Selling Torah: Talking Points on the Value of Jewish Education

by Paul Steinberg

Do we emphasize the importance of Torah study itself enough when we pitch Jewish education to families? Sure, parents agree that they want their kids to have a positive Jewish identity. They want a good moral upbringing for their kids grounded in Jewish values. They’re sold on the importance of Jewish friends for their kids and raising them in a supportive and active community. And, of course, they’re thrilled to see their kids dazzle relatives and friends with their Hebrew skills at the Bar or Bat Mitzvah.

Parents get that Jewish values, community, and Bar and Bat Mitzvah skills are worthwhile because… well, because they’re Americans. Yes, Americans. Our communities may be Jewish communities, but our people are American people, and Americans are pragmatists. The Jewish educational dividends of character education, communal involvement, and Bar and Bat Mitzvah performance skills are within their pragmatic ideological framework. Pragmatism, by the way, is not necessarily a bad thing, rather it’s just something we need to be aware of and perhaps even leverage our Jewish educational goals toward. We can do this with Torah study itself.

Let’s remember that the ideal paradigm of Jewish study is called Torah lishma or “Torah study for its own sake,” but “for its own sake” doesn’t mean that it has no purpose. Of course studying Torah has a purpose! First of all, the study of Torah is supposed to lead to good deeds. We are not supposed to be casual tourists of what we study. We are meant to live what we learn. After all, when you learn that something is right and true, you are supposed to do what is right and true, for it would be hypocritical and dishonest to say that you didn’t know better. The study of Torah promotes ethical living, directing us toward community service.

Second, Torah study inspires spiritual transformation. In other words, the goal of learning in Judaism is to learn oneself, as the Kotzker Rebbe once remarked, “What good is understanding a text, if one does not thereby attain a better understanding of oneself?” We learn about ourselves by engaging the various dimensions of mind and heart, which are well beyond True or False quizzes and vocabulary worksheets. Torah study broadens the curriculum to the breadth of the entire emotional and psychological human experience and, when done well, integrates the arts, languages, cross-cultural studies, social sciences, and even health and fitness.

The third purpose of Torah study is the intellectual benefits, which are not to merely recount names, places, and laws. In educational lingo, Torah study pivots on the highest levels of learning objectives. In Benjamin Bloom’s famous Taxonomy of the six domains of learning, Torah study dwells among the highest domains of analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. This is a result not of the fact that we study or even what we study, but the manner in which we study – the Jewish approach to how we study is itself the means by which our intellect grows. And it’s not just our intellect that is stimulated and expanded by how we approach Torah study, but our very identities.

Let’s further examine the intellectual benefits by virtue of how we study by dividing them into three learning outcomes:

1. You don’t have to take it literally. The Torah is an epic poem and, because it is poetic, the words and verses are subject to infinite levels of understanding. For example, the Torah says that the world was created in just seven days. But the tradition does not rest with the literal understanding. The Talmud, the Zohar, and the medieval commentators all are quick to render the seven days figuratively, claiming that a day in God’s eyes is equivalent to a thousand years.

What does this then mean for us? It means that we learn at an early age that A does not necessarily equal A. A can equal B, or C, or any number of things. In fact, a word or verse can simultaneously mean two things that are actually diametrically opposed to one another. Acknowledging that both interpretations descend from the same textual place is literally mind opening, sensitizing us to the depths of truth. Here, we learn that the truth is manifold, which is an intellectual lesson that we can apply to both our study and to life itself.

2. What we study is relevant to me today. When we read the Torah, we don’t read it as a book of history. The stories didn’t happen thousands of years ago to ancient strangers – they are happening now. The Torah’s themes of interpersonal dynamics, familial relationships, matters of war and peace, sovereignty and nationhood, and the role of God and religion in our lives are all human issues that are as real today as ever. Why else would we exclaim every Passover seder that each of us should see ourselves as though we were personally freed from Egypt? Because it’s true (not literally, see #1)! Making what we study spiritually, emotionally, and psychologically relevant in our own lives deepens our intellect by personalizing what we learn. And when we personalize what we learn, we awaken to its application all around us, continuously inspiring new questions and insights.

3. The sacred and holy are real. No matter what any of us believe about the Torah, whether it was directly handed from God to Moses or whether it was written by groups of people over several generations, the Torah is holy. We revere the Torah, we kiss it, we sing about it, and we glorify it. What is important about the holiness of the Torah is that it begs the contrast between what is holy and what is unholy and corrupted. What we soon discover is that there is a substantial disparity between what is holy and what is not holy in the world. The world and humanity do not live up to what they ought to be. There is a tragic gap between the real and the ideal and the consciousness of this gap helps us to direct our hopes, our prayers, and our aims as a species. The mere presence of Torah as a symbol of holiness in our lives encourages us to search for creative solutions and to dream of what is possible.

When we promote our schools and “sell” Jewish education to parents and constituents, it is oftentimes easy to overlook what may in fact be the most precious and important aspect of Jewish life – Torah study. Torah study is not a value because it leads to an immediate skill or resume building bullet point, but because of the long-term, intellectual benefits that refine our minds and ultimately, our souls. When we commit to Torah study, we learn to think and express ourselves differently, which actually strengthens our ability in secular subjects. Moreover, the intellectual and spiritual benefits of Torah study help us to integrate mind, heart, and soul in ways well beyond what secular subjects can offer. This creative and deep thinking cultivates greater self-knowledge and self-esteem – attributes that certainly lead to a more content and rewarding life. Nothing could be more pragmatic than that.

Rabbi Paul Steinberg is the Senior Educator at Valley Beth Shalom in Los Angeles, CA and is the author of the award-winning series, Celebrating the Jewish Year (JPS, 2009). He also teaches at the Graduate School of Education at American Jewish University and is working on his doctoral dissertation on the Bar Mitzvah at the Jewish Theological Seminary.