The Spirit of Jewish Classical Education

Published February 6, 2023


The Jews have long occupied a unique place within Western civilization—simultaneously at the center and at the margins. The West—including the rise of European Christendom and the birth of America—was decisively shaped by Hebraic understandings: the revelation that our existence was initiated by a single divine Creator; that human beings were created as God’s beloved partners; that human life is sacred and child sacrifice abhorrent; that human kings are answerable to an ultimate Judge; that human sexuality should be governed by laws of holiness; that rearing children is life’s greatest blessing and God’s primordial commandment; and that despite the painful realities of mortal life, the human story is not tragic but redemptive. Against the pagan belief that fate matters more than freedom, the Jews offered a crucial corrective: the recognition that human beings make history, and that history is a divine drama conceived by God and shaped by men and women as the only covenantal actors in the cosmos. That covenant began when God summoned Abraham to create a new way of life. And since then, we have lived in an Abrahamic world.

While Hebraic understandings shaped Western civilization as we know it, the Jews themselves often lived in exile: not only from their home in the land of Israel, but also from the very Western culture that Israelite teachings helped to create. While Jewish texts like David’s Psalms became sacred scripture, the Jews themselves were often persecuted rather than honored, blamed rather than esteemed, poor rather than princely. They often lived in shtetls and never built great cathedrals. They were the targets of rigged and hostile “disputations” and generally banned from attending universities where they could engage in true dialogue. In their realist genius, the rabbis focused their cultural energy on preserving their own sacred inheritance from an often-hostile world rather than sharing this divine vision with the untutored nations. In one of history’s great (and often cruel) ironies, Christianity would spread the core Jewish message of a covenantal God to the world, often while subjecting Jews themselves to humiliation and worse.

Yet throughout Western history, the greatest Jewish thinkers and leaders—Philo and Saadia Gaon, Maimonides and Abarbanel, Samson Raphael Hirsch and Esriel Hildesheimer—always recognized the importance of Western ideas for expanding the Jewish imagination. Even when the world spurned the Jews, the wisest Jews knew that they needed to make sense of their distinctive place in the West. In modern times, it is no accident that the visionary statesmen and thinkers who led the Zionist renaissance in Israel—men like Theodor Herzl, Abraham Isaac Kook, Vladimir Jabotinsky, and David Ben-Gurion—were deeply educated in the political and moral history of the West. It is no accident that the rabbis and teachers who led the religious revival in the American Diaspora—individuals such as Menachem Mendel Schneerson, Joseph B. Soloveitchik, and Abraham Joshua Heschel—were steeped in the great thinkers of the Western tradition, both ancient and modern. They believed that the Jews needed to understand Western culture—both its greatness and its dangers—in order to fulfill our true mission as “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” within history.

The spirit and purpose of Jewish education will always reflect how Jews see their place in human history. If Jews and Judaism are insignificant—a parochial people with peculiar rituals and outdated ideas—then Jewish learning will sadly wither from disinterest. If Jewish survival is at stake—as in the early days of the modern Zionist movement—young Jews will rightly train first as farmers, workers, and soldiers. If Jews are proud but permanent outsiders—political and spiritual exiles from a corrupt world that rejects them—then Jewish schools will aim primarily to shield young Jews from the heresies of non-Jewish culture in the name of preserving our transcendent Jewish way of life from generation to generation. Yet if Jews and Judaism are truly summoned to be “a light unto the nations”—a moral and metaphysical Menorah to the world—then the purpose of Jewish education is to kindle that light.

Sadly, we are living in an age of mass civilizational confusion, both in the Western world in general and among the Jews themselves. Unmoored from the best of our past as a guide to our future, modern man is looking for new golden calves to save us: fentanyl, TikTok, pansexuality. The Jewish mission in the world is to help steer us off this nihilistic path: to offer Hebraic remedies for our worst cultural disorders. And that Jewish light depends on educating committed Jews who understand and care about their exceptional role in history, who bring Jewish wisdom into the civilizational arena, and who incorporate the best of Western culture into Jewish life. This is the mission of Jewish classical education: to build a movement of civilizational renewal that looks to the past heights of human excellence as a guide to the future, and that does so with a Jewish mind and Jewish heart.

I. A Short Jewish History of the West

To develop this distinctively Jewish vision of classical education, we need to understand the Jewish meaning of the West, including the modes of education that have long shaped Western culture. The Western ideal of an educated person began with the Greeks, who were the first civilization to understand man as a rational being in search of himself and his place in the natural cosmos. Many cultures and civilizations pre-dated the Greeks: the Chinese, the Mesopotamians, the Egyptians. But Greek culture was the only culture open to culture: the only culture that questioned its own superiority through the application of human reason and that sought to make sense of reality through logic and analysis, even to the point of thinking about the very nature of thought itself and seeking out demonstrable proofs whenever possible.

