What does a ‘real’ Jewish education look like?

I’ve been asked by many community members about our approach to teaching Judaism. In fact, I think it is a question that is often asked of non-Orthodox and/or pluralistic day schools. For example, in a recent discussion online, I saw pluralism critiqued as being “compromise, and no one can get too excited about compromise.” I think this is a major misunderstanding of how non-orthodox schools operate and teach but this takes some elucidation. But rather than use modern pedagogic terms and current trends (like progressive education, constructivism, PBL, or SEL), I would like to explain our approach using an ancient Jewish source – the mishna.

Pirkei Avot chapter 2, verse 10-12 states, “10. Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai had five disciples. They were Rabbi Eliezar Ben Hyrkanos….. and Rabbi Elazar ben Arach. 11. He used to enumerate their praises, saying, ‘Rabbi Eliezer Ben Hyrkanos is like a cemented cistern that never loses a drop…..Rabbi Elazar ben Arach is like a spring flowing stronger and stronger.’ 12. He used to say, ‘if all the sages of Israel were on one pan of a balance scale and Eliezar Ben Hyrcanus was on the other, he would outweigh them all.’ Abba Shaul said in his name, ‘If all the sages of Israel, with even Rabbi Elizer ben Hyrkanos among them,  were on one pan of the balance scale and Rabbi Elazar ben Arach were on the other, he would outweigh them all!’”

In these short verses, we are presented with two diametrically opposed views of what Jewish studies is or can be. It is well known that in rabbinic literature, water is symbolic of Torah. Rabbi Eliezar Ben Hyrkanos, the first disciple introduced, is lauded as someone who remembers every word of Torah he was ever taught. He was a tremendous scholar, and was very conservative and traditional in his judgment of the law. Sadly, Rabbi Eliezar was unwilling to compromise or agree with majority opinions. He was famously excommunicated for his unwillingness to accept the judgment of the majority in the case of the “Tanor shel Achnai.”

Rabbi Elazar ben Arach, the last disciple to be introduced, was praised – not as someone who held on to every word of the Torah that was taught him, but as someone who created Torah. He was described as an “ever-flowing stream,” continually generating new and important insights of Torah.

Once Yochanan Ben Zakkai asked his disciples, “What is the thing one must cherish most?” Eliezar Ben Hycanus responded, “A good eye.” Rabbi Elazar responded, “A good heart.” Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakkai said to them, “I prefer the words of Elazar ben Arach to your words, for your words are included in his words.” (Avot 2:13)

In all honesty, despite being excommunicated and dying in solitude, Eliezar ben Hyrcanus is mentioned many hundreds of times in the Talmud whereas Elazar ben Arach is mentioned only a few times. After Yochanan ben Zakkai died and most of the scholars moved to Yavne to create Rabbinic Judaism, Elazar ben Arach moved with his wife to a different location where he could not participate in the daily work of creating Judaism.

There is no one clear answer to whose path is better- Eliezar or Elazar, but it’s clear that they are very different paths. Perhaps this is why Yochanan Ben Zakkai needed five disciples, not just one – to create different paths within Judaism to find truth and holiness. Yochanan seems to have run a pluralistic school himself- capable of embracing students of very diverse views.

We are proud to be a school that embraces diverse views of Judaism, but teaches more according to Elazar ben Arach than Eliezar ben Hyrcanus. We want our students to use Judaism as a creative springboard to continually create modern, vibrant Judaism. And we agree with Yochanan Ben Zakkai that the heart is the most important human trait. While we deeply respect the role of tradition and halacha, the Judaism we teach is based on love, kindness, creativity, and inclusivity.