Jewish Literacy

By Rabbi Dr. Wallace Greene
Part 1

In the words of the old Chinese curse, we live in interesting times. Never before in Jewish history have so many people been engaged in Torah study across the globe. Never before in Jewish history have so many Jewish schools operated. Yet at the same time, despite all of this Jewish learning taking place, there are legions of Jews who are abysmally ignorant of their heritage, and myriads of children who receive no Jewish education at all or only a smattering barely sufficient for the bar/bat mitzvah rite de passage.

The positive results can be seen in the numbers and the quality of highly educated men and women who are not professional rabbis or educators and who continue their studies lishma. Often this cadre has spent a year or two of post-high school intensive study in Israel. All over the world there are ongoing shiurim at all hours, chavruta study, Daf Yomi classes, lectures, batei midrash for retirees, etc. The level of discourse in Torah by baalei batim who are businessmen, electricians, lawyers, physicians, retirees, housewives, pharmacists, tradesmen, professionals, etc., is quite elevated. At the same time, the abysmal ignorance displayed by the masses of Jews today is deplorable and directly responsible for the plague of assimilation and intermarriage.

For centuries, until the Emancipation and Enlightenment periods, Jews did not have entry into general society. Until the ghetto walls came down, Jews lived in an insular society. As such, Jewish literacy was fairly high. At a time when most of the world was still illiterate, Jews read and studied and mastered large amounts of their religio-literary heritage. Children read Hebrew, adults studied when their work was done, and shuls had a chevra Tehillim, a chevra Mishnayot and a chevra Shas. Those with ability and scholarly potential were sent to higher yeshivot to continue their studies. Bear in mind that before the era of electricity people worked from sunrise until sunset. Evening activities were limited, usually to the tavern or to the beit midrash.

There were multiple reactions to the modern era. Some Jews totally assimilated and were lost to Judaism. Others preserved their Judaism by becoming insular and isolated. Other groups tried to meld traditional Judaism with modernity. Still others created new modern versions of Judaism more in keeping with the times. Another group expressed their Judaism through a desire to return to Zion. Still others focused on Yiddish or Hebrew language and literature. Then you have the cultural Jews. Those who expressed their Judaism via Jewish foods (gastronomic Jews) or through a sense of “feeling Jewish” (cardiac Jews), or through charitable organizations (civil Judaism).

These are all important components of contemporary Judaism, but the key ingredient to a Jewish future is not just “doing Jewish” but “knowing Jewish.” Study of our foundational texts gives us the means to understand Jewish values beyond some abstract touchy-feely sense of Jewishness. The average Jew today cannot read Hebrew, has no knowledge of the Bible beyond some pediatric stories, and certainly has had no serious contact with the study of Jewish history, Talmud and rabbinic literature. Without this base, what do most contemporary Jews have to pass on as their heritage? The various Jewish communal structures need to understand this and make it part of their mission.

In the United States we have three distinct populations in need of this educational inoculation. Israelis and their children, F.S.U. emigres and their children, and the masses of children either in congregational schools that meet maybe once or twice a week, and those who do not even attend these programs. The scant knowledge that generations of children will take into adulthood is frightening. Post-World War II American Jews put their hopes in congregational schools that met four to five times a week. That model hasn’t existed for decades. As Professor Jack Wertheimer has cogently observed, “America bet on the wrong horse.”

At one time Israelis at least knew Tanach and Jewish history. Those generations have come and gone. When they come here, since religion plays a very minor role in their lives, their children often can no longer even read and write Hebrew! FSU emigres were denied access to anything Jewish for seven decades. Aside from efforts by Chabad, the community has also been unable to penetrate this group to educate them and their children.

What passes for Judaism today in many circles is truly shocking. The observation has been made that as deep as one can go in Torah, so too is the depth of ignorance. Many Jewish communal functions begin the meal with the ritual Hamotzi. I once observed this blessing being made over a latke at a Chanukah luncheon. I was invited to attend a “shiva” on a Tuesday evening. I met someone recently who complained that he couldn’t get horseradish with his calamari. I had to attend a dinner for a well-known Israeli philanthropy that started before Shabbat was over and wasn’t kosher. (A local kosher restaurant matched the meal and even the plates, wrapped, of course, in multiple layers of foil and cellophane.) Then there are those for whom naming a child after a deceased grandparent is the most important mitzvah, or coming to shul to say a transliterated Kaddish without even a tallit or tefillin.

We’ve come a long way, but we cannot afford to ignore the destructive force of Jewish illiteracy. We ought not to cavalierly and triumphantly dismiss the plight of our less-committed co-religionists. In Part II we shall try to suggest some approaches to this issue.

Rabbi Dr. Wallace Greene was the Director of Jewish Educational Services for Northern New Jersey, principal of the Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy, and founded the Sinai Schools.