A couple weeks ago I had the opportunity to staff a table at the Chicago Jewish Festival. It was a wonderful opportunity to interact with a wide spectrum of people from the Chicagoland Jewish community. During the course of the day, a member of a missionary Christian organization came to my table to proselytize. Putting aside for this blog post the assumptions that motivate a person behind the act of proselytizing, I found fascinating his use of quotes from Tanakh to justify his theological position. It was not the first time I’ve encountered his approach but for whatever reason it struck me that day.
If there was one way to describe his approach I would call it flat. In the traditional Jewish approach to reading the Bible, the text becomes alive with generations and generations of commentary and layers of understanding. If one would map out a Jewish approach to reading Tanakh as a topographical map, it would contain mountains and hills, valleys and plains. In the contrary approach, as exemplified by that missionary, the text is read without context, without commentary and without depth. The words are understood simply through the bias and lens of the contemporary reader. In interacting with this missionary, and with others like him, it is as if we are operating with two different sets of language and do not share a common vocabulary and reference points to have a meaningful conversation.
However, are there times when it is called for to read the Tanakh absent commentary and rabbinic depth? Even as Jews who inhabit a Biblical world of mountains and hills, are there moments when we can gain from seeing the text as flat?
An example of the power of reading the text flattened: The Hebrew Bible mentions multiple times the need to uphold the rights of the immigrant in your midst (Exodus 22:20, Deuteronomy 24:17, Ezekiel 47:21-23 as just a few examples). It is one of the most dominant themes throughout the entire text. Yet, we know that the rabbis understood this oft-repeated injunction to refer to the legally defined, ger toshav—resident alien, a much more limited category with many specifications and requirements than the broad category of immigrant. Does the flat reading of those many verses in the Tanakh still contain an ethic of how we treat the vulnerable in our society?
I believe they do. There is a power to the text even separated from the traditional Jewish exegetical approach to understanding it. When we conceive of the study of the Talmud we classically divide Talmudic literature into two broad categories: halakha (law) and aggada (homiletics or “everything else”). The aggada is no less valuable than the halakha even if one can not derive specific practical steps from it. The aggada frames the way we view the world and how we conduct our moral selves. Similarly, there are times when reading Tanakh flatly, without the richness of commentary, can inform our moral and ethical selves and help us frame the society we live in. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888) wrote in his work, The Nineteen Letters:
“… we must first acquaint ourselves with Judaism through the source which it, itself, offers, the only documentation and evidence about itself that it has salvaged from the wreck of all its other fortunes: the Torah. And through the Torah we must attain, also, an understanding of Israel’s destiny. For is not Judaism an historical phenomenon, and is not the Torah the only account of its origin, of its first appearance on the stage of history and of its existence for a considerable length of time thereafter? … Before we open it, however, let us consider how to read it. As a subject for philological or antiquarian research? … As Jews we will read this book, as a book tendered to us by God in order that we learn from it about ourselves, what we are and what we should be during our earthly existence. We will read it as Torah— literally, ‘instruction’ —directing and guiding us within God’s world and among humanity, making our inner self come alive.”
This I believe is the value of approaching the Hebrew Bible and reading it on its own terms. There are limits to that endeavor, as that missionary at the Chicago Jewish Festival demonstrated, but just because there are limits does not mean it is not a worthwhile practice.
Last week, in my role as a teacher of Judaism, I had four magnificent teaching experiences. The kind that leave you inspired by the beauty of the human race, and send you home proclaiming that people are deep, amazing, varied, and wise.
With a group of toddlers (age 2-3) at the synagogue, I sang and danced “shalom.” And read Dr. Seuss’s Fox in Socks and danced Sandra Boynton’s Barnyard Dance.
The bnei mitzvah class (age 13) and I celebrated how much they had learned this year, with a synagogue scavenger hunt quiz. Then we went to Starbucks, where we discussed the evils of manipulative advertising and the death penalty.
With middle-aged adults (age 40-70) at a church, I studied the Song of Songs. We read excerpts from the Biblical text, laughed at its bawdiness, and explored its implications for human and divine love.
With elders (age 80-100) at a nursing home, I explored the Biblical story of Ruth. People shared personal stories about the “Ruth” and “Naomi” archetypes within their minds and their families.
For me, it was a week filled with magic.
How does this magic happen?
Great content helps.
