Who is an Educated Jew?

A historical perspective on the Jewish canon, and reflections on what today's learned Jews need to know.

The following article is reprinted with permission from the February 2002 issue of Sh’ma: A Journal of Jewish Responsibility.

There has been no consensus on the issue of “Who is an educated Jew?” for more than two hundred years. 

If one were to have posed the question in 1750, say in Poland, the answer would have been obvious. The educated Jew was a mature male who had devoted his life to talmudic study, debating fine points of halakha [Jewish law] in yeshiva [a school for rabbinical studies] and the beit midrash [house of study]. He was familiar with all of the classic rabbinic texts and their commentaries, the rishonim and the aharonim [earlier and later commentators], and the languages in which they were written–Hebrew and Aramaic–in addition to the Jewish vernacular that he spoke (in Poland, Yiddish, of course).

No women were given such an education, because the teaching of classical religious texts in Hebrew to women was neither halakhically nor socially legitimated; it was also irrelevant to their roles within the family and society. While regional variations in learning styles and in the details of the curriculum existed, the substance of what educated Jews should know was widely shared in the Jewish world.

The Influence of the Enlightenment

That shared commitment to a curriculum, and therefore to a vision of Jewish knowledge, was irretrievably disrupted with the social and political changes that occurred at the end of the 18th century. The Western states’ desire to reshape the socioeconomic and cultural configuration of their Jewish populations, and the emergence of a cohort of Jewish intellectuals and businessmen who were eager to respond to the opportunities that integration into the larger society seemed to promise, led to a sharp dissent from the consensus about Jewish learning that had prevailed, at least within Ashkenazi communities in Europe. For a growing number of Jews, the talmid hokhem [as described above] was no longer the model of the educated Jew.

studyingInstead, modernizing educated Jews, following the model set by the maskilim [advocates of the Jewish enlightenment] saw Western culture as an essential component of their consciousness and created a canon that placed secular education at the fore. They expected educated Jews to be at home culturally in both traditional Jewish and secular learning. A good example is the scarcely known Puah Rakovsky, who was an educator and director of a girls’ school in Warsaw that taught Hebrew and secular studies, a translator, and a Zionist and feminist activist.

Born in Poland in 1865 to a traditional family, she lost her faith as an adolescent and was assertively secular. Still, her Yiddish memoirs are replete with allusions in Hebrew to biblical and midrashic sources, and she was convinced that her Jewish learning was the source of her values. Because she witnessed growing indifference to Jewish culture among youth in the years before World War I, Rakovsky was able to discern that the goal of modem Jewish education had to be transformed from the “regeneration” of Jews under the influence of secular knowledge to the “rejudaization” of Jews bereft of Jewish knowledge.

Modernity and the Fluidity of the Jewish Canon

Modernity fractured Jewish experience, destroying the hegemony of rabbinic Judaism and the authority of traditional Jewish elites. Contemporary currents of thought like postmodernism and multiculturalism have challenged virtually all certainties and shaken all canons. No canon is fixed, and all guardians of cultural transmission are required to make hard choices.

We are fortunate that the Jewish canon has always been a relatively open one, for the traditional Jewish system of interpretation of classical texts has provided a mechanism for ongoing revision. The development of interpretive strategies, in midrash, for example, as literary scholars have argued, demonstrates a way to recover oppositional strands within traditional texts.

Insofar as we focus on the spaces for debate and contestation within the traditional Jewish canon, we acknowledge the need for, and sustain the possibility of, multiple cultural expressions for the diverse people that we are. Although the term “open canon” sounds like an oxymoron, it simply reflects the recognition that every canon is constructed and merits a healthy combination of respect and skepticism and regular revision if it is to speak to its intended audience. A truly “open canon” affords opportunities for choice and for the inclusion of ongoing cultural creativity.

What Will Educated Jews Share?

Once we acknowledge that unity is neither possible nor desirable, though, we must ask what models of educated Jews we seek to promote. What, if anything, will educated Jews of different paideias (educational visions and curricula in the broadest sense) share?

I can think of three prerequisites—necessary but not sufficient—for all educated Jews: the Hebrew language (in all its variants, form the Bible to the present—not just street Hebrew); an acceptance of biblical and rabbinic texts as one’s own; and a general knowledge of Jewish history. Hebrew is an essential tool for reading much of what Jewish culture has produced. But it is more than a tool. Without Hebrew there is no visceral, as distinct from intellectual, connection to Jewish creativity across time and space.

