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Jewish Literacy – Unfortunately, it’s Not Enough

Published in eJewishPhilanthropy, January 30, 2017

By Aryeh Ben David

I applaud the incredibly generous gifts supporting Jewish education today. Tens of million of dollars have been directed to many institutions to enhance Jewish literacy and the educational skills of dedicated professionals. It is a landmark time for Jewish education in North America.

My concern, though, is that it is not enough.

Jewish literacy and better educational skills are vital but not enough to develop or even sustain Jewish identity. Knowing about Judaism, even connecting personally to the content – is not enough.

In fact, it was never really enough.

The Talmud (Shabbat 31a) brings a parable for education that demonstrates how knowledge endures or disappears:

Rava said to his servant: “Did you bring the wheat up to the roof? Did you spread the preserving agent on it? If not, then all the wheat will simply go to waste.”

Two symbols are present in the parable: ‘wheat’ represents the content of learning; ‘the preserving agent’ represents an awe-filled relationship with God.

Without the preserving agent, all the wheat will go to tragic waste. The harvest will not endure. Commentators on the Talmud note that the wheat makes up 95% and the preserving agent 5% of the total, but without this crucial 5%, everything will be heartbreakingly wasted.

All the learning in the world will inevitably fade and spoil if not accompanied by awe and a personal relationship with God. This personal relationship moves one’s learning beyond human intellect and human connection. It links our learning, in the most baffling and unknowable way, with the mystery of the beyond, with eternity, with our souls and with a calling to an ultimate vision and purpose. Something greater than ourselves is calling to us, guiding us.

Awe is not easily defined. It is felt. In Midrashic terms, “awe” is the space between the words of the Torah, that unknowable “white fire” surrounding the measurable “black fire” of the ink.

We have become quite adept at teaching the “black fire.” But it is the “white fire” which will preserve the learning. Awe infuses an educational environment with a sense of transcendence. As in a relationship based on love, communication is the springboard for getting to moments beyond words. The Midrash writes that, notwithstanding the wise words of our prayers, silence is the deepest prayer. We want the words, the communication, and the knowledge – but these are tools to reach the end goal. There is something beyond.

In my own life, I am grateful for the privilege to have studied with scholars and top-notch educators. Their knowledge entered my head and their pedagogical skills brought the wisdom into my heart. But the impact usually stopped there. When the educator teaches with awe – connected to the spiritual world, following his/her own spiritual journey and drawing from his/her own soul – there is an intensity, a mystery, an importance, and a blessing that is not present when merely teaching content “well.” Learning acquires fragrance.

Imagine creating educator training programs that strengthen Jewish literacy, develop teaching skills, AND help educators cultivate an inner spiritual life – an awe. Imagine educator training programs that infuse “white fire” as well as “black fire.” Imagine making room for the mind, the heart, and the soul in Jewish education.

We have a problem to overcome: Teacher training and professional development programs that nurture the inner lives of educators are not practical or feasible given the present landscape of Jewish education. The ground needs to be prepared before the seeds can be planted. The first step is to focus on the agents of change: principals, heads of Judaic departments, donors, and foundations – the leadership. We need a paradigm-shift at the top.

Our students will not be more spiritually alive than their teachers, and our teachers will not be more spiritually alive than their bosses. If our ultimate goal is to foster the inner lives of our students, then we must foster the inner lives of our educators. To do this – to develop awe and vibrant spiritual lives in our teachers – we first need to foster the inner lives of the Jewish educational leadership and begin the process of real change in a school’s culture.

To affect our educational leadership, we need to invest in professional development retreats and seminars for the principals, heads of Judaic departments, and the leaders of the relevant foundations and supporters. We need “buy-in” from the top. The ripple effect of our leaders of the Jewish educational landscape cultivating personal relationships with God will reach and motivate our teachers and students.

I have received tremendous pushback for saying this during the last several years. I have faced eyes glazing over countless times, looks of disdain, and disparaging words. Trusted friends and colleagues have politely asked me to stop. They keep telling me that mentioning the word “God” and talking about cultivating a relationship with a transcendent Being makes educators and Jewish leaders very uncomfortable. Nevertheless, I will say once more: Knowledge, without a sense of awe, is not enough to sustain a Jewish identity.

And this is exactly what we are witnessing today.

I taught Jewish texts for 20 years and have had the privilege of seeing a generation of students at alumni gatherings and conferences. It is astonishing how little their years of learning define their Jewish identity years later. Many of the best learners, young adults who gobbled up Jewish wisdom but did not connect it to a higher, inner power, are barely connected Jewishly today. On the other hand, many who did not learn nearly as seriously or as much, but did develop a sense of awe, are still very connected Jewishly today.

In Israel, youth who have all the literacy in the world – Hebrew, knowledge of Torah and commentators, and even proficiency in reading Gemara – are overwhelmingly disconnecting from Judaism after their years of formal education are over.

As sad as this reality may be, it also makes sense.

Living a Jewish life is not about literacy. It is not just about clicking with content. For many of us in the West, our comfort zones are thinking, studying, and relating. So we retreat to our comfort zones when engaging with Judaism. It is not enough.

We, the Jewish People, brought the idea of monotheism and a personal relationship with God to the world. Yet now, it is the one subject we do not feel comfortable talking about. It’s too personal, too scary, too irrational, and it makes us feel too vulnerable. I appreciate this dilemma. I can converse intelligibly on a number of issues, but when I begin to talk about my personal relationship with God, I often feel like a clumsy, stammering third grader, incoherent and full of contradictions. I don’t have answers for difficult theological questions. My mentor once said to me, “You are only as deep as your deepest contradiction.” Bringing up this subject can be embarrassing and even humiliating.

But we cannot let our fears and insecurities impede us from exploring this most important relationship. The good news is that it only takes 5% of our resources to build our relationship. All we need is the courage to invest in the preserving agent.

Retreats, professional development seminars, and mentoring programs could fill this lacuna. We are not talking about classes on “What is the Jewish approach to divinity and holiness.” The preserving agent of the Talmud is personal:

  • “Where is my awe? Where am I vis-à-vis my relationship with God?”
  • “What would it mean for me and everyone I work with to have greater awareness of living in the image of God?” How would that look?
  • “How can I cultivate my spiritual life?”

If we do not begin to engage the issue of having a relationship with God, the danger is extremely frightening, almost too daunting to face. For too long we have defiantly ignored the wisdom of the Talmud, which clearly warns us of the futility of learning Jewish content without a sense of awe and mystery.

I once remarked, albeit too glibly, that our name – “Yisrael” – means to wrestle with God. We should either begin to do it, or change our name.

In conclusion, let me be explicitly clear: We want the learning! We want more literate Jewish professionals with better educational skills! But we insist on asking the crucial question:

For all the millions of dollars now dedicated to Jewish literacy and connection– where is the 5% dedicated to awe, to the inner spiritual life of our leadership and educators?