Jewish Literacy: Mi Yode'a?
In Spanish, the word for “illiterate” is analfabeto—one who does not have an alphabet. Yet having an alphabet does not make a Jewish person literate, as can be attested to by thousands of Jewish teens and adults who know the alefbet but not much else. What makes a person literate in a Jewish sense?
About twenty-five years ago, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin wrote his book Jewish Literacy because, he said, “At a time when Jewish life in the United States is flourishing, Jewish ignorance is too. Tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of teenage and adult Jews are seeking Jewish involvements—even Jewish leadership positions—all the while hoping no one will find out their unhappy little secret: They are Jewishly illiterate. The most basic terms in Judaism, the most significant facts in Jewish history and contemporary Jewish life, are either vaguely familiar or unknown to most modern Jews.”
Are things today any different? Did Rabbi Telushkin’s book make a difference? What, if anything, would make a difference? What does it mean to be “Jewishly literate” anyway? And who gets to decide? The answers to some of these questions can be found in the pages of this issue of HaYidion, but I thought it might be interesting to survey my own hometown to see how the rabbis there (a diverse group by age and denomination) would define Jewish literacy and assess its current state. The results were revealing—and the rabbis were asked to keep their answers short!
Rabbi Paul Drazen, who heads a large Conservative congregation, defined literacy as “familiarity with standard ritual objects and “ability to participate in or lead [depending if home or synagogue] basic Jewish rituals, such as major worship services, Shabbat/holiday home rituals.” Rabbi Evan Shore, who leads a Modern Orthodox shul, defined literacy succinctly: “Jewish literacy: the ability to navigate the five Books of Moses, basic Jewish texts and the prayer book.”
Rabbi Leah Fein, of the university Hillel, believes that “someone who is Jewishly literate is a person who lives her life in tune with the Jewish calendar, who makes decisions (about food, lifestyle, giving, etc.) based on Jewish values and mitzvot, who can read (and maybe even speak) Hebrew, who can actively participate in services, and who knows stories, history and core texts of our people.” For Rabbi Andrew Pepperstone, leader of a Conservative congregation, Jewish literacy “is a constellation of Jewish skills, knowledge, and understandings, including how to fully live the Jewish sacred time, both the annual festival calendar and the Jewish lifecycle, how to learn and teach Torah (broadly defined), how to engage in Jewish prayer, and how to make the world a better place.”
But none of the rabbis was especially upbeat about the current state of Jewish literacy. Rabbi Pepperstone said, “I have major concerns about the current state of Jewish literacy across the Jewish world, not only in this or that movement. I fear that the lack of core Jewish literacy as I see it is leading to a lack of cohesion in the Jewish world and a widespread lack of understanding about what it means to be Jewish in the world today.” Rabbi Drazen likewise believes that “we are losing ground. For far too many people, basic familiarity is no longer the case—which makes for a steeper learning curve at school.” Rabbi Shore summed it up thus: “The state of literacy for the majority of Jews is sadly lacking substance and meaning.”
Rabbi Fein, the youngest of the rabbis, did, however, offer a hopeful perspective: “I think it is difficult to make a generalized assessment of Jewish literacy in the US today just because it’s such a large spectrum,” she wrote. “Of course, there is always room to grow, no matter what a person’s background and Jewish education is. But I think to be Jewishly literate is also to understand and view oneself as part of a conversation and legacy of Jewish literacy. Judaism is a religion and a culture of lifelong learning and a recognition that there is always more to learn and more room to grow… and another generation to pass the wisdom of our tradition onto.”
We hope that the insights you gain from the rabbis of my community and the authors in this issue will enhance your own Jewish literacy and that of the learners in your school communities.