A Philosophy of Jewish Education in Question Marks: A Possible Reading of Michael Rosenak’s Last Speech

Dec. 04, 2014

Source: Journal of Jewish Education, Volume 80, Issue 4, pages 346-374


Writing this article presents me with an opportunity to look closely at the last speech that my father and mentor, Professor Michael (Mike) Rosenak z”l gave before his passing in 2013. I will write about this speech from a perspective that is based on my intimate familiarity with the questions that concerned him throughout his life. I will offer a close description of this speech after articulating several of the basic concepts which accompanied my father’s teaching throughout his career. It seems to me that toward the end of his life, a new motif appeared in my father’s educational philosophy that stemmed from this process. I wish to show how this motif was expressed very gently and subtly in the final speech.


After hearing my father’s lecture, I said to him that this was a new chapter in his educational philosophy. I referred to it jokingly as “the educational philosophy of sheltered living”—this title amused him. But the joke, amusing as it was, was also serious because it stemmed from a very real insight into the condition of an aging person. M. Rosenak emphasized the authentic vitality that emerges from life: we need to pay attention to the truth about what really happens to us in life, that helps us to understand more than we already know. We have to learn how to deal with age, with illness, with limitations, and with forgetting. We need to be attentive to what truly concerns us; to be honest with ourselves and to remain relevant both to ourselves and to those who listen to us. It is important to transcend the limitations of what “ought” to be and to engage with what really is. We must be involved with what is true to the conditions of our lives.


M. Rosenak concluded with a mention of his mentor, colleague, and friend, Seymour Fox. Fox’s words, with which he chose to conclude this final speech, reminded me of my father’s uncanny ability to interpret dreams. He always interpreted dreams in the most straightforward and honest way. He did this by listening with great intensity, by applying his humane wisdom, and by knowing that the story being told is never the whole story—there is always something more. The story never truly ends in the place where it’s telling stops. “Don’t think that this is the [whole] story. The story is never finished,” said Fox to M. Rosenak. And thus told M. Rosenak to his audience.


This speech is not one that gives us systematic answers. It leaves us with questions and puzzles. Puzzles rooted in the insight that there is always more to life than the eye can see. Systems and theories are only ever echoes of a complex reality, full of conflicts and contradictions. What we know is only what is revealed to us through a crack of light that allows us a glimpse into concealed worlds where contradictory assumptions coexist and proliferate in a place that never becomes fully visible to the human eye. And over everything there hovers the obligation of normative education, that seeks to integrate and pay attention to everything without leaving anyone behind.

Updated: Dec. 24, 2014