Dancing with “The” Truth About Jewish Learning

I am very active personally and professionally in the New Orleans Jewish community. Recently, I began teaching a beginner adult education class entitled “The Stories of Genesis and Exodus.” This eight week series is free and open to the public with no prior knowledge required.

Source: Wikimedia Commons; Author: Stano Novak

Source: Wikimedia Commons; Author: Stano Novak

On our first day of class, I had everyone introduce themselves and say a sentence or two about what they hoped to learn. The make-up of this class is very interesting. The students include three individuals who are in the process of converting to Judaism; one Catholic who has been married to a Jew and participating in Jewish life for over 20 years; and one woman who identifies as Christian but recently learned of her Jewish heritage and wants a full understanding of what Jews believe and what our holidays are all about.

“I am here to learn THE truth,” this last student said.

And suddenly I realized the serious responsibility of teaching Torah to beginners.

Many years ago, I taught another group of adult beginners—those brave enough to attempt an adult beginner ballet class. Back then, I recall how surprised I was by how much more difficult it was to slow myself down. To go back to the basics, and teach new learners the concepts behind the techniques, even before breaking down the physical basics, bit by bit. I was usually extremely exhausted and sore after those classes, unlike going through my regular motions teaching intermediate and advanced classes. You would think a beginner class, with no advanced moves and only basic skill-building, would be easy! But making sure we have the core concepts and basic moves down, going from nothing to step one, is sometimes the hardest step of all.

Teaching Torah is no different.

While I thought it would be simpler, in actuality, teaching “new Jewish learners” is much more complicated than teaching intermediate Jewish learners, because with the intermediate there is already an understanding. We have shared terminology, make more assumptions, and assume a certain level of “same page knowledge” with those who sit at the intermediate tables. With these beginners, before I could even get to the basics, we needed to talk technique—just as with my dance students.

I realized the first order of business was NOT starting with “In the beginning….” It was to explain that Jewish thought does not consider any one thing as “The” Truth; that is a far more Christian concept. We Jews are filled with questions, interpretations and thousands of years of written thoughts to ponder and learn, which are amazing.

Of course, we do thank God in our blessing after the reading of Torah reading for giving us a “Torah of Truth.” But as we learn to study Jewishly, we realize that this can mean a Torah full of truths, not one single Truth. We can also have a rich discussion of the beauty of the truths in the Torah, with an understanding of the difference between truth and fact, between Truth and truths, and so on.

I had imagined this adult beginner class would be “easy.” Instead, it is a daunting task—and also an awesome responsibility. I look forward to next week when I walk in much more prepared to listen first, and teach second instead of the other way around. We will focus on the technique as much as the steps, learning like dancers.

See there, I am already learning again… and that is the truth!

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