December 18, 2018

A humble request for a talmudic approach to Israel education

As an educator and a parent, my news feed is replete with articles advising adults how best to instill confidence in today’s youth. From “5 Ways to Raise a Confident Child” to “Building Self-Esteem in the Classroom,” it is widely held that conviction in one’s self, one’s knowledge and one’s opinions is key to success in school and in life.

The world of Jewish education is not immune to this trend, with a study by Ezra Kopelowitz and Daniel Chesir-Teran bemoaning that “only” 46 percent of young Israel advocates “always feel knowledgeable about Israel.” Their response to this timorous admission from a group of people in their 20s already engaged with Israel: more educational programming together with “further Israel advocacy opportunities.”

I, too, bemoan the fact that 46 percent of young Israel advocates always feel knowledgeable about Israel, but for an entirely different reason: I wish fewer of them felt so confident. To me, the dual states of insecurity and engagement are neither conflicting nor a problem that requires solving. The study actually demonstrates that a slim majority of young Israel advocates possess a healthy dose of humility, as indicated by the remaining 54 percent who acknowledge that they have more to learn.

It is the use of the absolute, “always,” that I find uncomfortable. Always feeling knowledgeable is the stage at which we have pompously resolved that there is nothing more to discover, no other viewpoints to consider, no growth to undergo. Always intimates complacency, arrogance and ossification, states that we — as educators, as learners and as Jews — must avoid at all costs.  

Always feeling knowledgeable is only reading articles that confirm our opinions and providing a platform solely for speakers with whom we share an ideology. It is resting on our self-satisfied laurels, thinking inside the box, remaining firmly, obstinately, within our comfort zone.  

Always feeling knowledgeable about Israel thwarts dialogue and removes the impetus to listen and learn, to hear as well as be heard, to probe and be probed. Always declares that we know all there is to know about Israel. Worst of all, always assures us we have nothing to gain by seeking out those whose outlooks differ from our own.

Let me be clear: As an educator, I believe the acquisition of knowledge, and lifelong striving toward that goal, is of paramount importance. I also recognize that a certain amount of confidence is crucial to be able to engage in the conversation and to express ourselves with clarity and eloquence. It is not my intention that we brush off, or resign ourselves to, the perceived knowledge deficit of Jewish youth toward Israel.

As an educator, I instead suggest that humility and knowledge be seen as complementary goals, which will together improve the quality and humanity of our Israel education. The learner’s lack of confidence should be encouraged and woven into its very tapestry. For real learning can germinate only from a place of humility, from creating a space that does not resist — indeed, that welcomes — what is new, different, even uncomfortable.

How might educators go about instilling this paradoxical culture of humility and knowledge? Through inspiring and encouraging a voracious sense of curiosity in ourselves and in our students.  

How is curiosity sparked and expressed? The Talmud exemplifies this model: not with answers, but with questions. 

A genuine question is conceived from a place of curiosity. It is posed with the desire to learn, illuminate or investigate, and evidences processing, independent thinking, scrutiny, application and self-reflection — a refusal to be sated by the status quo. Even questions that contest should seek to discover or uncover. Used effectively, they can be a powerful tool to penetrate and challenge assumptions, compel deep introspection and provoke another to see something in a new light.

The Talmud presents myriad opinions and leaves much open to interpretation. Interwoven amongst the laws are scores of narratives, poems and vibrant discussions. A talmudic approach to Israel education honors multiple perspectives and welcomes different approaches. It acknowledges that because no single person is omniscient, we must turn inward and outward to complete the picture, through both self-reflection and extrospection.

Educators can begin to incorporate this talmudic approach to Israel education from a very early age by embodying and encouraging traits the Talmud champions in its texts and hones through its study. If we build our lessons — whatever the subject — around humility, curiosity and collaboration, perhaps we can help the next generation to usher in a new era of tolerance and peace in the world. 

A true question serves as a humble admission of our desire to learn from or better understand another person or situation. It is a signal that we do not always know the answer. Most important, it is an invitation to others to join and enrich the conversation.

HANNAH TOBIN COHEN is a freelance researcher and educator specializing in Israel and Jewish education. She currently works as a researcher at the Children’s Learning About Israel project. She was a fellow of NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change, iCenter’s Masters Concentration in Israel, and the American Jewish University’s Teaching Israel Fellowship. Born and raised in England, she now lives in Los Angeles.