This Greek quest for truth produced just about every discipline of knowledge that we hold dear: History was invented by Herodotus and Thucydides as an effort to inquire into man’s nature by learning from how he has lived in the past. Greek literature invented the forms of tragedy and comedy to make sense of the human struggle against cosmic forces that seem beyond our control. Greek art sought to depict the nature of man through the image of his body and face. The Greeks invented the study of politics to explain how to live well in an ordered society, and Greek inquiries into ethics were the most sophisticated (if not always the most ethical) that the world had ever seen. In mathematics, the Greeks developed advanced proofs aimed at illuminating the true nature of reality, and in astronomy they used calculations to advance far beyond the discoveries of other cultures that relied on observation alone. The master discipline was Greek philosophy, which applied human reason and dialectic to the fundamental questions of existence.

In the 4th century BCE, Greek philosophers laid out a system for becoming an educated person that would shape Western education for well over two millennia. Aristotle’s disciples retrieved from his thought a pedagogical model that would eventually become known as the trivium, focused on the rigorous mastery of (i) grammar, (ii) logic, and (iii) rhetoric. Grammar was the study of reading and writing in a broad and comprehensive sense, including both the foundations of language and the memorization of the core knowledge essential for thought. Logic involved formal training in how to prove truths and disprove falsehoods. Rhetoric was the art of persuasion, which taught students how to convey truths in the most effective manner possible. This trivium was to be followed by the quadrivium—the four-fold study of nature itself, through the fields of arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy.

When the Romans conquered Greece, they adopted Greek models of education and culture as their own, and Latin eventually came to supplant Greek as the primary language of Western culture. Intellectually, the Romans refined and improved Greek disciplines, especially the arts of rhetoric. Morally, the Romans celebrated civic virtue and loyalty to higher causes over the pursuit of personal cultivation and individual excellence. They also elevated the importance of history: where the Greeks saw a series of events fated by nature (including human nature), the Romans focused on man’s role in shaping a national destiny ordained by the gods.

Yet Roman cruelty, decadence, and depravity co-existed with Roman virtue; and for all their combined achievements, Greco-Roman culture remained pagan in this profound sense: man was never elevated to being God’s covenantal partner in redeeming creation; and God was never understood as an all-powerful Creator who nevertheless cared for (and needed) men and women to fulfill His divine purposes, the way a parent needs a child to carry forward his sacred inheritance. While the Greeks and Romans invented sophisticated arts of knowing reality, it was the Israelite “kingdom of priests” that understood the deeper meaning of existence.

At different points, the Jews clashed in war with both the Greeks and the Romans, seeking to preserve Jewish independence in the face of these far more powerful empires. The Romans eventually won on the battlefield, destroying the Israelite Temple and sending the Jews into centuries of exile. But the Israelite view of man ultimately won the deeper cultural battle. For it was the rise of Christianity—a Hebraic transformation of Greco-Roman culture that shaped the West as we know it—that emerged victorious. While the Romans may have sacked Jerusalem, the dim lamp of Diogenes was transfigured by the shining light of the Menorah.

The early Christians were originally members of a breakaway Jewish sect who eventually created a separate religion of mostly gentiles. Persecuted by pagan Rome, they were determined to preach a new version of Judaism, taking Judaism’s most essential idea—the existence of a covenant between God and man, with man as the center of meaning in Creation—to a universal audience. In the Christian view, the covenantal God of the Hebrew Bible was linked to humanity through one special Jew: Jesus of Nazareth. The Jewish idea that human beings were responsible for—and answerable to—God’s manifestation in history was now transformed and promoted in a new gospel.

Over time, the Christians converted Rome and transformed its peoples. Against the cult of the Colosseum, they insisted on the biblical notion of the dignity of the human person as created in the image of a caring God. Against fatalism, they taught that man bore enormous responsibility to care for and cultivate creation itself. Against the lonely feeling that man was merely another creature in the cosmos or another plaything in the hands of Olympian gods, they taught the world that human history has a redemptive purpose. Christianity transformed the greatest pagan accomplishments into God-seeking triumphs of the human spirit—as seen in the creative genius of Christian civilization in art, architecture, literature, and music.

And yet, despite Christianity’s transformation of Greco-Roman culture through a Jewish lens, Christendom could be profoundly cruel to its Jewish progenitors. The Jews themselves were often treated as a human sacrifice in the quest to spread the Israelite vision to the world. To be a Jew, the early Christians believed, was to deny the salvation offered by God’s sacrifice on the cross, clinging to a covenantal promise and a separate “Old Testament” way of life that the new revelation of the cross had superseded. There were times and places in Christian history in which Jews lived well with Christians, even on friendly or at least tolerant terms. But the Jewish position in Christendom was usually precarious at best and subject to violent subjugation at worst.

Here lies the tragic irony at the heart of the West: the rise of Christianity was a victory for Jewish understandings against godless paganism and yet a new source of oppression for the Jewish people themselves.

Click here to continue reading on the Mosaic website.

Eric Cohen is executive director of the Tikvah Fund. He is the author of In the Shadow of Progress: Being Human in the Age of Technology (2008), editor-at-large of the New Atlantis, and a contributor to numerous publications.

Eric Cohen is an Adjunct Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center as well as a member of EPPC’s board of directors.

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