October 31, 2020 |

Jewish Literacy

This week at MJE, we kicked off our new season of classes. Most of our participants have not had a lot of exposure to Jewish learning and we try to both educate and inspire them. For true-blue beginners, we have "Conversations" or Basic Judaism classes, mostly non-textual discussions of the big issues in Judaism, an opportunity to re-engage for those that have not done so as adults. For more advanced learners, we have "next level" classes - intermediate classes - where there is some discussion of Jewish Law and classic texts, but in an accessible and translated format. But we are constantly having the conversation about what it means to be "Jewishly literate." What if our participants learn all the "basics" and even the whats and hows of keeping kosher, Shabbat etc, but cannot read Hebrew or find the Torah portion of the week? Eventually, it should be a goal for every Jew to be able at least to confront the text of the Torah and struggle with it in its original, the beautiful; Biblical Hebrew. Is this our goal and have we succeeded if not every MJE'er who "graduates" from our program can do so?

A few years ago, I put together a conversation about religious and Jewish literacy between Professor Stephen Prothero, a very popular teacher and scholar of religion at BU, and Dr. Nehemia Polen, a learned Rabbi and teacher. Prothero defined literacy as knowing just enough to know that one didn't know very much, and perhaps, a little bit of what one didn't know. He admitted that fluency (and expertise) are also important, but that given the predicament in America (where most Americans cannot even name the first book of the Bible), literacy is a first step and raises the bar at least a little.

Polen defined literacy as being engaged in the process of learning, rather than actually knowing any particular knowledge. Of course, if that engagement never led anywhere, it would not be so laudable. But it would still be preferable to rote acquisition of facts and heavy-handed didactics, which often lead to boredom, apathy and disenchantment.

I have come grudgingly to admit that they are both right. Having lots of book knowledge doesn't necessarily mean you have succeeded in knowing what you need to know. I see too many Jewish day-school students who have reams of (mostly irrelevant) Jewish knowledge paired with a resistant cynicism to its beauty and value. But I also see young Jews with little or no Jewish education who crave and seek it in their adult lives like it is water in the desert. At the end of the day, I have more hope for the latter than the former.

It is never too late to begin studying (ala Rabbi Akiva, who was 40, too old for an MJE social event, when he learned his alef-bet) as long as the door is open and there is a helping hand. Three converts, reports the Talmud (Shabbat 31b), who had all been turned away by Shammai and educated by Hillel, once met in one place. They had all evolved from their original misconceptions about Judaism and praised Hillel for his humble tolerance and generosity, which had brought them under the sheltering wings of the Divine presence. They all criticized Shammai and his austere scrupulousness, which would have driven them away. We know all too well that a friendly face and some patient humility can make the difference between a wandering and wondering Jew never coming back or getting involved in Jewish life.

There is also the Talmudic story of Rabban Gamliel's stern tenure over the academy, where literacy bouncers guarded the door of the study hall. When he was deposed, they added 400 (or some say 700) chairs to the beit midrash. Who can deny the preciousness of the Torah that those extra 700 Jewish students learned by gaining their admittance? And yet. And yet.

Something gives me great unease about the path that this leads us down. I am impatient with the pervasive and complacent status of Jewish illiteracy. In real terms, the participants who flow into MJE each year and study with us are not always getting better-educated. By being so accepting of their lack of knowledge and having such minimal standards and expectations of them, are we not ensuring the perpetuation of a system in which merely knowing the names of all the Jewish holidays would be considered an educational accomplishment?

When I worked in the Kollel in Boca, we had a young non-Jewish secretary. After a year on the job, she knew the names of the holidays - even the minor ones - and the difference between kaddish and kiddush, seuda sh'leesheet and a melaveh malka, and a hundred other things. She knew what the Torah was and that it was different than Talmud and Shulchan Aruch. Not only that, but she was advancing more rapidly in her Jewish knowledge than most of our students, Jewish adults ostensibly involved in Jewish education at least intermittently over the course of many years. How can we explain this?

Well, she learned a little bit every day. In an environment full of Jewish practice and conversation, she quickly learned what she needed to know to make room reservations, take donations, talk to synagogue members and pass along accurate messages about classes. Between 9-5, connected only administratively, she was getting a Jewish education that Hebrew Schoolers who put in 10 years could only envy (years later, of course.) She wasn't smarter or more motivated than anyone else, she just picked it up, because it was there.

I submit that gaining essential Jewish literacy does not require an extreme amount of motivation, wisdom or time. It does require living a Jewish life and taking some responsibility, putting the spoon into our own mouths, so to speak. It would require more time to become fluent or expert, but, let's face it, most Jews are struggling (or not struggling, I suppose) with even the basics. Why, then, are Jews not literate? Maybe because they don't want to be.

Perhaps this story from our sidra will give us some insight: When Avram and Lot return to Canaan from Egypt, their shepherds begin to fight. Rashi comments that Lot's shepherds were allowing their animals to graze on others' property, a form of theft. When confronted by Avram's men, they dissemble. God gave this land to Avram, they say, and when he has no biological heir, Lot will inherit him. So, you see, it really belongs to Lot and thus is not theft at all. This, of course, is ridiculous and untrue.

It could be that Lot's shepherds were just wicked and liars to boot (which is what Rashi seems to think) but another- more charitable? - way to approach it is that they were being willfully ignorant. They may have believed their own false moral argument if for no other reason than that the alternative was too difficult to countenance. If they accepted the simple fact that they were thieves, they might have had to confront or change their own actions. That burden of responsibility was too much for them to face. Better to just pretend that what they were doing was okay, to justify, justify, justify.

Knowing what is right and wrong may be so threatening that we are unable to accept it as a mandate. In that case, maybe better not to know. Lots of modern Orthodox people - ostensibly committed to Jewish law as interpreted by their rabbi -- neglect to ask certain kinds of halachic questions to their rabbis because they would rather not know the answers. It can be a heck of a lot easier to be blissfully ignorant than to learn the truth and then have to live up to it.

I don't think we can afford to let ourselves - our students or our teachers -- off the hook of Jewish literacy by only learning the merest basics or becoming "engaged" in the process of learning. This is fine for the first month. But if we are not grasping the bull of Judaism by the horns by the second month, then we are not living up to our real responsibilities. We have plenty of other spiritual and intellectual challenges to face in Judaism, so we can't afford to spend all our time not getting past the alef-bet. We need to find some way to raise the bar on defining Jewish literacy or we'll be stuck doing limbo under it for a long time. Shabbat shalom!


Rabbi Avi Heller

Joined: July 27, 2007

Originally from Denver CO, Rav Avi received a BA from BU and Rabbinic ordination and an MA in Bible from YU. Before joining MJE, he was Director of Jewish Education at BU Hillel, co-directed the BU Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus and was an Associate University Chaplain. He has been the...

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