Recentering Torah learning
Torah to American Jewish funders: Show me that you love me
Engagement with our texts, our distinctive ideas and our literary tradition is the necessary starting place to fuel a Jewish cultural revival.
An anthropologist observing the ways we celebrate Simchat Torah might suggest that this celebration tells a great deal about the Jewish people. Joining hands, singing and dancing around Torah scrolls signify the centrality of Torah in our lives and the way it continues to be a primary source of joy.
I sometimes wonder what these Torah scrolls might want to say to us as we circle around them and hold them close.
In an honest appraisal of American Jewish non-Orthodox life, I could imagine the Torah screaming out to us: Don’t just tell me that you love me. Show me. Study my words. Discover generations of commentators who have enabled me to speak in new ways. Engage in debate and conversation about the ways to apply me to contemporary life.
Jewish life in America is replete with so much creativity and innovation. Our communities are welcoming and inviting. We are committed to social justice, tikkun olam and making the world a better place. And yet, despite these vital qualities, many of us have an alarming lack of content and depth in our Jewish lives. We are missing the anchor of Jewish learning that would provide a richer source for our creativity and a clearer understanding of what exactly we are welcoming and inviting people to. With notable exceptions, too often the Torah of the Jewish social justice space consists of cherry-picked verses that serve as a Jewish veneer to activism that is largely unengaged with Jewish knowledge.
Our community possesses the greatest breadth of secular education of any in Jewish history. At the same time, our ignorance of Judaism and the Jewish bookshelf is greater than that of any generation of Jews. The classic Jewish value — in fact, the mitzvah — of talmud Torah, the study of Torah, still remains an elusive concept in American Jewish life. Sure, many folks have enrolled in courses, attended lectures and participated in film festivals. Board meetings might begin with divrei Torah. Nevertheless, Jewish learning still remains more “infotainment” than the fuel on which Jewish life runs. An American Jewish cultural revival will require massive funding for the proliferation of the ideas, skills and knowledge that will be its basis. The Jewish content crisis is self-perpetuating. Too few major Jewish funders have invested in initiatives aimed at deep Jewish learning because they themselves have never had profound Jewish learning experience.
We’re so conditioned in general to see study as leading to something. For decades, communal leaders made the case that if young Jews engage in Jewish study then they will be more likely to marry someone Jewish, join a synagogue and support their local federation. In fact, our rabbinic tradition places enormous value on the study of Torah for its own sake, making the case for Torah study as a means to personal and communal transformation — that it provides clarity around what matters most, and enables acquisition of a language that helps us to express more fully what it means to a Jew and a human being.
In his bold 2011 article “Language, Identity, and the Scandal of American Jewry,” Leon Wieseltier distinguished between two instruments of Jewish identity: conviction and competence. To an American Jewish community marked by significant intellectual capacity matched with skepticism, Wieseltier correctly posited: “I have no doubt that the future of Jewish culture in America will be determined more by Jewish competence than by Jewish conviction.” He argued for the prioritization of knowledge over faithfulness. “If we cannot make sure that we will be followed by believing Jews, we certainly can be sure that we will be followed by competent Jews… Ignorance, I think, is much more damaging than heresy.”
The argument that the American Jewish community should prioritize Jewish learning above all else is not new. In 1906, Ahad Ha’am wrote some words of advice to his friend Judah Magnes, who had become a rabbi at Temple Emanu-El in Manhattan. “We have to make the synagogue itself a house of study, with Jewish learning as its first concern and prayer as a secondary matter… Learning, learning, learning is the secret of Jewish survival.”
More than a century later, the centrality of Jewish study still eludes us. Now more than ever we need a Torah-intoxicated liberal Judaism in America that is able to apply Jewish texts and ideas to the most pressing issues of our day. All of our sincere and often expressed desires for social justice can only be strengthened by a deep relationship with Jewish text study. These texts hold the key to the values we affirm, the types of communities we seek to build, and provide a particularly Jewish basis for our politics and practices. Moreover, the ethos of the beit midrash is rooted in an embrace of constructive disagreement, a value sought today by all Americans.
There are successful models of the work to revive and amplify the beit midrash in contemporary Jewish life. I am proud that the mission of the Pardes Institute for Jewish Studies is exclusively focused on this, alongside other organizations such as Hadar and Svara, each in our distinctive ways, lifting up the centrality of texts and ideas. Of course, we need to utilize diverse delivery systems and mobilize the best of technology to bring accessible and inexpensive learning opportunities to all. Here too there are many success stories including Sefaria, the Jewish Learning Collaborative, the recently opened Lehrhaus in Boston, and many others.
In his moonshot for universal American Jewish literacy in 20 years, Andrés Spokoiny argues for a “Birthright Judaism” that includes destination retreats and built-in incentivization, such as day school and camp discounts for those adults who complete 100 hours of study. Let us bring even more ideas, our best minds and our most committed funders to the table.
The American Jewish community — with its openness, creativity and resources — could fuel a Jewish cultural revival. Our texts, our distinctive ideas and our literary tradition are the necessary starting place. There is no cultural life that is grounded in ignorance or illiteracy. The future of American Jewish life demands we invest in institutions and initiatives that allow the Torah to belong to all of us.
Rabbi Leon A. Morris is president of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies.