Jewish Adult Learning in the Information Age

By Rabbi Morey Schwartz

Jewish Adult Learning in the Information Age

The text being studied by the class describes a moment in history from long ago. A hand goes up, and a man in his mid-fifties is acknowledged by the teacher. Looking around at his fellow students, he extends both hands forward, palms up, and asks sincerely, “Excuse me for this question, but in what way is this relevant to my life? Why are we learning this?”

Something is changing in the world of adult education, and it behooves all who are involved in Jewish adult learning to pay heed to the subtle signs of change and adjust accordingly, without overcompensating.

For the information age, relevancy is the new literacy

The world has evolved and changed, and the literacy that Jews in adult Jewish learning classes crave for today by and large is a literacy that connects directly to their day to day lives, that has the potential to be a source of personal inspiration. In this, the Information Age, people are constantly searching for and obtaining information from the Internet, on the topic of their choice. They are in search of information, but not just any information – they want to click on and access the information that addresses their current interests and curiosities.

The man in the history lesson was neither asking that the learning be simplified nor that the teacher process the information for him. He was coming to Jewish learning with a very fair expectation: since Jewish texts are timeless, they must carry a relevant message. In other words, surfing the web provides one with fingertip accessible information on any topic, summoned to the screen at will by clicking on the links that seem most relevant and ignoring the others. So too, in cases where the learner feels neither capable nor qualified to choose the texts to be studied, where that choosing has been deferred to the teacher, still there remains a palpable desire, shared by the learners, that all learning be relevant.

According to rabbinic teaching, even the moment of Revelation on Mount Sinai was accompanied by personal meaning and relevancy:

All at Mount Sinai, young [men] and old, women, children, and infants heard the voice of God according to their ability to understand. Moses, too, understood only according to his own capacity, as it is said (Ex. 19:19), Moses spoke, and God answered him with a voice. With a voice that Moses could hear. (Midrash Shemot Rabbah 5:9)

The Midrash teaches that each person standing at Mount Sinai naturally understood Torah differently, according to his or her own subjective understanding. Perhaps that was the key to Torah’s nationwide acceptance. When the texts are not found to be ostensibly relevant to a learner, there is a sense that this is not really part of his or her literacy canon. Thus, texts in an adult Jewish learning venue need to be chosen not only for their historical merit or literacy value, but also for their ongoing contemporary relevance.

Emphasizing the learning process is the key to maintaining relevancy

In the Information Age, people are accustomed to and capable of dealing with more information than earlier generations and are better at filtering that information as well. In fact, the abundant availability of web-based easily accessible answers to Jewish questions has created a situation which has forever changed the nature of learning. Students with an “Information Age mindset” expect their teachers to emphasize the learning process more than the canon of knowledge. They seek to be part of learning communities, comfortable with hubs of learners both actual and virtual, rejecting the prior paradigm of students being note takers in a lecture hall.

Replacing the phrase “sage on the stage” with “guide on the side” reflects the idea that the instructor needs to play a more Socratic role, posing questions and guiding the learning process, rather than taking an ecclesiastical approach, providing “the word” on a subject that the student is to “learn” …. [1]

Since its inception, the Florence Melton School has focused less on the “what’s” of learning and more on the “why’s.” Our three pillars of Melton study – that it needs to be text-based, interactive and pluralistic – all focus on the way we learn, with the clear understanding that the method of learning is the key to successful adult learning, where learners are coming to engage in dialogue in the context of community, focused on subjects of common interest. The message projected is that everyone’s point of view matters and that to be a contributing member of a community one must have a voice. Judaism preserves its relevance through ongoing dialogue no less than through ongoing practice.

Reinterpretation for relevancy

When learners register for an adult education course that is text-based, what are they expecting to encounter there? For instance, how will they react to texts that ostensibly indicate that they, the learners, are not living full Jewish lives? How will they react to texts that challenge their modern sense of right and wrong, or to texts that seem on the surface to be unrelated and irrelevant to their modern lives?

In 2004, a researcher sat in on two years of Melton core studies, 120 lessons in total, and was seriously surprised to find that students had organically developed a mechanism for addressing this kind of disjuncture. Texts that could have offended learners, because of the dissonance they presented to their way of living, were actually interpreted, or reinterpreted to maintain their relevancy – at times even understood to be significantly meaningful. Essentially, having experienced adult Jewish learning in an open and supportive context, where autonomy of thought and action were valued, the “…students emerged from their courses believing that they had been learning about ‘authentic’ Judaism, knowing that the themes of choice and autonomy were woven throughout their lessons and, therefore, concluding that the two are one and the same.”[2] Rather than finding such texts to be unbearable or untenable, learners demonstrated time and again their ability to reinterpret and find contemporary relevance in the ancient texts.

The Florence Melton School has been on record for many years as being dedicated to Jewish literacy, and not relevancy. In truth, study in the Florence Melton School has always been accompanied by the discovery of relevancy that rises to the surface through the freedom of autonomous interpretation. The Florence Melton School has always set itself apart from outreach agendas of all sorts. It has been made crystal clear that the only agenda in Melton study is to provide adult Jewish learners with the basis for understanding Judaism and Jewish history, to enlighten them and make the texts of the tradition readily accessible to them, texts which had heretofore been beyond their grasp. Inevitably we have demonstrated over and over again that a greater understanding of Jewish teachings is naturally accompanied by a stronger sense of their relevancy: the Melton pursuit of Jewish cultural literacy has always been and continues to be a journey toward Jewish relevancy as well.

[1] Frand, Jason L. The Changes in Students and Implications for Higher Education. EDUCAUSE review, September/October 2000, p. 24.
[2] Woocher, M. (n.d.). Texts in Tension: Negotiating Jewish Values in the Adult Jewish Learning Classroom. Journal of Jewish Education, vols. 1, 2 (Summer 2004), p. 30.

Rabbi Morey Schwartz is Director of Education for the Florence Melton School of Adult Jewish Learning.