Secular education is the way to keep Jews Jewish

By Felix Posen, July 7, 2011
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When the next Jewish population surveys are published in 2012, the results will make headlines. However, at least one important statistic should surprise no one. In study after study, more than 50 per cent of Jews self-define as non-religious or secular. This is true of both Israel and the diaspora, where the number of Jewish "nones"- or non-religious - has grown steadily over the past two decades.

No one doubts that the new statistics will confirm the march towards secularity. Yet the Jewish establishment continues to ignore this. The refusal to acknowledge this basic reality of Jewish life is most striking in one area in particular: Jewish education.

Neither leaders nor funders of Jewish education have bothered to address this situation. They have not organised educational facilities for their own kind. Many donate money towards the sort of Jewish education they themselves do not believe in.

This is a very sad state of affairs. Not only has it led to a further decline in the Jewish population (as is evident in all countries outside of Israel) but the majority of Jews, though successful, talented and capable (as evidenced by, for example, the disproportionately large number of Nobel laureates), are woefully uneducated Jewishly.

I know something about this lack of Jewish education. I was raised in an Orthodox family but, for years, my knowledge of Judaism was limited mainly to prayers and precepts learned by rote and a vague familiarity with the Bible, Talmud, Responsa literature and other works, such as the Shulchan Aruch. It is surprising how little I knew of the broader, cultural aspects of Judaism, Jewish history and the vast body of Jewish literature of the 19th and 20th centuries, in Hebrew, Yiddish, Ladino and English.

My real Jewish education came many decades later. In 1984, I began to take a serious interest in what was then called the Oxford Centre for Postgraduate Hebrew Studies and, in time, started to read voraciously. As I discovered the pure joy of learning about Judaism writ large, I also began to discover the historical and philosophical foundations of the four main streams of Judaism.

Learning Ivrit will not correct Jewish ignorance

I realised that each of these forms of Judaism has its own rationale, and that it is wrong to claim - as Orthodox Jews frequently do - that the non-Orthodox streams merely represent non-observance and/or non-belief.

Just as I increased my Jewish knowledge, so, too, can others, and it is a terrific time to begin. For the first time in Jewish history, one can obtain books on the subject of Jewish secularism, its historical and philosophical origins. There is a course at Tel Aviv University for undergraduates to become teachers in the Israeli school system equipped to teach Judaism as an immensely rich, historic culture. There are now more than 30 schools in Israel teaching this subject in (secondary school) grades 7-12, and about three dozen universities in North America have developed courses in the origins, meaning and development of Jewish secularism.

The Posen Foundation is now engaged in its largest single literary project: an Anthology of Judaism as Culture intended to have ten or more volumes of over 1,000 pages each to list the totality of Judaism's immense and rich literary output starting with the Bible. It is a substantial task, which is expected to take about 15 years to complete with the first publication due in 2012 from Yale University Press. Over 120 noted scholars are associated with the project.

In 1949, Israel's Prime Minister Ben Gurion initiated the World Union of Jewish Studies meeting, which gathers leading international Judaica scholars at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem every four years. After 60 years, in the summer of 2009, Jewish secularism was finally admitted in lectures and a plenary session.

Jewish leadership worldwide, although aware of the inadequate Jewish educational facilities for the majority, has not seen fit to grapple seriously with this crucial problem. Band Aid quickie programmes cannot correct this very basic ailment.

Learning Ivrit and/or visiting Israel is often very pleasurable and educational but will not correct Jewish ignorance. The Hebrew-speaking Israeli is as ignorant of our rich culture as the diaspora Jew. It takes years of reading and studying to learn about a culture.

In The Courage to be Secular, the Israeli writer Smilansky wrote: "One may be non religious out of ignorance, laziness or for no reason at all, but to be secular, one must make a conscious choice.

"To be secular it is not enough to be non-religious. The distinction lies between finding something and losing something.

"What makes someone secular? First and foremost, a sense of responsibility; a sense of responsibility with no external source.

"The secular have chosen to face the world on their own terms. To be secular means to claim sovereignty over one's own life."

Without meaningful Jewish educational facilities consistent with the lifestyle and philosophy of the parents of the majority, further Jewish population declines are inevitable.

Felix Posen is the head of the Posen Foundation and a governor and honorary fellow of the Hebrew University, Jerusalem

Last updated: 9:50am, July 7 2011