Let’s Make the Early Rabbis Uncomfortable in Our Classrooms

Aaron Dorfman and Rabbi Ayalon Eliach


“Moses received the Torah at Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua, Joshua to the elders, the elders to the prophets, and the prophets to the Members of the Great Assembly” (Pirkei Avot 1:1).

What often gets left out of that story is that in the course of transmission, Joshua forgot 300 halakhot, became uncertain about 700 more, and introduced 10 significant reforms (Babylonian Talmud, Temurah 16a; Bava Kama 80b-81a). On top of that, the elders, prophets, and Members of the Great Assembly made so many changes—from replacing animal sacrifice with prayer to instituting Torah reading as a weekly communal practice and developing many of the food practices that we now know as kashrut—that by the time the tradition was in the hands of the rabbis who wrote Pirkei Avot, it was unrecognizable. To capture this point, the Talmud goes so far as to describe Moses as traveling through time to sit in Rabbi Akiva’s classroom, but not being able to understand anything that was being discussed (Babylonian Talmud, Menaḥot 29b).

These transmitters of the tradition made such drastic changes because they believed that the ultimate goal of Jewish life is to help people live better lives. And in a constantly changing world, a Judaism that helps people live well must always evolve.

Today, the world is changing at breakneck pace, but Jewish life and education are all too often built on a model of preservation rather than adaptation. We need to regain the sacred chutzpah of Joshua, the elders, the prophets, and the Members of the Great Assembly to rework Judaism, often in radical ways, so that it can continue to be a source of guidance in our lives. As Dr. Jonathan Woocher (z”l), founding president of Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah (LKFLT), put it, we must switch our guiding educational question from, “How can we keep Jews Jewish as they go through the process of embracing American life?” to “How can we help Jews find in their Jewishness resources that will help them live more meaningful, purposeful, and fulfilling human lives?” (Reinventing Jewish Education for the 21st Century, 2012).

As LKFLT’s mission states, we believe that answering this guiding question entails “helping people apply particular Jewish wisdom to universal human questions.” This means expanding the focus of Jewish education from answering parochially Jewish questions (How am I supposed to pray or chant Torah with the words and melodies of my ancestors? Should we light Hanukkah candles from left to right or right to left?) to universal human ones (How might I be a good parent, friend, partner? How might I be a good citizen of my community, my country, and the planet? How might I be a responsible, economic actor?).

These are questions that Jews and others face not because they are Jewish, but because they are human. And they are questions to which the Jewish wisdom tradition offers compelling and inspiring answers. From mikvah helping people navigate life’s transitional moments, to Shabbat offering a pause from an increasingly unbound workweek, to studying the multivocal Jewish tradition as a means of cultivating appreciation for viewpoint diversity, and so much more, Jewish tradition offers an abundance of wisdom to draw on. Today’s Jewish educators have a tremendous opportunity to make this value proposition clear.

Reinventing Jewish education to meet these goals will take many partners, a lot of work, and patience. It also demands learning from past revolutions in Jewish education. While there are countless lessons we can learn from earlier generations, these four are essential:

  1. Leading thinkers who will dedicate themselves to the new paradigm. The seminal moment in the evolution of biblical to rabbinic Judaism was when Rabbi Yoḥanan ben Zakai acquiesced to Jerusalem’s downfall—including the destruction of the Second Temple, the center of Jewish life at the time—in exchange for the Romans permitting a group of rabbis to study in Yavneh (Babylonian Talmud, Gittin 56a-b). In today’s terms, Rabbi Yoḥanan effectively accepted the destruction of the existing Jewish paradigm so that a single fellowship of Jewish educators could create the next one. Thankfully, we do not need to make such extreme sacrifices in order to convene thought leaders to map out the future of Jewish education; and we are honored to have partnered with The William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of JTS to create one in the form of the Fellowship in Educating for Applied Jewish Wisdom.
  2. Draw heavily on the wisdom of the past. When the Members of the Great Assembly and early Rabbis replaced sacrifice with prayer, they looked to the structure and function of the sacrificial cult for inspiration and guidance for creating new forms, without being beholden to the earlier ones. They were only able to draw on this wisdom because they committed to retaining, studying, reinterpreting, and drawing on the texts and praxis that preceded them. The scope of Jewish tradition is even larger today, but the lesson remains the same: interrogating the past offers unique perspectives for thinking about and designing the future.
  3. Create new content and frameworks. The chain of transmission, whose beginnings are captured in Pirkei Avot but which continues until today, didn’t just winnow down the Jewish tradition. Each link in the chain reimagined it and created entirely new content and frameworks for Jewish life. They created new practices, like prayer; new institutions, like the synagogue; new texts, like the Mishnah and Talmud; and new frameworks, like halakhah. The next paradigm of Jewish education will need new content and frameworks of its own. And while these will take time to develop, the fellows offered one example of what such a framework could look like with the Shlemut framework they developed.
  4. Develop new pedagogies. If the early Rabbis had just created the Talmud without an effective means of transmitting it, it’s unclear how successful their approach would have been. Part of what made their work so successful is that Jewish educators developed a pedagogy to accompany it: havruta learning. They realized that a multivocal text was best studied multivocally, and they popularized a form of dyad-learning to support that. We do not yet know what the content and frameworks of the new paradigm of Jewish education will be, but whatever they are, they will require new ways of teaching.

The new Jewish educational paradigm these principles produce will look quite different from what preceded it. One of the ways we will know our new institutions and frameworks are successful is when the early rabbis would be just as confused by them as Moses was in Rabbi Akiva’s classroom. The goal, however, is not to break with tradition—it is to continue it. If Moses had been comfortable in Rabbi Akiva’s classroom, Rabbi Akiva’s students would almost certainly not have been taught a Judaism that helped them live better lives in their historical context. Healthy continuity and adaptation are two sides of the same coin. As the second half of our mission statement states, when Jewish education once again returns to a focus on living a better life, Jewish continuity won’t be a goal in and of itself but rather an outcome of people wanting to “cultivate Judaism’s evolving wisdom tradition as an enduring source of value for human civilization over the long term.”

Aaron Dorfman is the president of Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah.

Rabbi Ayalon Eliach is the director of learning and strategic communications at Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah.