Overcoming Jewish Illiteracy

Jewish literacyBy David I. Bernstein, Ph. D.

In a fascinating book published recently by two economic historians, Maristella Botticini and Zvi Eckstein, the question of why Jews (traditionally farmers) entered commerce and money-lending in the medieval world is revisited. Without going into too much detail, the authors reject the claim that Jews were prohibited from owning land, or other traditional explanations. Instead, they make the case that it was all about literacy and economic opportunity: in a world that was overwhelmingly illiterate, Jewish literacy was a distinct advantage in an emerging commercial world. Given the economic benefits, Jews flocked to those fields.

As part of their thesis, the authors also explain a conundrum of Jewish history: how did the Jews, viewed by many as having comprised a full 10% of the population of the Roman Empire, decline so significantly in numbers? Rejecting traditional explanations of war and persecution, the two economic historians return to literacy and economic opportunity. The heavy emphasis on Jewish literacy created by the rabbis in the time of the Mishna (after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE) was an economic burden: paying a teacher, buying a book/ scroll for one’s sons was an enormous expense. It also offered no economic advantage to farmers. Thus, many Jews less committed to literacy as a religious value came to be seen (or to see themselves) as “less than” in the Jewish community, and many of them moved away from Judaism, leaving only “The Chosen Few,” the title of their book. (The full title is: The Chosen Few: How Education Shaped Jewish History, 70-1492.)

Are there any parallels, or lessons to be learned for the contemporary Jewish world?

In the 21st century, Jews continue to be among the most literate groups, but at least in the West, in an almost universally literate world. The percentage of Jews in graduate schools, or with doctorates, or in fields like medicine and law in invariably disproportionate to the general (now literate) population.

Parallel to this, there are also more yeshiva students (men and women) in the world today than at any other time in Jewish history, studying the classical texts of our tradition at a high level.

Yet ironically, Jewish literacy is not widespread. Knowledge about Jewish subjects, e.g. the ability to read or speak a Jewish language (in the Diaspora), or knowledge of classical Jewish sources and rituals (including in Israel), is probably at an all-time low.

While in the past, most Jewish men had a “cheder” education, which was rudimentary, and most women had even less formal Jewish learning, they were socialized into Jewish life by their families, and their shtetl, and later their Jewish neighborhood.

Contrary to what those who idealize the Jewish past might say, the typical 18th c. Jewish man in Poland was not a “talmid chacham,” a Torah scholar. But knew what to do in shul, how to make Kiddush at home, how to build a Sukkah, and how to put on tefillin. He could read from the Chumash (5 Books of Moses) and understand it, and was familiar with many Midrashim. He also knew to care about his fellow Jews.

This is no longer true.

The typical Jew in a Western country today may be a highly educated professional, but is Jewishly only semi-literate. His (or her) Jewish education was from a Sunday school, or afternoon congregational school. Forgetting about the quality of that education, it is extremely limited in its intensity, and usually not much reinforced at home or by the suburban environment in which so many Jews live. Many Jews cannot read Hebrew at all; of those who can, many can sound out the words, but without comprehension.

Is this “The People of the Book?”

Is it any wonder, then, that with so much Jewish illiteracy, so many Jews feel estranged from Jewish life, and do not have a strong stake in raising Jewish children?

The exception to this, of course, is the Orthodox. In serious decline in America in the 1950’s and early 1960’s, they invested in Jewish day schools, Jewish camps, and a gap year of yeshiva/ seminary in Israel. As Prof. Jonathan Sarna of Brandeis University said: “The Orthodox bet the house on Jewish education. And they won!”

Why should the Orthodox have a near-monopoly on Jewish literacy? Why shouldn’t Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist and Secular Jews be just as literate? Why shouldn’t they know Hebrew or Yiddish? Why shouldn’t they know Tanach, Talmud, Jewish thought and history every bit as much as the Orthodox?

The Torah itself teaches us in Deuteronomy 33:4, “Torah Zivah Lanu Moshe, Morasha Kehilat Yaakov.” (The Torah was commanded to us by Moses; it is the inheritance of the entire congregation of Jacob.)

The great works of Jewish civilization, and the richness of Jewish ritual life, are not meant to be only for the men, or the rabbis, or the Orthodox. They are meant to be the birthright of all Jews.

Many of other problems facing Jewish world, e.g. alienation and dropouts, and the funding crisis, would be addressed if we had a more vibrant, literate Jewish community, if people felt like insiders, and owners of our heritage, rather than as outsiders.

As Harry Frischer (an attorney and VP of Congregation Rodeph Sholom) wrote in an article entitled “Building a Robust, Reform Shabbat Community” in eJewish Philanthropy on Dec. 7, 2014:

“Imagine a worship community that values Jewish learning and literacy, and where members find depths of meaning in the regular study of Jewish texts. A community where members are inspired to acquire the skills needed to navigate Hebrew liturgy, and where members regularly chant Torah and haftarah, deliver divrei Torah, and lead in so many other ways.”

