Turn it and Turn it Again

Jewish Futures 2011by David Bryfman

Ben Bag-Bag used to say: Turn it and turn it again, for everything is in it. Pore over it, and wax gray and old over it.
Stir not from it for you can have no better rule than it
Ethics of Our Fathers 5:26

I remember the first time I heard these words. It was in a 5th grade Jewish studies class focusing on the laws of kashrut. I remember asking a lot of “why” questions. Why split hooves? Why not milk with meat? Why no shellfish? She gave some answers and then eventually the teacher turned to me in frustration and said, “because that’s what it says in the Torah.” I must have looked at her quizzically because then she added those words, “Hafoch ba ve-hafoch ba, de’kula ba – Turn it and turn it, for everything is in it.[1]” I clearly recall not being satisfied by this response, but I could also tell in the exasperated face of the teacher that it was time to move on.

Later in life I heard these words again. This time they were from a camp counselor. Going through what I now understand to be a typical moment in the adolescent search for identity this camp counselor assured me that all of life’s answers could be found in this mysterious book, again using the words, hafoch ba ve-hafoch ba. This actually triggered off a period in my life of deeper textual study, but it never did quite give me the answers that I was searching for.

Over the years I have discovered that I am not alone in hearing these words. This phrase has become somewhat entrenched in Jewish education and Jewish life.

I do not even begin to suggest anything other than that for many people these words hold truth and real meaning. But I also can’t help but feel that in the 21st century, telling an inquisitive child to keep turning it over and over, because the answer to all of life’s questions is encapsulated within a single book, or even a single canon, is misguided.

In a Wikipedia Age, when knowledge is becoming increasingly democratized and can be accessed by almost anyone anywhere, how is it possible to tell someone that all of the answers can be found in one text?

The great paradox of course is that perhaps more than any time in history Jews are able to develop a greater personal relationship to Jewish text. In an era where knowledge is becoming increasingly democratized access to Jewish sources is truly open to all. By extension the teachers of Jewish texts are no longer the traditional sources of authority in the Jewish world. It is hardly coincidental we are now also seeing a proliferation of “non- traditional” educators producing their own interpretations of sacred text (see G-dCast, The Bible Raps Project, Beit Midrash in Motion, Pearlstone Center, Midrash Manicures etc.), and reaching hundreds of thousands of people in doing so. How are our traditional authority figures adjusting to the new relationship toward text and knowledge in the 21st century?

By asking these questions, the organizers of the Jewish Futures Conference, entitled, Whose Torah is it Anyway?, are opening up a conversation whose time is due. How do we begin to tackle some of the more sacred cows of the Jewish world? For those of you calling out for a Jewish TED conference the first hour of this conference is exactly that – including 5 dynamic presentations by leading thinkers of our time from inside and outside the Jewish world. For those searching for practical implications of these discussions, the second half of the conference will go there too, looking specifically at the impact that these issues have for Jewish learning today and tomorrow.

The Jewish Futures Conference, an initiative of The Jewish Education Project and JESNA, will be held on June 4th between 3:30pm – 6:45pm (EST). Register here or follow the links for the live stream of the event.

[1] For a recent extension of these words, hafoch ba ve-hafoch ba, from the study of Jewish texts to the teaching of Jewish texts, I highly recommend the new book from the Mandel Center at Brandeis, edited by Jon A. Levisohn and Susan P. Fendrick, aptly titled, “Turn It and Turn It Again: Studies in the Teaching and Learning of Classical Jewish Texts” (2013).