Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Friday, May 3, 2024

Should there be Jewish classical schools?

The classical school movement, especially the Christian classical school movement, is proving to be a great success. This has given rise to a debate in the Jewish community as to whether it should be emulated. Should there be Jewish classical schools? A Jewish friend did me the honor of asking for my opinion. I'll share it here.

The best in and of Western civilization is the achievement and gift of the Jews. The principles that animated the building of Western civilization and inform its constitutive understandings are Jewish. It is, of course, true that Christianity embraced these principles and built the institutions of Western civilization. But Christianity did not invent them, nor did it revise them. (Indeed, they are central to Christianity itself. In that sense—a very profound sense—Christianity is a Jewish religion. I sometimes refer to it as “the other Jewish religion.”) Writers such as Eric Cohen, Rabbi Mitchell Rocklin, and my former student Rabbi Meir Soloveichik are right to give credit to Judaism for these principles and all the insights and achievements made possible by those--Jews or Christians alike--acting on a sound understanding of them and a faithful commitment and adherence to them.

I yield to no one in my appreciation and esteem for the great pagan philosophers and jurists of antiquity, above all Aristotle, Plato, and Cicero. But the foundational truths—the great insights—that made our civilization (its institutions, its moral and spiritual breakthroughs) possible did not come from them. They came from the Jews. Obviously, there is ethical monotheism itself—the greatest of all the gifts of the Jews. And then it was the Jews—no one else—who came to understand (we believers would say, “to whom it was revealed”) that the human person, though fashioned from mere dust of the earth, is nevertheless made in the very image and likeness of God.

As much as I honor Plato and Aristotle, it is not their teaching, but rather the teaching of the Jewish religion that instructs us on the source, foundation, meaning, and full implications of human rationality and freedom—and thus of the profound, inherent, and equal dignity of every member of the human family. Much the same is true of the understanding of marriage and the family. Truly it’s impressive that Plato and Aristotle, without the benefit of the Jewish revelation, were able to attain critical perspectives on the immoral practices of their culture, and even articulate some important truths about marriage and the family. But they could only approximate the profound and beautiful teaching of Genesis 2.

In their essay “The Spirit of Jewish Classical Education,” Cohen and Rocklin did not, as some critics insist, make the Jews “the main actors in some other mighty civilization’s story.” They claimed credit where credit was in fact due, and they reminded their fellow Jews of their mission and calling to repair and rebuild what Jewish wisdom had made possible. Whatever else Western civilization is, it is a Jewish civilization, and the Gentiles who are part of it are among the Nations to which Israel has been a light. In proposing the building of Jewish classical schools, Cohen and Rocklin want to share with Jewish children not only the basic Jewish insights but all the learning that has been achieved by Christians as well as Jews that is ultimately rooted in those insights. This is scarcely, as one critic maintains, a “ploughing of someone else’s furrow,” or a “reaping of someone else’s harvest.”

My advice is to go for it: launch the Jewish classical education movement.


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