by Yehuda Arenstein –

“Israel” Education and Jewish Education

Many of today’s most compelling Jewish Education conversations in the Diaspora are concerned with Israel Education, a trend that is sure to intensify over the coming years.  As vital and transformative as these conversations are, however, the important and useful frameworks and methods that they produce may come at the expense of a sufficiently rigorous and lucid apprehension of the subject matter itself. Our conversations, our teaching, and most importantly our students — and, indeed, the entire Jewish People — would benefit greatly from a more thoroughly considered approach to the fundamental “Israel” element in Israel Education and in Jewish Education as a whole.

What do we talk about when we talk about “Israel Education”?  More to the point, what do we mean by “Israel”?  As Zohar Rotem notes in a recent article that raises similar questions about the concept of “Israel engagement,” “Jewish educators are likely familiar with the idea that ‘Israel’ is not one but is in fact many.”  The present article will reexamine and further develop this idea, recognizing that although we may be familiar with it, it bears reiteration and elaboration.  For the understanding that there are many aspects of “Israel” is not merely one idea of many regarding Jewish Education, it is a central pillar of Jewish Education — precisely because it is a central pillar of Jewish thought and tradition.  So much so, in fact, that it ought to form the basis of a new paradigm in the field (or in more accurate, Herzlian terms, an “old-new” paradigm): a comprehensively conceptualized and explicitly recognized model of Jewish Education and Israel Education that we might term the “Yisrael Bishlaymuto” (“Israel in Its Entirety”) model.

“Israel” simultaneously conflates and elides several concepts that are contained within the Hebrew “Yisrael,” losing in translation much of the original’s complexity.  The State of Israel, Medinat Yisrael, is the word’s primary denotation in most English-speakers’ minds; the Land of Israel, Eretz Yisrael, is a perhaps distant second.  What of Am Yisrael (the Jewish People), Torat Yisrael (Torah and religion), and Machshevet Yisrael (Jewish Thought)?  A disproportionate emphasis on the State — or the use of “Israel” when “State of Israel” would be more accurate — engenders a constricted understanding of all that Yisrael encompasses.

The “Israel” Model

In recent years, the field of Israel Education has been coalescing around a “relationship” model, which sets the field’s objective as encouraging students to develop a meaningful relationship with Israel.  (The literature presents both platonic and romantic relationships as templates.)  This model has several drawbacks that ought to be considered.  Implicitly, it proposes long-distance relationships, which are not only notoriously difficult to maintain and grow, they are also inherently less intimate, less interactive, and fundamentally less involved than those that are lived out in close physical proximity and shared daily experience.  Another concern is that in contrast to marriages, business partnerships, and working relationships, the proposed relationships with Israel can be dissolved lightly and immediately, at will, or even on a whim; they can even be based on passing fancy, and their foundation, being primarily in the affective realm, is inherently mercurial and unstable.  (Consider the concrete of a building’s foundation: it is composed of sand, gravel, and cement.  We might think of the sand as the affective element in Israel Education and Jewish Education, the gravel as the cognitive element, and the cement as the behavioral element — Jewish practice — that binds it all together.  Each is necessary, and in the proper proportion.  Too much shifting sand, and the building collapses.)

The drawback most germane to the present discussion, however, is that the relationship model offers an abstract objective, one that does not provide a compelling rationale for either Israel Education or Jewish Education.  (As Ofra Backenroth observes, “teaching about Israel has been marked by a confusion of goals and purposes.”)  This suggests that it is actually subordinate to a larger model — this is the “Israel” model.

This model, rather than encouraging the student to identify with, to perceive a unity with, “Israel,” actually functions to make it separate, distinct, apart — the “other.”  After all, one cannot have a relationship with oneself — only with another.  And this is not all.  The model not only sets the student apart from “Israel,” it also sets Israel Education apart from Jewish Education.  This is the heart of the matter.  The “Israel” model largely reduces the several manifestations of Yisrael to the State of Israel (and, as a sub-category of the State, the Land of Israel) — which it then views as a kind of existential battery, a reserve of energy, identity, and inspiration to be drawn on as needed for its purposes.

Rotem describes this approach as the “means to an end” model, and it is precisely the model so vigorously opposed by Rav Kook in Orot.  “Eretz Yisrael,” Rav Kook insists, “is not something apart from the soul of the Jewish people; it is no mere national possession serving as a means of unifying our people and buttressing its material, or even its spiritual, survival” (an idea that he describes as a “sterile notion”) but rather “part of the very essence of our nationhood; it is bound organically to its very life and inner being.”

