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Knowledge and Inspiration

by Doron Kornbluth

Two teenagers.

The first one knows almost nothing about being Jewish. Still, he or she is inspired by our identity and is very proud to be a Jew.

The second knows a lot about being Jewish and has received an above-average Jewish education. Still, something went wrong somewhere – there is little or no pride and inspiration.

Which kid would you rather have?

Which one is more likely to stay Jewish?

Some families and educators, while hoping for inspiration, essentially place their bets on Jewish knowledge. If the kids know a lot about our heritage, something will eventually stick and they’ll find the inspiration they need. In this view, knowledge leads to inspiration.

Others choose the opposite path. Of course every kid should know the basics, but what good is a bunch of facts without the feeling? Focus on giving them inspiration and they’ll choose to study when they are ready. In this view, inspiration leads to knowledge.

Statistically, the knowledge-folks are much more successful. Studies have shown that the more Jewish education a child has, the more likely they are to self-identify as Jewish later in life.  The results for public school kids who attend Jewish youth groups and summer camps are not nearly as impressive.

Still, things are not so simple. The scenario of the two teenagers outlined above is important because it helps clarify the issues. Which is more important? Does knowledge lead to inspiration? Can you be inspired without knowledge? Can you stay inspired without knowledge?

Without knowledge of Jewish ideas, all the inspirational fluff will sooner or later float away. It isn’t grounded. On the other hand, we’ve all met knowledgeable Jews who seem to be lacking that ‘Jewish spark,’ or read about observant Jews who sometimes forget why they are observant in the first place. Simply knowing a lot doesn’t secure Jewish identity or create the kind of people we want our kids to be.

Being forced to choose between the two teenagers mentioned above is what sociologists call a ‘False Dilemma’ – it implies that one must make a choice between knowledge and inspiration. The dilemma is false, of course, because one can indeed have both.

More importantly, one needs to have both. Pride and inspiration will rarely last without a solid foundation of knowledge and education.  And Judaism is not about producing uninspired but knowledgeable Jews.

We need both knowledge and inspiration. Are we getting them? Are our children and grandchildren?



'Keeping Our Families Jewish' is a free e-newsletter designed to help Jewish parents, grandparents, educators and activists keep Jewish identity strong. Please forward this email to anyone who might enjoy it. To subscribe, send a message to newsletter-subscribe@doronkornbluth.com. To contact Doron directly, email doronkornbluth@gmail.com.


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