He goes on to quote Rabbi Eric Yoffie who said:

“And where did people get the idea that to observe Shabbat means to be Orthodox? Isaac Mayer Wise would turn over in his grave. For him, Shabbat – and this means a Reform Shabbat – was at the very heart of liberal Judaism.”

For too long, it seems, much of the non-Orthodox Jewish world has confused Jewish literacy and practice as being “Orthodox.”

Peter Beinart, in a book review in the NY Times on Nov. 6, 2014, wrote:

“Many young Jews find that the traditions of tolerance, cosmopolitanism and sympathy for the underdog bequeathed by American Jewish culture give them much in common with the well-educated, politically liberal gentiles with whom they share urban, blue-state America. The Jewish partners in these unions may feel there is something distinctly Jewish about their universalistic values. But given the woeful state of American Jewish education, they’re unlikely to ground that belief in Jewish texts or Jewish history. As a result, as the generations pass, the universalism remains but its Jewish character grows thinner and thinner. According to an analysis by the sociologist Steven M. Cohen of data gathered by the Pew Research Center, only 43 percent of the children of intermarried identify as Jews. And even among those who do, only 17 percent marry Jews themselves.

It’s odd that secular Jews … who prize education in other realms, cannot see that education is the key to continuity too … When American Jews were more ghettoized, Jewish continuity did not require Jewish learning. Today, when Jewish continuity is a choice, it does.”

But why is Jewish literacy so essential, you ask?

1. Our culture is so rich, so deep. It’s not bagels and lox, or “I have a little dreidel.”

In today’s open marketplace of ideas, that song is just not attractive enough to convince Jews over the age of 5 that Judaism is worth a second look.

The richness, nuance, and complexity of Jewish learning and practice is.

If they’ve never studied Jewish text seriously, never had a Shabbat meal, never celebrated Purim, how could they know there is more to Judaism than chicken soup and “I have a little dreidel?”

2. Without Jewish literacy, Jewish tradition and practice is scary and off-putting. Which competent, bright, university-educated young Jewish person wants to feel illiterate and incompetent … and that is exactly what happens when such a person comes to a traditional shul or Shabbat dinner, or confronts Jewish texts in the original. (I am in awe of those students at Pardes who come with little or not Jewish educational background, and put themselves in such a vulnerable position.) We need literacy to insure a Jewish future.

3. Without Jewish literacy, there is much less chance for serious Jewish commitment. Someone who can appreciate our tradition in an intelligent, grown-up educated way is much more likely to be committed to raising Jewish children. The Pew Report concluded that 72% of non-Orthodox Jews in America (the group that is least literate Jewishly) are marrying non-Jews. What is wrong with intermarriage, you ask? Don’t two people who fall in love have a right to marry? Of course they do! But for the Jewish people, the results are disastrous: 93% of the grandchildren of intermarriage are being raised outside the Jewish religion! (Hence, the definition of “Who is a Jew?” may really be “S/he who has Jewish grandchildren!)  And should they marry Jews, the average birth rate among non-Orthodox Jewish couples in America is 1.7. The largest group of American Jews are not even replacing themselves. And absent a powerful religious or national narrative, why have more children? They are expensive, time-consuming, distracting from work and fun. But a Jewishly educated, highly literate couple has more content to want to pass on to the next generation, and this is one of the factors motivating the Orthodox to have more children. I am sure this could be true of many of the non-Orthodox, too, if they were Jewishly literate.

4. R. Zadok haCohen of Lublin, who lived a little more than a century ago, said the following: the Jewish people is like a Sefer Torah; just as a SeferTorah is not complete if even one letter is not full, so the redemption of the Jewish people will only come when every Jew reaches his/her full Jewish potential. We don’t even know what Jewish contributions, in Jewish learning and in Jewish life, we are missing out on without the full participation of the majority of Jews in the Jewish conversation.

In the struggle for Soviet Jewry of the 1970’s and 1980’s, there was a slogan: “Let my people go!”

What if we used a slightly different slogan: “Let my people know!”

What if….

The Jewish community created a Birthright-scale model of a free month, or two, of Jewish learning for any adult Jew who wanted to study Judaism, with hundreds of choices in all flavors and denominations?

What if every shul had a Beginners’ Service on Friday nights and Shabbat mornings, to introduce people to a traditional tefilah?

What if there were free, intensive 1 week crash basic Hebrew reading courses offered in every JCC, synagogue, and Hillel?

What if there were many new models that we have not yet thought of?

What if the leaders of our community proclaimed: ‘No Jew left behind?”

Botticini and Eckstein, the authors of The Chosen Few describe a time in Jewish history when our people drastically diminished in number due to the question of literacy. It seems that we are on that precipice again, though under radically different circumstances. When Jewish literacy will become the priority for Jewish funders and leaders, “The Chosen Few” will become “The Chosen Many,” and the quality of Jewish communal life will be radically improved.

David I. Bernstein, Ph.D. is Dean at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies.