The Neshema: The Soul of a 21st Century Kaplanian Vision
of Jewish Education
There are three elements of Kaplan’s vision that are easily missed, perhaps because they lay at the edges or remain beneath the surface of his educational writings. We believe they need to be brought to the surface and named in order for this vision to come to fruition.
The first is the importance of the God experience for all our learners. The centrality of this experience of life as ultimately full, spiritual, and meaningful needs to be constantly cultivated by our educators. Simply put, God as part of the Jewish story is a necessary but not sufficient basis for a Jewish education.
Secondly, any effective Jewish education must foster immersion in Jewish life before moving on to significant levels of analysis and cognitive enrichment. In a way this mirrors the Reconstructionist notion that belonging precedes believing. It also mirrors the recently developed theory of an “amphibious Jew,” which describes the effective alternations of marine/immersive experiences of living with mammalian/analytic elements in the image of Kaplan’s “aquarium” for Jewish living.
Thirdly, any effective Jewish education needs to be in constant dialogue with the emerging ethical and spiritual challenges of the present moment. Deeply rooted Jewish education demands constant exploration of Jewish wisdom and knowledge. Boldly relevant suggests an open-ended feedback loop where all the energies and insights of our learning be available for the work of tikkun olam, meaningful tefilah, and enhanced Jewish celebration. This constant reconstruction of Jewish life in order to be at the same time deeply rooted and boldly relevant at the same invites new models of Jewish life and learning.
Unfortunately, it is a given that most of our students don’t continue their Jewish education past Bnai Mitzvah - at the time when they can deal with this issue in an abstract way. This was the case with me, with my limited Jewish education, and it was not until college that I was fortunate enough to have a Hillel rabbi (Al Axelrad) who brought me back - and took us to hear Kaplan in Cambridge.) The ‘when is God’ approach and the use of predicate theology would seem to avoid the need for undoing the anthropomorphic nature of the Bible stories - a hard task, I am sure.
Kaplan wrote that it “matters very little how we conceive God as long as we so believe in God that belief in [God] makes a tremendous difference in our lives.” This vision, however, seems set on us being able to name that conception “God.” Kaplan knew that not everyone would reach “believing” in a “full [or] spiritual” way, so why is this focus on theology so central here? While this may work for some adults, it’s far more than most kids can handle or are willing to accept. Especially for progressive kids who are taught to question everything, pushing too much on God will ultimately turn them off. Let’s push, instead, for the “wow” moments – the “hair-standing-up-on-the-back-of-your-neck” experiences. Are these God? Sure. But calling them that moves it from the heart to the head. Most of our kids just aren’t ready for that … and that’s okay.