Education and assimilation seem intimately connected; education either supports assimilation or thwarts it. But these paradigms assume a model of cultural vitality that depends on what one scholar aptly terms “tenacious adherence,” over time, to an unchanging cultural or religious tradition. Taking the example of the Jewish community and Jewish education and drawing on Jewish history and contemporary sociology of the Jews as well as other scholarship, this article presents the argument that this model is untenable. Instead, the goals of Jewish education ought to be reconceptualized, and the aim should instead be for “responsible assimilation,” that is, the cultivation of the capacity to creatively and responsibly assimilate external norms and practices in the service of the growth and vitality of Jewish culture.
This article has been an attempt to think through the relationship of education and assimilation, through the particular lens of one religio-ethnic community with its own history and internal dynamics. The immersion in the history, sociology, and public policy discourse of that community is intended to illuminate the larger phenomenon—not because every community or ethnic group is a valid model for every other, but at the very least because the conceptual issues that we have surfaced seem relevant more generally, even if they play out in particular, community-specific ways. Rather than imagining that education stands in opposition to cultural assimilation—rather than accepting either of the two basic metaphors, of assimilation as a disease or assimilation as an attack—the argument has been that those who are committed to the future of a particular minority community ought instead to articulate a position of “responsible assimilation,” and to advocate for education towards that goal.
For Jewish education, responsible assimilation entails asking not, “How can the static curriculum of Judaism be transmitted into the heads of these students?” nor, “How can these students be convinced to adhere tenaciously to the traditional norms and practices of Judaism?” Instead, those who are committed to the future of the Jewish community and concerned for the Jewish identity of their students ought to ask, “How should our educational interventions be constructed in order to promote a responsible, responsive, and vibrant Jewish future?” and “What should our pedagogy look like in order to cultivate the capacities among students to create that future for themselves?”
Jewish educators cannot afford to uphold a vision of an educated Jew that conforms to what (they imagine that) an educated Jew once knew. They cannot afford to choose to teach particular classical texts because (they imagine that) those texts have always been in the curriculum, and to teach them in the ways that (they imagine that) they have always been taught. This does not mean, of course, that educators ought to reject all that is old in favor of the latest fad. Instead, it means that, when making choices about curricula and pedagogy, the relevant criterion must always be their best assessment of the impact on a flourishing Jewish future.