The Impact of Jewish Philosophy on the Jewish Identity of Secular Students

Shlomit Demsky-Cohen

In this paper I attempt to determine whether the study of Jewish Philosophy in the secular high schools influences the studentís feelings of belonging to his Jewish heritage and to what extent the student identifies with its values and content. The paper focuses on two planes, the theoretical based on various articles written on this subject, and the practical plane consisting of the interpretation of statistics garnered from questionnaires and interviews in one of the few secular schools where Jewish Philosophy is taught.

From analyzing the articles it seems that there are three approaches which enable students to create a bond between their own Jewish identity and the texts they study in class: 1. The consciousness approach, 2. The intellectual approach, 3. The interactive approach

The goal of the first approach is to mold the consciousness and the identity of the students and therefore it attempts not only to teach concepts, theology and thought, but Jewish history and Jewish sociology as well. This approach teaches Jewish consciousness directly to the students in order to insure that Jewish consciousness will be instilled in the students. The goal is to create a student who is a link in the chain of generations

On the other hand, the assumption made by the intellectual approach is that one must study the works of a wide variety of thinkers, and to teach concepts and texts, in order to create a Jewish identity and by so doing to reduce their estrangement. According to this approach, the more the student will know, the more he will identify with Judaism and the more he will feel a sense of belonging. The goal of this approach is to create a knowledgeable student, intellectual, and connected. Unlike the first approach, the goal here focuses on the development of Jewish identity of the individual and less on group identity.

The interactive approach states that students do have a feeling of Jewish identity, mainly with modern Jewish-Israeli culture (Hebrew songs, Lag Ba`omer), but not to Rabbinic Judaism. The role that the study of Jewish Philosophy should have on the student is to intensify his connection to his Jewish culture, a connection which already exists, thereby to ensure that the culture does not stagnate. The ideal student according to this approach is one who is connected to his culture and continues to create it.

After analyzing the questionnaires filled out by the 12th graders studying in a secular school and conducting personal interviews with graduates of the same school it was possible to draw several conclusions. Firstly, in response to the question posed by this study, one is able to conclude from the interviews that there is great potential in the study of Jewish Philosophy. The students interviewed completed their studies within the last eight years, and all those interviewed expressed their appreciation and enjoyment of these classes. The students felt that they came away from these classes with a treasure that their secular friends didnít have.

From the questionnaires that were given out in the 12th grade, it was possible to draw two additional conclusions: One, a number of students responded that this subject didnít have any influence on them since it was too difficult. The curriculum consisted of philosophical material that required of them a way of thinking that they didnít possess. The curriculum wasnít adapted to weaker students, and since it is necessary to create identification also among weaker students, it is important to seek an alternative teaching method, or at least not to implement this curriculum as it is in weaker schools.

Secondly, some students wrote in answer to the question about whether he would recommend that his friend from another school study Jewish Philosophy, that if the student believes then itís better that he doesnít study this subject since the study of Jewish philosophy breaks down oneís beliefs. It is possible that in certain schools having youngsters from traditional backgrounds, with a naive, intuitive belief in their Judaism, it is important to choose the texts that are studied very critically or at least to be aware of the existence of this problem.

The last conclusion is a personal one, regarding that of a teacher who is herself religiously observant. It seems to me that students are more suspicious of a religious teacher, always examining whether he is trying to indoctrinate them with information other than that in their curriculum. In order for the study of Jewish Philosophy to have positive effects, the teacher must create a trusting environment between himself and his students, and at the same time the secular community must train more teachers to teach the subject of Jewish Philosophy.

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