The Historiography of Premodern Jewish Education

Jan. 26, 2005

Source: Journal of Jewish Education, Volume 71, Issue 1, pages 23 - 32

This paper argues that a number of considerations might lead to the suspicion that Jewish education would constitute a major focus in recent histories of premodern Jewry. However an examination of modern Jewish historical works reveals that notwithstanding a few major exceptions, the modern commitment to studying educational thinking and practice in premodern Jewish societies has not been particularly intense, despite widespread agreement as to the importance of education in premodern Jewish life.


When we turn to the broad histories of the Jewish people, we are struck by the lack of attention paid to the Jewish educational enterprise. The “big three” of composite histories of the Jews—Graetz, Dubnow, and Baron—do not accord serious attention to the arrangements for Jewish education in premodern Jewry.


The few efforts of focusing on premodern Jewish education constitute the exceptions that prove the rule. As was the case with the overarching histories of the premodern Jewry, so too in the more detailed investigations of specific sectors of the premodern Jewish world, Jewish education is conspicuous by its absence.


Why then this relative neglect of premodern Jewish education by recent scholarship? The author believes that two factors help explain this situation. The first is simply the low status of the educational enterprise and the folks that carry out educational activities.


The second—and more important factor—in the relative neglect of the history of premodern Jewish education is the definition of education widely current in recent and contemporary life. Modern historians who have studied premodern Jewish education have by and large equated education with schooling.


A broadening of the meaning of the term education would extend the range of phenomena to be studied and would alert researchers to a wider set of possibilities for their studies. Reconstructing the complex network of agencies in the premodern Jewish community committed to the maintenance of Jewish identity and studying the techniques used by this network of agencies would eventuate in a signal contribution to the study of the Jewish past and deepen our understanding of the educational efforts of premodern Jews.

Updated: Jul. 29, 2008