Accepting Tanakh [the Hebrew Bible] and rabbinic texts as one’s own does not necessitate ascribing to them sacredness or religious authority. But it does necessitate grappling with their meaning and their role in world culture as well as Jewish culture and in the choices that contemporary Jews make. The knowledge of the broad outlines of Jewish history enables us to understand the societal and intellectual contexts in which Jewish culture has developed.

Accepting this core curriculum is only the first step in becoming Jewishly educated. An open Jewish canon in the 21st century draws upon a variety of voices and genres. It must embrace all the Jewish cultural products of the past two centuries–that is, the different forms that Jews have chosen to make meaning of their existence as Jews. Secular forms in many languages–including literature, memoirs, folklore, film, and the visual arts-‑are too often dismissed as lacking in cultural significance.

What I am suggesting, then, is that educated Jews would share a core curriculum of Hebrew language, foundational texts, and knowledge of historical development. They would then follow a multiple‑track model of curriculum development, choosing, according to their own interests, from a far broader range of cultural expression than is commonly considered “Jewish knowledge.” Although biblical and rabbinic texts would define a core of Jewish knowledge, further learning would not privilege any single genre of cultural production or any single text.

Changes within the past generation necessitate a rethinking of Jewish learning as thorough as the Haskalah [Enlightenment] critique of two centuries ago. While the majority of Jews have acquired secular education, as maskilim advocated, they have not always applied their knowledge to Judaism or Jewish culture. I am not referring here to the willful ignorance of what modern scholarly inquiry has to say about classical Jewish texts. Rather, I am speaking about the failure of most Jews who consider themselves Jewishly educated to contend with recent trends in studies of culture.

The Lessons of Multiculturalism

Thanks to the work of theorists in anthropology, history, and gender studies, it is widely acknowledged today that culture cannot be subsumed in the writings of an elite. However varied those writings, and however weighty, they reflect the values and considered opinions of one segment of society alone. “Says who?” is an essential question when studying any text.

As we have learned from multiculturalism, the ways in which silent or silenced, generally subordinate, groups within society conferred meaning on their own lives and accepted or resisted the values promulgated by elites are part of cultural history. That is as true of Jews as of other groups.

Popular Jewish culture has always existed, and we must be willing to look for it and to reflect on its relation to the elite culture that we have considered the sum total of Judaism and of Jewish cultural creativity. Familiarity with the varieties of Jewish culture instills in Jews a recognition that Jewish culture is not fixed or reified, nor limited to one social segment of the Jewish people. Rather, it is malleable and ever changing, shaped by the interaction of internal forces and external circumstances, and created by Jews through a combination of consciousness and behavior.

The multicultural model, which disputes the very idea of canon (but may also accept the concept of an open canon) and pays heed to the voices that resist and subvert authority, appears quite suitable to the diversity of Jewish patterns of behavior and thought in a post‑emancipation world. It mandates willingness to acknowledge the multiplicity of Jewish voices and accept their authenticity.

The multicultural model is particularly appropriate to the ambiguous position of Jews in the Diaspora, who create Jewish culture in the space between being a part of the larger society and apart from it (or, in the words of a recent book, insider/outsiders). The adoption of a multicultural stance, however, requires a recognition of the diversity of Jewish life as a value rather than an unfortunate fact; that is, it requires a conversion of diversity into pluralism.

Living in a multicultural society, we have the opportunity and the obligation to shape a fluid Jewish canon for our own time and for the future. Engaged with the richness of the culture we have inherited, which links us with Jews of other times and places, we must be sensitive as well to the incompleteness of our legacy, to the voices that have been suppressed (women’s and others) and to the interpretations that have lacked authority. The legacy of our generation may well be a postmodern hermeneutics of suspicion and a recognition that a diverse people requires cultural diversity.

Discover More

What Does L’dor Vador Mean?

An emotional Jewish catchphrase explained.

Kiddushin 67

Inherited features.

These Nine Tombs Have Attracted Jewish Pilgrims for Centuries

Take a look inside the places that Abraham, King David, Queen Esther and other biblical characters are said to have been buried.