Striving for Shlemut: An Emerging Approach to Jewish Education

Dr. Bill Robinson

My friend and teacher Dr. Jonathan Woocher (z”l) left us with a challenge:

Twentieth-century Jewish education was designed to answer the question, “How can we ensure that individuals remain ‘good’ Jews, even as they become good (and successful) Americans?” Jewish education must respond to a subtly, but significantly, different question: “How can we help Jews draw on and use their Jewishness to live more meaningfulfulfillingand responsible lives?

For the last three decades, education has focused on the goal of ensuring that Jews, Jewish institutions, and Jewish practices survive in the open marketplace of America. As American Jews, it is time we move beyond surviving to thriving. The question before us today is: what does Jewish education for “thriving”¾leading meaningful, fulfilling, and responsible lives¾look like?

To craft a preliminary answer to Jon’s question, the Fellowship in Educating for Applied Jewish Wisdom, made possible by the support of Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah and the William Davidson Foundation, was born. It brought together a group of scholars and innovative Jewish educators who were already doing what Jon asked of us. Through reflecting on their educational practices, they crafted a set of six guiding principles toward educating for thriving, or as they preferred to call it, educating for shlemut (wholeness).

Others have taken on Jon’s challenge and we have shared their thinking in multiple issues of Gleanings. One of the more popular approaches looks to Dr. Martin Seligman’s positive psychology to offer a vision of the life toward which we would educate, what the Greeks would have called the “good life,” or a “life of goodness.” Seligman sums up his view of the “good life” in his PERMA model in which the individual develops: Positive emotions (feeling good), Engagement (finding flow), Relationships (authentic connections), Meaning (purposeful existence), and Achievement (a sense of accomplishment).

While offering a perfectly nice vision to American sensibilities, I would suggest that PERMA has its limitations. Notably, it cares about the well-being of the individual without explicitly caring about the society and world in which that individual lives. In his framework, one should have a sense of purpose but need not speak to bringing forth justice or healing the world. Similarly, one needs to connect with others, but in this model, the other is treated as a means rather than as a whole person.

In contrast, Martin Buber did not just call for better relationships, he asked of us to treat the other as a valued end in herself, as a “thou” not an “it,” regardless of the use she may have to us. Martin Luther King Jr. proclaimed, “I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Abraham Joshua Heschel challenged us to be sensitized to the sublime wonder of the world around us and to hear the divine call that issues forth from it. When he walked with King in Selma, Alabama, it was a way of responding to that divine call. Heschel did not just feel “flow,” he “felt [his] feet were praying.” These are rudiments of the thriving life that will inspire the young and the old alike, visions taken together along with a care of the soul that could form the basis of a life of shlemut, which should drive Jewish education.

So, as Jewish educators grounded in social constructivist and experiential education and attuned to the complexities of social emotional learning, we would then ask: What are the dispositions, what the Greeks called “virtues” and Jews call “middot,” that people need to lead this envisioned life of thriving? What virtues do they need to cultivate in themselves in order to better love their neighbors as themselves, pursue justice, and co-create a better world, as well as care for their own well-being? For our larger purpose here, how can Jewish education do this?

The teaching of Jewish text in havruta can be a path toward deepening these middot in our students. Yet, this is not a one-way process of filling students’ heads with knowledge about these virtues. Text study involves a dialogical engagement with the text and other learners, in which the process, not just the content, is the locus of learning. As Elie Holzer and Orit Kent have shown, through havruta, the student learns to practice the virtues of “sensitivity, listening, wholeheartedness, open-mindedness, vulnerability, responsibility, and ethical commitment.” People also encounter one another face to face, nurturing relations of I-Thou, where the sacred becomes present. Once developed, these virtues then enable us to attune not just to the text and co-learners but the world around us. Attunement to that world is the first step toward responding to the call of the world and making it a better place.

Moreover, text study is not the only Jewish resource for cultivating the virtues. Through the practice of Shabbat, we can learn mindfulness. Through a commitment to the saying of blessings, we attune ourselves to the world around us and cultivate a sense of gratitude. Through developing a daily practice of tzedakah, we can become more responsive to the needs of those around us.

This is not new to Judaism. Rather, this new paradigm in Jewish education reaches back to older understandings of Judaism through contemporary lenses. Thus, Maimonides understood the value of the Jewish practice tzedakah as educational in the sense of building one’s character. For him the benefit of giving was not primarily toward the one who received but toward the giver, within whom a regular practice was needed to cultivate the virtue of generosity.

Unlike Maimonides, today we live in a world where we can take ownership of the Jewish practice of mitzvot and craft them to be more responsive to our individual capacities and the virtues we are seeking to develop in ourselves through our practice of them. Thus, the ways in which we choose to practice Shabbat with our families and in our communities are open to us. What’s most important is that we recraft Jewish practices in ways that renew their value and sustain our ongoing commitment to them and to each other as co-practitioners and co-learners. For many, this process begins in the various settings of Jewish education, formal and informal alike.

Underlying this new approach to Jewish education is the empowerment and responsibility of the self to become the author of one’s own Jewish-American life. We tend to think that identity precedes practice. Quite the contrary, we develop our identities by reflecting upon and narrating the life we are learning to lead. If Jews do not find themselves doing Jewish often with other Jews, there are no Jewish stories that can be the building blocks of their Jewish identity. By giving learners the freedom and guidance to play with Jewish practices in the pursuit of virtues relevant to their life today and by helping them in the course of their education to reflect upon experiences through the telling of their story, they will arrive at robust Jewish identities that are integrated with and of value to being virtuous Americans.

The above description of this new paradigm follows a six-point framework of “educating for shlemut” that emerged out of our aforementioned Fellowship in Educating for Applied Jewish Wisdom: cultivating dispositions, being in relation, co-creating the world, presencing the divine, practicing Jewish, and authoring the self.

The fellows and faculty of the fellowship to whom I am indebted include Erica Aren, Ilana Gleicher-Bloom, Sue Bojdak, Yonatan Brafman, Gretchen Marks Brandt, Rebecca Epstein-Levy, Lizzi Heydemann, Beth Huppin, Jeff Kress, Rebecca Lieberman, Debbie Miller, Alisha Pedowitz, Jane Shapiro, Michael Shire, and Adam Weisberg. The specific articulation offered above is my own; while the framework provides a set of guiding principles for all Jewish educators engaged in this new paradigm, it does so without constricting the creativity of individual educators.

I have written at greater length about this framework in a nine-part series on eJewish Philanthropy, and those pieces can be found here. I also suggest a seventh defining characteristic of this new educational paradigm is covenantal peoplehood. Covenantal peoplehood situates the educational enterprise within the continually unfolding story of the Jewish People and its ongoing covenantal project to bring forth redemption. A primary purpose of Jewish education is thus to inspire learners to participate creatively and committedly in this multigenerational project. To borrow from Clayton Christensen, we each have many “jobs to be done,” but the job of redeeming the world is eternally core to the Jewish mission and increasingly vital to our common future on Earth. I thus end with these questions to you, the reader:

As educators and as parents, do we want our children just to know what to do according to the prescribed traditions? Or do we want them to be creative participants in the Jewish project of co-creating a just and caring world and, in so doing, renewing our traditions? Do we want their compliance or commitment? Do we want their conformity or creativity, as the future of this world lies increasingly in the balance and our traditions do not yet have all the answers?

For me, the answer is clear; the challenge is making the journey together across a partially glimpsed landscape into an uncertain future.

Dr. Bill Robinson served as the Dean of the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of JTS.