The Yisrael Bishlaymuto (“Israel in Its Entirety”) Model

In contradistinction to the instrumental “Israel” model, then, we have the more holistic Yisrael Bishlaymuto framework, which we can utilize in both Israel Education and Jewish Education.  Indeed, this model unites the two.  It understands “Israel” (Eretz Yisrael and Medinat Yisrael) as the Jewish homeland and, along with Am Yisrael, Torat Yisrael, and Machshevet Yisrael, as integrated components of the rich, coherent, and unified whole that is Yisrael Bishlaymuto.  This conceptual framework not only apprehends the fundamentally intertwining and mutually constitutive relationships between the nation, its religion, its thought, its land, and its state, it recognizes the hazardous implications of attempting to disentangle any one of these components from the others.

Yisrael Bishlaymuto is an integrative, holistic model that offers a catalyzing vision for Israel Education and Jewish Education, a unified and interdisciplinary curriculum in which the interrelationships between formerly discrete subjects are illuminated and made explicit.  It identifies the core components of Yisrael (nation, religion, thought, land, and state) and it also recognizes how they interlock with each other.  In this way, it offers an incisive framework for comprehending the full range of what Yisrael entails while grappling with the complexities inherent in how issues, questions, and problems span and intersect across curricular boundaries:

Political debates in Medinat Yisrael are impacted by geographic realities in Eretz Yisrael, legal structures in Torat Yisrael and long-running conversations in Machshevet Yisrael, and demographic trends in Am Yisrael — which in turn are impacted by economic issues in Medinat Yisrael, halakhic injunctions in Torat Yisrael and hashkafic considerations in Machshevet Yisrael, and ecological constraints and opportunities in Eretz Yisrael — which in turn are impacted by governmental and electoral systems in Medinat Yisrael, sociological phenomena in Am Yisrael, and various mitzvot in Torat Yisrael and contemporary trends in Machshevet Yisrael — which in turn … and so on, and so on.  Can we fully comprehend the Shalosh Regalim (the three pilgrimage festivals of Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot) instituted by Torat Yisrael without a firm grasp on the geographic contours and boundaries of Eretz Yisrael?  Or consider the question of proportional versus direct Knesset representation in Medinat Yisrael without reckoning with the many streams and camps that make up Am Yisrael?  Or strive for harmony amongst those streams and camps without a wide-ranging and intellectually honest engagement with Machshevet Yisrael?

The Yisrael Bishlaymuto model provides a framework for engaging all of this complexity — for understanding things in and of themselves as well as the interconnections between them, identifying points of contact and overlap as well as conflict, understanding and harmonizing various perspectives, and, ultimately, giving students a sense of unity and coherence: an understanding of what things are, what makes them different from each other and also how they fit together, and where in this matrix each student might find his or her place and role.

There are countless possibilities for how to curricularize this model across the range of educational frameworks.  What matters most is not whether we allocate Am, Torat, Machshevet, Eretz, and Medinat as units, or courses, or departments, or according to some other organizational scheme, but that we explore the unifying, integrating, and clarifying benefits of the Yisrael Bishlaymuto model, regardless of how exactly it may be implemented in a given institution.

Am Yisrael + Torat Yisrael + Machshevet Yisrael + Eretz Yisrael + Medinat Yisrael = Yisrael Bishlaymuto = Achdut Yisrael (Jewish Unity)

Unity and coherence are at the heart of this new paradigm, and thus it has the potential to catalyze advances not only in Jewish Education in the narrow sense but also in the larger arena of Jewish thought, conversations, and communities.  An educational approach that engages the fundamental unity amongst the components of Yisrael can, in turn, foster greater unity within Am Yisrael.

Many of the major divisions within Am Yisrael are defined by which component of Yisrael is given priority by a given sector, or camp, or stream.  Some focus on Eretz / Medinat (homeland and statehood), others on Torat / Machshevet (religion and thought / worldview), and others on Am (peoplehood).  By developing a widespread, explicit understanding of the fundamental interdependence amongst these components — of the unity of Am-Torat-Machshevet-Eretz-Medinat Yisrael — we can thereby also encourage cohesion within Am Yisrael and catalyze a deepened and reinvigorated commitment to Achdut Yisrael.

Yehuda Arenstein is the founder of Inquiry: Israel, a leadership-focused study-abroad institute that synthesizes a Torani shana bet beit midrash and an academic core-curriculum program within a Yisrael Bishlaymuto framework.  He may be reached at [email protected]israel.education.