redemptive jewish education

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  • February 23, 2010

Geoffrey Canada is an inspir­ing edu­ca­tor and activist. If you watch 60 Minutes, lis­ten to This American Life on the radio, or pay atten­tion to American Express com­mer­cials, you’ve heard of Canada’s brain­child, the Harlem Children’s Zone, which seeks to use the edu­ca­tional sys­tem to “break the cycle of gen­er­a­tional poverty” in a small neigh­bor­hood in New York. What makes Geoffrey Canada’s vision unique and rev­o­lu­tion­ary is that he doesn’t focus on help­ing fam­i­lies break out of poverty. Rather, he accepts that it is almost impos­si­ble to pull young and poor par­ents out of the cycle, but that the chain of poverty can be bro­ken if resources are poured into chil­dren. The Harlem Children’s Zone is a cradle-to-college pro­gram that starts work­ing with moth­ers before their chil­dren are even born, and works with chil­dren from birth through pre-school, ele­men­tary school, mid­dle school, high school, and col­lege. Geoffrey Canada believes that the key to a neighborhood’s redemp­tion is its chil­dren.

This week is a spe­cial Shabbat, called Shabbat HaGadol, a spe­cial day that always falls on the Shabbat imme­di­ately pre­ced­ing Pesach. To mark the occa­sion we read a spe­cial haf­tarah, an excerpt from the book of Malachi. The haf­tarah par­al­lels the story of redemp­tion from Egypt with a nar­ra­tive about Messianic redemp­tion, but it’s the final verses that really reminded me of Geoffrey Canada and the Harlem Children’s Zone.

I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and awe­some day of the Eternal comes,” the text reads. “He will turn the hearts of par­ents to their chil­dren and the hearts of chil­dren to their par­ents.”

What does it mean, I won­dered, that Elijah will “turn the hearts of par­ents to their chil­dren and the hearts of chil­dren to their par­ents”?

Rashi explains that Elijah will come to make peace in the world. But there’s a catch. Rashi teaches that the redemp­tion of the world relies on the chil­dren. They are the ones who will ulti­mately bear the respon­si­bil­ity of ful­fill­ing the prophetic imper­a­tive to make the world a more Godly place.

Geoffrey Canada gets this idea. So does the Talmud (Brakhot 64a), when it teaches that, “Jewish edu­ca­tion brings forth peace in the world.” The sages quote the prophet Isaiah (54:13), “Your chil­dren shall learn from God, and their peace will be abun­dant.” But then the Talmudic sages adjust Isaiah: “Al tikrah banekha, Do not read the pas­sage as ‘your chil­dren’; Elah bonekha, Rather, call them your builders.”

The Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai had a sim­i­lar idea when he wrote:

A child is a mis­sile into the com­ing gen­er­a­tions
A child is some­thing else again; on a rainy spring day
glimps­ing into the Garden of Eden through the fence.

Lest we for­get this mes­sage, Elijah appears through­out our tex­tual and folk tra­di­tions to remind us. Our liturgy wel­comes him as we usher a new­born child into the covenant, reserv­ing a seat of honor so that he might remind us of the role this infant will play in repair­ing our bro­ken world. In one tale, Elijah appears at a wed­ding to remind a mis­guided town that they have an oblig­a­tion to help the poor and to treat every human being with dig­nity.

Elijah, I would argue, is a vision-driven Jewish edu­ca­tor. There are a lot of com­ple­men­tary and con­flict­ing visions for Jewish edu­ca­tion. Some assert that our goal is to pro­vide chil­dren with a Jewish iden­tity. Others are con­tent to pre­pare them for bar or bat mitz­vah, or to give them a hearty com­bi­na­tion of guilt and pride for fear of assim­i­la­tion or dis­af­fil­i­a­tion. These goals are prob­lem­atic for a num­ber of rea­sons, not the least of which is that they don’t reach high enough. As mod­ern Reform Jews who believe in our oblig­a­tion to bring about redemp­tive change in the world, the para­mount goal of Jewish edu­ca­tion must be to enable and empower our banim, our chil­dren, to be our bonim, our builders. The goal of Jewish edu­ca­tion is the redemp­tion of our world.

A child is a mis­sile into the com­ing gen­er­a­tions,” Amichai wrote. And edu­cat­ing a child is a redemp­tive act. The best Jewish edu­ca­tion is an affir­ma­tion of our com­mit­ment to jus­tice, to gath­er­ing divine sparks as we part­ner with God to com­plete cre­ation.

And as our rab­bis taught us by jux­ta­pos­ing Malachi’s Elijah with the cel­e­bra­tion of Passover, our com­mit­ment to Jewish edu­ca­tion is a com­mit­ment to free­ing our world from the bondage of innu­mer­able and immea­sur­able Egypts.