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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Modernity and the Fluidity of the Jewish Canon

Modernity fractured Jewish experience, destroying the hegemony of rabbinic Judaism and the authority of traditional Jewish elites. Contemporary currents of thought like postmodernism and multiculturalism have challenged virtually all certainties and shaken all canons. No canon is fixed, and all guardians of cultural transmission are required to make hard choices.

We are fortunate that the Jewish canon has always been a relatively open one, for the traditional Jewish system of interpretation of classical texts has provided a mechanism for ongoing revision. The development of interpretive strategies, in midrash, for example, as literary scholars have argued, demonstrates a way to recover oppositional strands within traditional texts.

Insofar as we focus on the spaces for debate and contestation within the traditional Jewish canon, we acknowledge the need for, and sustain the possibility of, multiple cultural expressions for the diverse people that we are. Although the term "open canon" sounds like an oxymoron, it simply reflects the recognition that every canon is constructed and merits a healthy combination of respect and skepticism and regular revision if it is to speak to its intended audience. A truly "open canon" affords opportunities for choice and for the inclusion of ongoing cultural creativity.

What Will Educated Jews Share?

Once we acknowledge that unity is neither possible nor desirable, though, we must ask what models of educated Jews we seek to promote. What, if anything, will educated Jews of different paideias (educational visions and curricula in the broadest sense) share?

I can think of three prerequisites—necessary but not sufficient—for all educated Jews: the Hebrew language (in all its variants, form the Bible to the present—not just street Hebrew); an acceptance of biblical and rabbinic texts as one’s own; and a general knowledge of Jewish history. Hebrew is an essential tool for reading much of what Jewish culture has produced. But it is more than a tool. Without Hebrew there is no visceral, as distinct from intellectual, connection to Jewish creativity across time and space.

Accepting Tanakh [the Hebrew Bible] and rabbinic texts as one’s own does not necessitate ascribing to them sacredness or religious authority. But it does necessitate grappling with their meaning and their role in world culture as well as Jewish culture and in the choices that contemporary Jews make. The knowledge of the broad outlines of Jewish history enables us to understand the societal and intellectual contexts in which Jewish culture has developed.

Accepting this core curriculum is only the first step in becoming Jewishly educated. An open Jewish canon in the 21st century draws upon a variety of voices and genres. It must embrace all the Jewish cultural products of the past two centuries--that is, the different forms that Jews have chosen to make meaning of their existence as Jews. Secular forms in many languages--including literature, memoirs, folklore, film, and the visual arts-‑are too often dismissed as lacking in cultural significance.

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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).