Who is an Educated Jew?

A historical perspective on the Jewish canon, and reflections on what today's learned Jews need to know.

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The following article is reprinted with permission from the February 2002 issue of Sh'ma: A Journal of Jewish Responsibility.

There has been no consensus on the issue of "Who is an educated Jew?" for more than two hundred years. 

If one were to have posed the question in 1750, say in Poland, the answer would have been obvious. The educated Jew was a mature male who had devoted his life to talmudic study, debating fine points of halakha [Jewish law] in yeshiva [a school for rabbinical studies] and the beit midrash [house of study]. He was familiar with all of the classic rabbinic texts and their commentaries, the rishonim and the aharonim [earlier and later commentators], and the languages in which they were written--Hebrew and Aramaic--in addition to the Jewish vernacular that he spoke (in Poland, Yiddish, of course).

No women were given such an education, because the teaching of classical religious texts in Hebrew to women was neither halakhically nor socially legitimated; it was also irrelevant to their roles within the family and society. While regional variations in learning styles and in the details of the curriculum existed, the substance of what educated Jews should know was widely shared in the Jewish world.

The Influence of the Enlightenment

That shared commitment to a curriculum, and therefore to a vision of Jewish knowledge, was irretrievably disrupted with the social and political changes that occurred at the end of the 18th century. The Western states' desire to reshape the socioeconomic and cultural configuration of their Jewish populations, and the emergence of a cohort of Jewish intellectuals and businessmen who were eager to respond to the opportunities that integration into the larger society seemed to promise, led to a sharp dissent from the consensus about Jewish learning that had prevailed, at least within Ashkenazi communities in Europe. For a growing number of Jews, the talmid hokhem [as described above] was no longer the model of the educated Jew.

studyingInstead, modernizing educated Jews, following the model set by the maskilim [advocates of the Jewish enlightenment] saw Western culture as an essential component of their consciousness and created a canon that placed secular education at the fore. They expected educated Jews to be at home culturally in both traditional Jewish and secular learning. A good example is the scarcely known Puah Rakovsky, who was an educator and director of a girls' school in Warsaw that taught Hebrew and secular studies, a translator, and a Zionist and feminist activist.

Born in Poland in 1865 to a traditional family, she lost her faith as an adolescent and was assertively secular. Still, her Yiddish memoirs are replete with allusions in Hebrew to biblical and midrashic sources, and she was convinced that her Jewish learning was the source of her values. Because she witnessed growing indifference to Jewish culture among youth in the years before World War I, Rakovsky was able to discern that the goal of modem Jewish education had to be transformed from the "regeneration" of Jews under the influence of secular knowledge to the "rejudaization" of Jews bereft of Jewish knowledge.

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Dr. Paula Hyman

Dr. Paula Hyman is Lucy Moses Professor of Modern Jewish History at Yale University. Among her published works are Gender and Assimilation in Modern Jewish History (University of Washington Press)and The Jews of Modern France (University of California Press).