Learning about Learning

Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education, Brandeis University

Enough Identity, Already

In the blizzard of articles, reactions, and blog posts about the Pew Research Center study of American Jews, the most unexpected came from the prominent public intellectual Noah Feldman.

Writing in Bloomberg, Feldman’s column jumps from the Pew study to some observations about, surprisingly, the Lakewood yeshiva. He explains that Lakewood is a massive ultra-Orthodox educational institution (6500 students embedded in a community of 55,000) focused almost entirely on the study of Talmud and exclusively for male students, that its educational model is “astonishingly egalitarian and democratic,” that it demonstrates that “one kind of authentically Jewish experience is flourishing in America.”

He concludes:

[Lakewood] matters. It matters for the future of Jews in America precisely because it matters for the future of Judaism in America. By privileging ideas and thought over identity, it proudly stakes out a position of genuine durability.

Feldman is no apologist for traditionalism. What he notices about Lakewood, astutely, is that they have identified a particular cultural practice that they value above everything else, and they have set up an educational system to pursue that cultural practice with single-minded focus and discipline.

That’s what makes Lakewood admirable, even for those of us who do not particularly admire their ideology, who do not believe that educational systems should be so narrow in their curriculum, and who, especially, are skeptical about what the “Lakewood model” produces and contributes to the world.

That focus and discipline is the quality to which Feldman was pointing in his phrase “privileging ideas and thought over identity.” What he really meant to say, I think, is that Lakewood does not worry about the Jewish identity of its students, and does not believe that vacuous phrases like “strengthening Jewish identity” – the phrases that populate so much educational discourse in the broader Jewish community – are sufficient to inform an educational vision.

Instead, Lakewood wants students to learn Talmud, and to do so in a particular way that they value. It doesn’t matter that that particular methodology is only a couple of hundred years old; they’re not interested in history. Nor, for that matter, are they particularly interested in “ideas and thought,” if we take that phrase to indicate philosophy or theology. That’s not part of the curriculum either. It’s all Talmud, all the time.

The rest of us in the Jewish community, who are not about to mimic the Lakewood model for any number of good reasons, ought to ask ourselves how our educational visions might achieve the clarity that Lakewood’s seems to have. This is not about theological clarity. It’s about focus and discipline, about identifying the cultural practices that we value most, and then figuring out what we are doing to help students achieve the capacities to pull off those cultural practices.

What do we want students to know and be able to do? Read texts in certain ways? Speak certain languages? Enjoy Jewish culture? Produce Jewish culture? In what ways do we want them to be engaged with their local Jewish and non-Jewish communities? Who do want them to be, as interpreters of Jewish history and tradition? How do we envision the connection of Jews to other Jews, locally or globally? What is our picture of engaged citizenship, and in what polities? What are our aspirations for the inner, spiritual lives of Jews? What does it mean to live a life on behalf of others, or to pursue justice, or to create beauty in the world, or to serve the Divine?

The Pew study confirms what we have seen in every other study in recent years. American Jews today are perfectly comfortable with their Jewish identities. Jews are happy and proud to be Jewish. They are happy for others to know that they’re Jewish. They are not running away from their Jewish identities in any sense. If they marry another Jew and have children, they inevitably raise their children as Jewish. If these are our metrics for success, then we have to conclude that Jewish education has been successful beyond anyone’s wildest imagination.

But if these are not our metrics of success, then we have to stop focusing on Jewish identity. We have to stop talking about “building Jewish identity” and “strengthening Jewish identity” and “transmitting Jewish identity.” Instead, we have to articulate to ourselves and to the community what cultural practices we really value, what we want our students to know and be able to do, who we want them to be in a deep and substantive way. Enough identity already.

Jon A. Levisohn, associate professor and associate academic director of the Center, is co-chair (with Ari Y. Kelman of Stanford University) of a conference at the Center on “Rethinking Jewish Identity and Jewish Education,” March 30-31, 2014.


  1. While I hate terms “Jewish identity” and “Jewish values” I’ve given a good bit of thought to this issue as part of a group of people founding a Jewish education program in my community. I have lot of specific goals. The big one is to give kids skills that will let them become adult participants in their Jewish community and the interest to want to participate. The trouble with the skills part is that there is a huge list of skills that increase one’s ability to fully engage a Jewish community, but we can teach only a fraction of those skills before b’nai mitzvot. Put another way, it is impossible to teach sufficient skills before the point when a person is old enough to make their own decisions regarding what to learn. (Lakewood partially gets around this conflict not by having a focus but by making people choose between abandoning the only community they know or giving up their right to make their own educational decisions)

    This means that a goal of early education is to make sure kids want to keep learning as adults. One obviously needs to use the education time well. In the case of my program, we try to teach as much as possible in several areas of Jewish skills/learning, but decided to have a focus on Hebrew language because that is a skill that is easier to learn as a child than as an adult. Still, this goal of creating a desire to keep questioning and learning is central. I’d rather not call this Jewish identity building, but I’m not sure there’s a better phrase.

  2. Mazel Tov, I am seeing people who are comfortable being Jews they just don’t have the tools to think Jewishly about complex things. I always tell my teachers and students to not look to give kids THE JEWISH ANSWER. We should be struggling to help our kids formulate Jewish questions.

  3. I agree that Jewish identity means very little unless it is founded on something bigger and more meaningful. I think where I run into a problem with this is that my goals on this score and the goals of the families in many religious schools diverge wildly. I want to help kids (and as an extension, their families) participate in a passionate, committed, vibrant Jewish community filled with learning, prayer and social action. I think most parents want their children to be Jewish but not too Jewish, wherever they see themselves. I can’t achieve my goals for the kids without the buy-in of the whole family but if the parents aren’t willing to be active members of a community committed to Judaism then it may be that the most I can hope for is to leave them thirsty for more so that they come back as adults to get what their parents weren’t able or willing to give them (which is my own story in many ways). Thanks for the food for thought!

  4. As a fan of the proficiency approach to language education (thanks to Prof. Vardit Rignvald at Brandeis University), I love the formulation “what we want our students to know and be able to do.” (We, the language teachers, would emphasize the doing over the knowing but that’s our idiosyncrasy). The first thing to do is articulate the goal/s because if you don’t know your goal/s, how do you know where you’re going and if or when you’ve reached it/them? (By the way, And the goal has to be tangible and quantifiable. Goal articulation is perhaps the hardest step in the educational process, probably the reason we often end up with vague, feel-good formulations, and also possibly the genesis of the “Jewish identity” overload. The rest is a matter of working backwards: to get to this or that specific goal, what has to happen? It is then the educator’s role to make sure that the road to the goal is mapped out and possible to follow.

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