The first of the three requirements which Jewish studies must meet in order to qualify for centrality in the school curriculum is the ability to help the educand [student] achieve a cosmic orientation. No education fulfils its function if it fails to enable the child to orient himself cosmically. The need for cosmic orientation is to the human being just as natural as are the needs for health and sustenance. With his extraordinary capacity of memory, imagination and reason, man actually lives in an environment that infinitely exceeds in space and time the one he exists in physically.
The range of his sensitiveness exposes him to suffering from all manner of calculable to incalculable evils. He is therefore all too easily upset, and all too readily feels himself lost in the windy vastness of his thought world and is accordingly in need of a compass, as it were, to help him regain and retain his bearings.
Comparing life as he finds it with life as he would like it to be, he has sufficient reason to become discouraged. But if he is to go on living without being weighted down by a sense of frustration and despair, he must have some reservoir of faith to draw upon. To that end his education must be so directed that when fears and disappointments begin coming, he is well prepared to meet them. Say what one will about the traditional education, it was just this need that it seemed to fulfill more so than any other. To be sure, it was much easier to meet this need in the past because man's cosmos was comparatively small and simple with the one which he mentally inhabits now, and he was far less critical than he is now of the consolations offered him.
[Kaplan biographer Mel Scult writes: Kaplan had a life-long concern for education. Indeed, he believed it was the primary means whereby consciousness may be altered and religion taught. When we think about Jewish education, we ordinarily think in terms of Jewish identity. Education will help us in saving and strengthening the Jewish people through molding the identity of the student.
There is no doubt that this is true. But we may look at education from a larger perspective, which is what Kaplan does here. Religion in general and education in particular must give each person a perspective on the meaning of their life and on their place in the universe. Traditional religion speaks clearly and directly about this issue when it sees humankind as fulfilling the will of God and this being our primary purpose. If we dismiss the traditional view, what shall we put in its place in terms of humankind’s purpose and our place? The concern for meaning and purpose must be one of education’s primary goals.
The selection above was written while Kaplan was at the Hebrew University. Kaplan spent 1936-1938 in Jerusalem teaching and writing. - Mel Scult]