Literacy: The Gift of Many Things
A series of television commercials from my youth encouraged viewers who were illiterate to seek help and learn to read. Illiteracy, these ads declared, was a stumbling block, impeding good people from transcending the poverty of their circumstances, but it was not irrevocable.
Steven Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, authors of Freakonomics, ask which of the following is more predictive of higher student test scores, which can proxy for higher literacy: parents reading to their children nightly or the number of books in a child’s home. Surprisingly, parental behavior is less influential than ambient décor. The authors acknowledge that correlation is not causation, and that books are indicators of literacy, not necessarily the cause. The finding is nevertheless instructive.
If illiteracy correlates to poverty and missed opportunities, so too does the lack of Jewish literacy. Without a deep knowledge of Jewish texts and traditions, in the absence of the ability to read and understand the Hebrew language, students lack the ability to create Jewish meaning and fully own their Jewish lives. These students are culturally impoverished, with Jewish illiteracy a stumbling block that impedes further Jewish growth.
The finding that literacy correlates with the number of books in a home calls to mind the stereotypical Jewish home with books covering every surface (at the very least, true in my own home). The book The Chosen Few by Botticini and Eckstein details the ways that Jewish society was shaped over the centuries by the drive to inculcate Jewish literacy. But, like the Freakonomics finding, what is the cause and what is the effect? Do these levels of literacy result from being surrounded by books, or are Jews surrounded by books because they are evidence of Jewish literacy? I will leave it to the social scientists to continue to parse that question, but an important take-away is the extent to which Jewish literacy provided a mechanism for the transmission of Jewish culture and religion, assuring the continuation of Judaism and the Jewish people.
In Pirkei Avot (6:1), Rabbi Meir says, “Anyone who involves himself in Torah lishmah (for its own sake) merits many things, and moreover the entire world is worthwhile for his sake.” The Mishnah and the commentaries attempt to elucidate “the many things” and to understand why learning Torah makes the world worthwhile. This concept of Torah lishmah mirrors the ideal notion of Jewish literacy that we are trying to inculcate in students. Jewish literacy is similarly valuable for its own sake; the possessor uses it as a lens that merits “many things” as it provides perspectives hitherto unknown, and clarity and inspiration as to what gives life purpose.
But the sages were not satisfied that Rabbi Meir’s Torah lishmah is sufficient. In a well-known debate in Kiddushin 40b, Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiva argue over whether study or action is superior. Rabbi Tarfon claims action and Rabbi Akiva, study. At which point the sages chime in to support Rabbi Akiva’s position by noting that study leads to action. In effect, study for its own sake is laudatory, but the expectation remains that increased study will lead to an increase in the performance of commandments and other Jewish behaviors.
While there is no consensus on what being Jewishly literate means or includes (just read the diverse perspectives contained in this exceptional issue of HaYidion), we do know that Jewish day schools best provide that same mechanism that allowed for Jewish continuity over the ages and the Torah lishmah that is valuable for its own sake and as the impetus for increased Jewish behavior. Jewish day schools surround children with Freakonomics’ proverbial books, both the written texts and the textpeople, as Abraham J. Heschel called the ideal Jewish teachers. Day school students live with texts, engage with texts and understand how texts create meaning that becomes action.
At RAVSAK we’ve always had a special focus on the Jewish mission of our schools. Our own mission statement declares that we support the Jewish life, learning and leadership of our schools, with the understanding that the adjective Jewish modifies each word in the phrase. Every program we’ve created has its roots in our deep belief in both the value and necessity of Jewish literacy. New heads of schools with little prior Jewish knowledge and experience? Sulam added the Jewish component to their already highly successful resumes. School boards seeking to build leadership pipelines? Sulam 2.0 ensured that Judaism informed the curriculum and addressed challenges to the Jewish mission. From student programs to conferences, new approaches to curriculum development, HaYidion and our website, RAVSAK’s commitments are to us the expression of Jewish literacy and we hope the inspiration for it as well. We’ve always said that our client is the Jewish future. Jewish day schools that provide the enveloping environment in which Torah lishmah becomes the kind of Jewish literacy that leads to action, are those that will deliver that future.