Jewish Education in the Age of the Rediscovery of the Soul

May. 26, 2016

Source: Journal of Jewish Education, 82:2, pp. 117-131


The literature on Reform Jewish education in America rightly recognizes Emanuel Gamoran’s work in establishing the direction of Hebrew schools in the Reform movement toward a cultural pluralism influenced by Samson Benderley et al. Yet the terrain onto which Gamoran stepped was not unmarked. Prior to his tenure, three Reform rabbis thought hard about how new currents in psychology could strengthen Jewish education toward the ends of religious individualism. This article examines how Henry Berkowitz, David Philipson, and Louis Grossman integrated select currents in educational psychology into their writings on Jewish education, and into their theology of the educated Jew.

In their attempts to formalize American Reform education, Berkowitz, Grossman, and Philipson pursued divergent answers to a shared question: How could American Jewish education be re-conceptualized so that it took account of the child who received it, and not only on the content that was delivered? Their pursuit of this question shows clear engagement with emerging ideas in child psychology and pedagogy. This engagement was certainly selective. Grounded in a hermeneutic of religious individualism, they were out of step with the new paradigms that Emanuel Gamoran introduced into Reform education beginning in 1923 that sought to move Reform education toward Jewish cultural consciousness. Yet their thinking indicates that there were attempts to move beyond dilute Victorian moralism in the pre-Gamoran era, and a transition from the anthropologies of childhood that had dominated thinking in Reform education throughout much of the 19th-century.

Historians have been quick to dismiss Reform education prior to 1923 as teaching nothing but Victorian ethical mores in an anemically Jewish setting (see, for example: Cohen, 2008, Ch. 4; Gartner, 1969, p. 9; Krasner, 2011, p. 147; Sarna, 2005, p. 251; Meyer, 1988, p. 286). As this discussion has sought to show, the reality was more complex, and over the late 19th and early 20th century, these Reform ideologues and pedagogues used psychology to think deeply—albeit selectively—about the religious identity of the child, and about how Judaism could be learned.

Their paradigms should not be our paradigms. Yet it is fruitful for historians of the American Jewish educational enterprise to analyze the ways in which the educational visions of those who have gone before us have been shaped, truncated, and narrowed by the presuppositions that conditioned their reception of ideas coming both from within the Jewish world and without. For by sharpening our understanding of how this has transpired for others can we understand, define, and articulate how our own conceptions of Jewish education and the educated Jew exists within its own uniquely embedded milieu of preconceptions, assumptions, and framing narratives too.

Updated: May. 22, 2016