Good teaching strategies help, too. Toddlers learn through music, movement, rhymes and pictures. Young teens bond by doing active tasks together. Middle-aged adults have keen intellects and life experience that should be woven into a teacher’s presentation. Elders respond to sophisticated ideas presented simply and briefly.
But neither content nor strategy brings the special magic of being inspired by your students. That happens when you:
Focus on the people, not the content. When you:
Talk with them, listen with them, laugh with them, learn with them.
Retaining this focus is very important in teaching about Judaism.
Too often we, that is, teachers of Judaism, focus on the content alone. We may be determined to show the beauty of Judaism in a particular light – a particularly progressive light, or a particularly traditional one. We may be desperate for people to see this beauty. We may feel we need them to come to synagogue. Perhaps we have invested money and time in our synagogue and we need it to be sustainable. Perhaps we need the Jewish people to continue, and we want to play our part.
Guess what, fellow teachers! These are our needs. They may not be the students’ needs.
Do the toddlers need to know the word “shalom”? Do bnei mitzvah need to recognize a Ner Tamid? Do adults need to know sexy poetry from Song of Songs? Do elders need to know the plot of the Book of Ruth? No. No. No. And no. But it would be wonderful for them to know that they are welcome in a fun, friendly, intellectually open and personally affirming community.
And in that sort of community, Judaism happens.
Because Judaism is something people do. It is not a chunk of content that can be separated from practice. It is a set of evolving traditions that people share in community.
We don’t memorize lists of fundamental Jewish beliefs. We do study together a Bible made up of 24 books offering diverse viewpoints.
We don’t have essential doctrines. We do have rituals we like to do together.
We have no Pope who sets the standards of belief and practice. We do have a rather amorphous world community that votes with its feet.
The practices we do and the books we study are the ones people voted for. Traditions that remain over the years are the ones many people love. Like any kind of love, of course, it’s fraught with conflicts, dead-ends, winding paths, and spectacular compromises.
Jewish teachers should model this kind of love.
Sometimes teachers are afraid to put people over content, because they worry the result will compromise Judaism.
It won’t. It will create love for Jewish community.
And people will come back to what they love, seeking deeper and deeper understanding.
Last week, Brooklyn Assemblyman Dov Hikind, in a remarkable display of bad taste (to say the least), decided to put on an Afro wig and blackface in order to portray an African-American basketball player for Purim. In response, Jon Stewart, the host of The Daily Show, pointed out the hypocrisy of Hikind’s insensitivity given his career as an outspoken critic of both actual and alleged (at least to Hikind) anti-Semitism. Stewart followed his comments with this hysterical segment entitled “Crazy Stupid Dove–The War On Purim” (see video below).
This is not the first time The Daily Show has captured the humorous side of Jewish holidays. As J.J. Goldberg notes in his recent Forward blog, Stewart also introduced a laughing-out-loud funny segment about Passover last year called “Faith Off” in which he called on Jews to make Passover more enjoyable than Easter.
If you have ever attended, taught, or sent your children to a synagogue religious school, you know that teaching elementary school children the essentials of Judaism in 4-6 hours a week is extremely challenging. Given how little time there is to teach and how many other facets of contemporary American life religious schools have to compete with, we often turn to games, skits, and other ways to depict Judaism as fun and attractive. But in doing so, we sometimes revert to a simplistic, easy to digest version of Judaism without complication or obligation.
What is fascinating about The Daily Show’s Purim segment, though, is not how funny it is but how substantive it is. The segment thoroughly rebukes the transformation of Purim into a Jewish Halloween and the general trend towards fitting Jewish holidays into mainstream culture. Its message is actually the antithesis of his Passover piece, in which Stewart suggests coming up with cartoon characters and making video games to update our celebration of Passover. Through intelligent humor and sophistication, the Purim segment makes a compelling argument for rejecting the commercialization and assimilation of Jewish holidays. It is this translation, this targum, that we would do well to embrace. Most young Jews today are not interested in frontal, rote transmissions of tradition. Our religious school educators are correct that we need to approach today’s students through creative, interactive ways to reach the “multiple intelligences” of the Jewish public, to borrow from educational theory jargon. But what The Daily Show segment teaches us is that we don’t need to be reductionist to make tradition contemporary and accessible. The challenge for us, as Jewish educators and teachers of the next generation, is to pick up where The Daily Show leaves off.