Part of a yearlong series about builders and building the Jewish future.
As a young girl in Orthodox Jewish elementary school, I vividly remember an educational poster in my classrooms. The poster displayed a Biblical Moses at the bottom, then Joshua (Moses’ successor) standing on his shoulders, then one leader atop another’s shoulders. It depicted the judges, the prophets and monarchs, Talmud’s rabbis, Medieval scholars like Maimonides and Rashi, up through history to the present era.
The poster’s message was clear. We learned that we stand on the shoulders of scholars and sages who preceded us. We could add our own voices, so long as we accept past beliefs and interpretations. We learned that anything else would be blasphemous, as if history’s gedolim (great ones) were Judaism’s foundation and, if we’re not careful, we might knock Judaism over.
Today as a career Jewish educator, I’ve discovered that the vertical model of my elementary school poster is wrong. We needn’t only repeat and extend what came before – like we’re playing Jewish Jenga and any deviation left or right would cause Judaism to fall.
If modernity teaches any model for building the Jewish future, it’s a horizontal inclusive model, not a vertical one. A dynamically democratic approach to building the Jewish future, as Dr. Jonathan Krasner of Brandeis University describes about the history of Jewish education in North America, isn’t blasphemously not-Jewish. Rather, it’s especially Jewish.
This democratic model of building – to keep creating new Jewish ideas, designs and structures – is especially poignant amidst Judaism’s so-called “difficult texts.” Like magnets to charged metal, “difficult texts” attract interpretations and approaches charged with the socioeconomic and political contexts in which they arose. It’s not blasphemy to say so, any more than it’d be unscientific to call electromagnetism what it is.