The Meaning of Jewish History

This post is by Jonah Hassenfeld, a PhD Candidate in the EdJS.

Learning something about Jewish history is essential to any Jewish education. As Benedict Anderson has famously argued, a shared past, even if imagined, is a foundation of collective belonging. But how should Jewish day schools teach Jewish history? Should Jewish history be taught as a separate class or integrated into general history courses?

This argument usually becomes one of pedagogy. Advocates of integrated history argue that students will learn more if they can see the connections between world history and Jewish history. Advocates of a separate Jewish history track fear that integrating Jewish history will mean taking an “add Jews and stir approach.” Most of the time, students learn about “regular” history and every once in a while they check in on the Jews. Educators worry that if Jewish history is folded into general history, it may just disappear.

But many day schools miss the fact that the question of the relationship between Jewish history and general history is not just a pedagogical question. Taking a stand on whether to teach Jewish history separately from or together with general history implies a historiographical position as well. In other words, it implies beliefs about the relationship between Jewish history and world history.

For decades, Jewish historians have debated the precise nature of the relationship between Jewish history and general history. To illustrate this, I will briefly consider the historiography of early modern European Jewry. In his classic Tradition and Crisis, Jacob Katz argues that until the early modern period, Jewish and non-Jewish societies lived side by side but with little non-economic interaction. With the emergence of modernity, Jewish society underwent significant changes. But to what extent were those changes driven by broadly generic events (like the invention of the printing press or the rise of centralized state bureaucracy) and to what extent were they driven by internal Jewish cultural evolution, such as the emergence of Kabbalah or Hasidism?

An integrated Jewish history class is likely to emphasize the continuity between Jewish and non-Jewish societies; a separate Jewish history class allows a teacher to focus on particularities of Jewish culture. It is easy to think of ways to integrate certain parts of Jewish history into a general course on Europe. After all, the Spanish Expulsion is a perfect case study of the emergence of the centralized state and mobility in early modern Europe. But other important Jewish events are a little bit trickier. The rise of the messianic pretender Shabtai Tzvi in the 16th century was arguably the most profound crisis for Judaism since the emergence of Christianity. But where exactly does Shabtai Tzvi fit in if you are trying to cover modern European history? Is he a case of external pressures or internal change?

How schools frame that question is not only curricular or organizational. It shapes how students see the past. Students should know about the major events and trends that shaped Jewish life today, but the framing of curriculum sends powerful messages about the relationship between the Jewish and non-Jewish world and between the present and what we imagine the past to be. Do we want to emphasize the way that the Jewish story has been shaped by the same forces that have shaped world history, or do we want to emphasize the particularity of Jewish history and focus on its internal evolution?

The issue of whether to teach integrated Jewish history has implications that go far beyond questions of scheduling, or even pedagogy. This issue is fundamentally about the meaning of Jewish history. What image of the Jewish past do we want to offer our students? Answering this question requires not only deep knowledge of teaching, but deep knowledge of history as well.

  1 comment for “The Meaning of Jewish History

  1. Shana Sippy
    December 1, 2014 at 7:17 pm

    Thanks for writing this and raising some important points. Another piece of the conundrum you detail in your post is the fact that many Jewish day schools don’t seem to teach Jewish history at all. With limited time in the day, schools often teach Jewish Studies/Limudei Kodesh—holidays, Parsha Hashavuah, Jewish text skills in Rashi, Mishnah or even Gemarah—but Jewish history is neglected. Students may learn about the Holocaust, the Spanish Inquisition, Zionist figures, Europena immigration to America or even “biblical history” but oftentimes this isn’t done in the context of history classes and therefore the same critical tools and questions that might be applied to the study of other topics are not used in the study of Jewish history. It seems that the integrative approach might at least promote a disciplined and critical approach to Jewish history, ensuring that it is taken seriously as a part of the curriculum.

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