Reviving the classical education that elite Jewish students used to take for granted: this is the goal of Heichal HaTorah’s partnership with the Tikvah Fund in establishing a new honors track. Tikvah, an educational foundation in New York, has helped the school develop and implement a neo-classical history and literature curriculum for ninth grade. Based on centuries-old classical materials and methods used to teach elite Western students in “gymnasia,” this program focuses on the West’s greatest and most enduring works, those responsible for its greatest artistic, literary, mathematical and scientific achievements.
Poverty and persecution usually deprived Jews of classical education while it was the norm in general society, yet many Torah luminaries from Spain, Portugal, Holland, Italy, Germany and Poland studied Western classics. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Berlin’s top Orthodox high school required six languages, including Greek and Latin. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch’s school was less rigorous than a gymnasium because it only required four languages. As Progressive educational reformers worked to replace classical education with pragmatic subjects, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook and Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik unsuccessfully tried to start gymnasia of their own, succumbing to resistance from parents who wanted easier and directly career-oriented subjects taught instead.
But now, Heichal HaTorah, in partnership with The Tikvah Fund, is seeking to provide a rigorous and traditionalist alternative. “In seeking to provide the best possible secular studies program, Heichal came to believe that we need to look back to timeless texts if we want to find the best way forward,” said Rabbi Aryeh Stechler, Rosh Yeshiva of Heichal.
The Tikvah Fund, an educational and philanthropic Jewish foundation in New York, has been offering classical seminars to young Jewish students and professionals for years. Its curriculum has ninth graders reading ancient mythology, Homer’s epics, Herodotus, Thucydides, Plato, Aristotle, Virgil, Cicero, Josephus, Tacitus, Augustine, Dante and Pico, all with a Jewish perspective in mind.
This “old-new” curriculum, as described by General Studies Principal Rabbi Ronnie Malavsky, is meant not only to give students the best possible education, but “to religiously inspire them by showing how ideas from the Tanach and Jewish tradition are responsible for uniquely Western traditions that we value as Jews and Americans.”
While there is a growing classical education movement across the US, Jewish schools have instead tended to adopt progressive trends in public education. Rabbi Mitchell Rocklin, Resident Research Fellow at the Tikvah Fund and the program’s instructor, noted that hundreds of American schools have adopted neo-classical curricula to recover educational excellence and traditionalist outlook. “Classical education,” he says, “does not encourage students to arbitrarily choose their own values. It instills in them a love of timeless truths and an understanding that tradition is the foundation of reason itself. Jewish schools have been behind this trend for some time, but they need not be.”
As Orthodoxy debates the relationship between tradition and progress, Rabbi Rocklin believes that the introduction of this course is well timed. “Too often,” he commented, “Orthodox discourse has portrayed religious Jews as needing to navigate between tradition and culture. But classical education allows us to see that true culture is not whatever happens to be in our surroundings. It helps us understand cultural greatness, the Jewish roots of that greatness, and how the Western tradition allows religion and culture to work together.”