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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What I am suggesting, then, is that educated Jews would share a core curriculum of Hebrew language, foundational texts, and knowledge of historical development. They would then follow a multiple‑track model of curriculum development, choosing, according to their own interests, from a far broader range of cultural expression than is commonly considered "Jewish knowledge." Although biblical and rabbinic texts would define a core of Jewish knowledge, further learning would not privilege any single genre of cultural production or any single text.

Changes within the past generation necessitate a rethinking of Jewish learning as thorough as the Haskalah [Enlightenment] critique of two centuries ago. While the majority of Jews have acquired secular education, as maskilim advocated, they have not always applied their knowledge to Judaism or Jewish culture. I am not referring here to the willful ignorance of what modern scholarly inquiry has to say about classical Jewish texts. Rather, I am speaking about the failure of most Jews who consider themselves Jewishly educated to contend with recent trends in studies of culture.

The Lessons of Multiculturalism

Thanks to the work of theorists in anthropology, history, and gender studies, it is widely acknowledged today that culture cannot be subsumed in the writings of an elite. However varied those writings, and however weighty, they reflect the values and considered opinions of one segment of society alone. "Says who?" is an essential question when studying any text.

As we have learned from multiculturalism, the ways in which silent or silenced, generally subordinate, groups within society conferred meaning on their own lives and accepted or resisted the values promulgated by elites are part of cultural history. That is as true of Jews as of other groups.

Popular Jewish culture has always existed, and we must be willing to look for it and to reflect on its relation to the elite culture that we have considered the sum total of Judaism and of Jewish cultural creativity. Familiarity with the varieties of Jewish culture instills in Jews a recognition that Jewish culture is not fixed or reified, nor limited to one social segment of the Jewish people. Rather, it is malleable and ever changing, shaped by the interaction of internal forces and external circumstances, and created by Jews through a combination of consciousness and behavior.

The multicultural model, which disputes the very idea of canon (but may also accept the concept of an open canon) and pays heed to the voices that resist and subvert authority, appears quite suitable to the diversity of Jewish patterns of behavior and thought in a post‑emancipation world. It mandates willingness to acknowledge the multiplicity of Jewish voices and accept their authenticity.

The multicultural model is particularly appropriate to the ambiguous position of Jews in the Diaspora, who create Jewish culture in the space between being a part of the larger society and apart from it (or, in the words of a recent book, insider/outsiders). The adoption of a multicultural stance, however, requires a recognition of the diversity of Jewish life as a value rather than an unfortunate fact; that is, it requires a conversion of diversity into pluralism.

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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).