Rosenak Teaching Jewish Values

Dec. 22, 2014

Source: Journal of Jewish Education, Volume 80, Issue 4, pages 434-445


Rosenak’s Teaching Jewish Values (1986) is perhaps his most accessible book about Jewish education. After diagnosing the “diseases” of Jewish education, he endorses “teaching Jewish values” as the curricular strategy most likely to succeed given the chasm which divides traditional Jewish subject matter and the milieu in which Jewish education takes place—e.g., the values of home and peer group. A close analysis of the book reveals cracks in his commitment to Jewish values, and I explore alternatives to values education he himself presents, such as acquisition of norms or learning the “language of being Jewish.”…

The Jewish Values (TJV) Project was initiated to help young Jews overcome perhaps the fundamental experience of modernity, a degree of alienation from their tradition. The goal was not to change behaviors or fundamental commitments, because those differ in the various denominational settings in which the curriculum would be used. Moreover, the educational milieus in which the material was to be used were themselves alienated from Jewish belief and practice, in varying degrees. Thus, any effort at significantly changing the students would encounter opposition from the parents. The most one could hope for in this problematic educational situation was a positive change in attitude toward the value of Jewish study, as a basis for continued Jewish growth.


Can Mike’s “learning the language” analogy provide a way out of the current Jewish education conundrum? The “language-literature” distinction was central to Mike’s educational thought. To further clarify the goal of TJV, let me suggest a parallel distinction from the field of language acquisition: comprehension versus production. The distinction between comprehension and production is immediately clear to those of us who came to Israel with a rich passive knowledge of the Hebrew language, enabling us to understand many kinds of Hebrew texts as well as follow a Hebrew lecture or conversation. But to open one’s mouth and talk—i.e., to produce new language utterances—is a separate, more difficult skill. Likewise, the goal of TJV is to enable young Jews to understand classical Jewish discourse and, as TJV carefully chose its authentic texts for relevance, to come to value following those conversations. For the time being, raising up active participants in the Jewish conversation would have to be left to other settings or other student populations.


As an educational realist, Mike perhaps would have agreed that education, as an applied endeavor, may be like politics: “Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable—the art of the next best” (Otto von Bismarck). As a believer, Mike knew that the Jewish enterprise will not falter: “He will not let your foot give way; your guardian will not slumber” (Psalms 121:3). May we be worthy of continuing in Mike’s footsteps.

Updated: Dec. 31, 2014