Lenny at JSpot.org recently posted about his dissatisfaction with how progressive Jewish organizations do text studies. His complaint is that these organizations are using the texts, not teaching the texts. Because most of these text studies are accessories to a particular political, charitable, or moral campaign, they come off as predigested pap. Educators preselect texts and commentaries that support their goals, essentially drawing a bullseye around the dart of their political and moral beliefs. These sessions can feel artificial and demoralizing. In Lenny’s words, “Finding excerpts that support my predisposition seems to do more to comfort me in my superficial Jewishness and little to deeply engage me with Judaism.”

To address this problem, Lenny proposes:

…doing away with such one-time self-congratulatory events and moving to an ongoing Jewish adult education courses that more deeply engage us with our rich tradition.

A Jewish adult education course would not start with the brash assumption that we will find the answer that we want to hear in the text. Rather, such a course would be a more open-ended inquiry into our ancient and sometimes contradictory history. It would uncover the major debates about a particular topic (e.g. treatment of workers), teach the participants about the major compilations of literature that capture those debates, and trace the evolution of Jewish thinking over time and space.

On the one hand, I salute Lenny’s vision. Unfortunately, as I commented to his post, in the non-Orthodox world, Jewish adults simply don’t have the keys to access the treasury of Jewish learning, and because of that, they just don’t attend ongoing adult education classes. I teach in a nondenominational Hebrew high school program, and when I first started teaching there, I was stunned by the paucity of Jewish knowledge possessed by my students. Once, I asked a class of twenty students to tell me about Noah, and not a single one could answer – not even the student named Noah!

Outside of Orthodoxy, Jewish adults have a limited grasp of Hebrew (written and spoken), a lack of significant exposure to fundamental texts, and an almost total ignorance of the great Jewish thinkers of the last two thousand years. Whereas Orthodox students will have learned much, if not all, of Chumash (The Five Books of Moses) with Rashi and other commentators, as well as selected books from the Prophets and Writings, a few representative chapters of Talmud with advanced commentary, and assorted other books of Halacha, Mussar, and Jewish philosophy, there is, broadly speaking, no such parallel in the Conservative or Reform movements.

That’s the problem, pure and simple. I don’t know how it happened, but somewhere, the value of intensive Jewish education was lost from these movements, and the results are a laity that doesn’t know what Jewish learning is, and as a result, has very low expectations of Jewish education, and an even lower sense of responsibility to seek out and commit to consistent, high-quality Jewish learning.

As Lenny correctly surmised, I do believe that Hebrew schools need to focus on basic texts instead of ‘soft’ Judaism. But that’s not enough. The problem is not just that our focus is wrong, it’s that we are under-committed. We can’t send our kids to Hebrew school for five or six hours a week for about four years and expect any depth out of the experience. How many weeks per year does a Hebrew school meet? Maybe twenty-five? So a Jewish child gets about five hundred hours at Hebrew school over the course of four years – the equivalent of about twelve weeks of working full-time. It’s just not enough time, and we all know it! To borrow from The Big Lebowski, three thousand years of tradition from Moses to Sandy Koufax, and you want me to fit it into how long?!?

In the Orthodox world, it is a mark of honor and distinction to be known as a Jew who “knows how to learn.” Such a person can walk into a Beit Midrash, or a shul library, open a Jewish text he has never seen before, and decipher its meaning. It’s more than the ability to translate Hebrew (and Aramaic!) into English. It’s not just reading and grasping the plot of a particular parsha. It’s a whole world of meta-knowledge – which commentator is a literalist, which can help you with a grammar problem, and which will address the ethical or theological issues raised by a verse. It’s a familiarity with the Jewish bookshelf, and with major streams of Jewish thought. It’s the ability to swim in the sea of Talmud, explore the tributary streams of a religious idea, and emerge on the banks of a new understanding of your faith, your life, and your choices. This kind of learning, this kind of dedication is what leads to an ownership over Jewish text and tradition, and it need not and should not be the sole realm of Orthodoxy.

The problem facing the liberal Jewish community is much broader than the question of how to do better text studies, or even why Jewish social and political organizations should be doing adult Jewish education at all!

The problem is that liberal Jews send their children to public school, not Jewish day school. The Hebrew school programs that these Jewish children attend struggle with the Sisyphean task of teaching Judaism amid all the distractions of school, friends, family, extra-curricular activities, sports, and so forth (in my own school I have students whom I only see in the autumn, because they play softball in the spring, and students I only seen in spring because they play football in the fall). Kids are very savvy to priorities, and they learn that Hebrew school, Jewish knowledge, and attendance at synagogue aren’t really that important! What kind of adults will these children be? I submit that they will be no different from their parents, and like their parents, they will have limited interest in, and limited patience for authentic Jewish learning.

ד תּוֹרָה צִוָּה-לָנוּ, מֹשֶׁה: מוֹרָשָׁה, קְהִלַּת יַעֲקֹב . 4 Moses commanded us the Torah, an inheritance of the congregation of Jacob.

(Deut. 33:4)

Knowledge of Torah is the heritage of the Jewish people. If a liberal Jewish organization is just another liberal organization, but for its Jewish content, then what are the liberal Jewish people if not for their Jewish content? Unless the Conservative and Reform communities elevate education to the top of their lists of priorities, they will cede the very definition of Judaism to the Orthodox on one hand, and to the political fashions of the day on the liberal side of the ideological spectrum on the other. Without a grounding in the texts with which our tradition and culture is intertwined, we have no religion, no culture, and no identity.