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How to define the foundations of Judaism? Jewish thought and educational practices in the nineteenth century

Mon, December 18, 1:15 to 2:45pm, Marriott Marquis Washington, DC, Marquis Salon 15


By the late nineteenth century, Jewish education and scholarship had become major forces in the making of modern Judaism. At the same time, they were themselves subject to changes that ultimately altered the foundations of Jewish learning from elementary education to rabbinical scholarship, shaping its place in Jewish life and redrawing the boundaries between Jewish and non-Jewish knowledge.
This talk will discuss the entanglements of modern Jewish thought, scholarship, and education in the nineteenth century, exploring the mutual influences between philosophical and theological interpretations of Judaism and the transformation of Jewish religious education. It will do so by drawing on nineteenth-century Jewish educational literature. By this time, traditional Jewish education in Central Europe had become subject to fundamental changes, which altered institutional and organizational structures, introduced new pedagogical methods, and laid the groundwork for a new body of knowledge. Although specifically Jewish knowledge became less ubiquitous, the question of what to know about Judaism, about Jewish tradition and religious practices, never lost its existential meaning. Jewish religious education was inseparably linked to the main questions of modern Jewish thought: What defined Judaism and how did it relates to the non-Jewish world?
A new kind of educational literature that included prayer books, sermons, devotional books, and especially textbooks aimed to answer this question and became key to the production and dissemination of Jewish religious knowledge. Textbooks for religious instruction in particular aimed to provide a systematic and authoritative take on Judaism as a ‘positive religion’. Based on a closer reading of such textbooks as well as on devotional books, this paper will elaborate on the mutual influences between contemporary Jewish thought and Jewish religious education. Which concepts and notions present in contemporary Jewish thought did they draw on? How were these ideas “translated” into an educational practice that had to respond to changing social contexts? How did Jewish religious education and its particular requirements impact modern Jewish thought? Early nineteenth-century religious textbooks, for example, emphasized universal readings of Judaism and Jewish tradition and thereby anticipated the idea of ethical monotheism that had not yet been fully explored by Jewish thinkers.