varying relevance to the present it may still hold. For it is clear that cultural heritages are “preserved” not in the sticky embalming fluids of reverent nostalgia but in some kind of living relation to the present, which means, at least for our era, that they must be set in the broader contexts of general cultural life out of which they first developed, must be seen from the expanding perspectives of the modern intellectual disciplines.

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It is this that at least a few of the teachers at the Hebrew colleges have sought to do all along; and it is probably being done with increasing frequency by the younger generation of Hebrew scholars, who more often have acquired genuinely professional academic standards. Ironically, this opening outward of Jewish studies to a wider intellectual world may permanently consign the Hebrew colleges to a dim peripheral role, for the most gifted of their graduates and the best of their younger teachers have been progressively attracted to positions in the universities, where interest in Jewish studies has grown dramatically in recent years, where salary, teaching loads, working conditions, are usually much better, and where an atmosphere of intellectual freedom and excitement is somewhat more likely to prevail. The proportions of the recent “renaissance” of Jewish studies on the American campus have been exaggerated by some observers, as Arnold J. Band demonstrates in his contribution on that subject to the Janowsky symposium. From the viewpoint of the universities, Hebrew and Judaic studies remain, quite naturally, a rather exotic area of specialization; for all the blossoming of new departments and positions in the field, the number of actual undergraduate majors all over the country is probably no more than six hundred. Since most of them, moreover, start at a more elementary level than the students of the Hebrew colleges, who have received Hebrew secondary schooling, and since they have many other academic requirements to fulfill, the advanced Jewish education they get during their four years of college is at best fragmentary. There are, obviously, serious inherent limitations upon the role that Judaica programs can play in the universities, but the fact that they are becoming a natural part of the American academic scene is a healthy sign in two ways: it reflects a widening and diversification of cultural perspectives within the university system, and at the same time it points to a new breadth of intellectual outlook on the part of those involved in Judaica. In any case, it would appear that, for better or for worse, in the coming years the most serious research and the most professional teaching in Jewish studies will go on increasingly at the universities rather than at the Hebrew colleges.

I have suggested, without fully explaining, that all this critical study of the Jewish cultural heritage has an importance that is more than “academic.” My initial premise is that Jewish identity in the modern world has been and remains a highly problematic matter, certainly for intellectuals, except for those who are religious or ideological fundamentalists. The kind of identity we discover, imagine, create, persistently reshape, will depend upon a sustained activity of self-confrontation; and since to be a Jew must mean to have a sense of relation to Jewish history, self-confrontation has to involve a confrontation with the Jewish past. If one knows almost nothing about the Jewish past, one is at liberty to invoke it in mawkish adulation—the “soaring universal-ism of the prophets,” the “touching piety of the shtetl”—or in arrogant hostility—the “obscurantist fanaticism of the Talmud,” the two millennia of “pale, cringing ghetto-dwellers,” and so forth. There are, of course, crumbling particles of truth in both the positive and the negative stereotypes, but to study the Jewish past seriously is to discover that it is bewilderingly more various than our rigid preconceptions of it. There are many aspects of it, in different times and places, which upon close examination may strike us as morally abhorrent, which we will positively need to reject. Other elements of the Jewish past may now seem mere curiosities; but surely some pieces of it, perhaps even quite improbable ones, are likely, once acquired, to prove “usable,” whether obliquely or directly, in the uncertain enterprise of being a Jew at this point in history.

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As I stated at the outset, devoting attention to one's own antecedents and one's own group-identity during such a troubled period of American national life may seem to some Jews mere collective selfishness. Such a view betrays, I think, a most unfortunate conception of American society and the role of its minority components. Perhaps the most fruitful way an American can engage in the cultural and political life of his country is to begin out of an informed awareness of his own particular origins, of the ways in which the traditions that his group embodies can make available possibilities of intelligent dissent from the attitudes and assumptions of the American majority. Recent events and movements have illustrated with painful clarity how much there is in American history, in American habits of mind and action, in American institutions and social arrangements, that is sick, violent, mindless, unfeeling, morally torpid, even insane. I don't mean to pretend for a moment that any minority group holds within its own peculiar heritage the cures to the ills from which the American majority culture suffers. But at a moment when we have all been forcibly reminded that this country has a black as well as a white history, the national climate would be considerably more breathable if members of all groups in America were honestly concerned with the actual implementation of the cultural pluralism we invoke so often.

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The relationship I have in mind of minority groups to their individual traditions and to American culture was very aptly described a few years ago by Ralph Ellison in a rejoinder to a critical essay by Irving Howe. Ellison caught Howe inadvertently speaking—out of the best moral intentions—as part of the white America that bore the full weight of guilt for having enslaved and oppressed the Negro people. In Ellison's view, such elision of one's own distinctive identity into a great American conglomerate means a blurring of the very distinctions from which the idea of American democracy draws its unique strength:

The real guilt of such Jewish intellectuals lies in their facile, perhaps unconscious, but certainly unrealistic, identification with what is called the “power structure.” Negroes call that “passing for white.” Speaking personally, both as writer and as Negro American, I would like to see the more positive distinctions between whites and Jewish Americans maintained. Not only does it make for a necessary bit of historical and social clarity, at least where Negroes are concerned, but I consider the United States freer politically and richer culturally because there are Jewish Americans to bring it the benefit of their special forms of dissent, their humor and their gift for ideas which are based upon the uniqueness of their experience. The diversity of American life is often painful, frequently burdensome, and always a source of conflict, but in it lies our fate and our hope.

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