Tanakh Literacy, for the Jewish Present
“Literacy is about more than reading and writing—it is about how we communicate in society. It is about social practices and relationships, about knowledge, language and culture.” UNESCO
One day, an eighth-grade student who refused to put on tefillin during tefillah came into my office. Our conversation segued into his lack of connection to the Judaic studies program as a whole because, he said, “It’s not relevant to me.” Knowing he was a strong student in math (a subject that I could never relate to), I asked if he found math relevant. He explained, quite simply, “I’ll need math when I go to university.” Talk about deferred gratification!
This interaction helped me understand something about what makes student learning meaningful or relevant. The positive experience in learning math for this student was not primarily about personal relevance, but about what had value within the larger framework within which he lived, what had relevance in his own cultural and social environment—what I will call here the “story” or “narrative” that one inhabits. In this student’s story, university entrance is paramount, and he, not even having graduated middle school, had this socially constructed value at the front of his mind, one which has deeply impacted his approach to learning—all despite the lack of immediate or personal relevance.
On the other hand, a vast amount of the Jewish content that students learn does not fit into a story that makes it meaningful to them. While teachers, passionate about the relevance of their material, try to create personal relevance and meaningful connections for students, absent a relevant “story” their words generally fall on deaf ears. One must be able to connect to students’ existing story or narrative, and there are few Jewish stories that students connect to in a meaningful way.
To that end, I would like to suggest the notion of Tanakh literacy as one that can help build a narrative within which the many pieces of Jewish learning and knowledge can situate themselves for learners. What I am speaking about it not merely the sum of important Torah facts (even though this is important to create a larger Jewish cultural narrative), but a grounding story or narrative, which will be as natural to our students as the American and Western ones are. This assumes a broad notion of literacy, as referenced in the epigraph from UNESCO above. Stories, more than facts and ritual practices, are the context within which we create meaning, grounding, and ultimately, identity. Stories therefore not only form the basis of a particular set of literacy practices, but also are themselves part and parcel of the practices themselves. We are not only storytellers, but story dwellers.
I have two things in mind when I speak about developing Tanakh literacy aimed toward developing a Jewish story for our students.
A deep understanding of the central story, learned in a theme- driven manner, of the birth and founding of the Jewish people—i.e., from God’s call to Avraham, to the Exodus from Egypt and the receiving of the Torah. This is the core story of the Jewish people, without reference to which there is little coherence religiously, in terms of the Land of Israel (and consequently Zionism and modern Israel—me-haTanakh le-Palmach), or Jewish peoplehood (as opposed to being part of a faith community like Christianity). This is a story that creates coherence and meaning in a contemporary Jewish life. These are not to exclude the many other stories that we have adopted and adapted in the millennia since and which have moral or religious meaning. Rather, that no matter the cultural changes or communal affiliations we experience, these founding narratives will inevitably persist and return, and form the basis for all contemporary Jewish identity and expression. Again, the stories must be theme-driven, to lend coherence and develop a set of big ideas or meaningful narratives.
A strong set of literary skills is necessary to develop interpretative, and not just decoding independence with the Tanakh text. These skills allow for a direct and unmediated experience of the text, which is key to allowing learners to dwell within these stories, develop personal connection, and not simply listen to them passively.
Let me expand on these points, and give an example below. Within the narrative arc I reference, one finds the basic themes of life that are the touchstones of the Jewish lens: justice and righteousness (Avraham and Sedom), deception and its consequences (Ya’akov), change and personal growth (Yosef), the pain of leadership (Yehudah), pursuit of relationship with the Divine (Avraham), and much more. These ideas, relevant now as they were then, are pursued through the lives of the people who form the basis of Jewish identification and Jewish peoplehood, and which imbue present day Jewish culture and discourse. Learning these stories with our students provides them with a compelling narrative and language, one that not only guides them as individuals, as all great stories do, but also gives them a larger sense of social connectedness to the Jewish people. These narratives also give coherence and form to the Jewish particulars of practice and values that are so much of a part of contemporary Jewish identification.
This vision of Jewish literacy also requires clearly articulated and developed literary textual skills: not only the micro reading and decoding skills (which I’d suggest are of lesser importance, even as there is a strong argument for their necessity), but the broader literary skills that make a text meaningful, and which allow larger patterns and ideas in the text to emerge. The literary approach is strongly manifested both in religious settings (such as Yeshivat Gush Etzion) and in the academy (including Robert Alter and many others), with a fruitful crossover between these two camps. This approach to Tanakh empowers the reader to engage directly with the text, and to ultimately see the bigger picture of its purpose—to the stories in their totality, with the concomitant impact it has on the broader notion of literacy as framed above.
This part of skill development is deeply intertwined with the content goal above, as it leads the learner to think broadly and deeply about the Torah text and the larger messages it is trying to share. Too often we get caught up in the smaller details, perhaps a bi-product of the medieval verse-by-verse form of interpretation that is so common, and our prioritization of the commentators themselves as the meaning-makers of the text. And since most day-school Jews at some point will end up sitting in front of two core texts—the siddur and the Tanakh—this approach well serves the goal of lifelong learning.
I would like to use the story of Avraham and the destruction of Sedom as an example. In one of the most famous conversations in Tanakh, Avraham challenges God in His decision to destroy the city. This conversation, and the implied ability for a limited human to challenge a perfect and infinite God, is often at the center of discussion and interest. I believe this is the case because it appeals to our Western sense of autonomy even in religious practice. It challenges the assumption that human agency vis-a-vis God is off limits.
Following the thinking of Rabbi Menachem Liebtag, I would like to suggest an approach that makes this conversation even richer and more deeply relevant. If one looks at the story from a literary point of view, the conversation between God and Avraham is the second part of what takes place within one long parshiyah of the Torah, that is, a text that is bounded by open space on either side (this text begins with Bereishit 18:1 and ends with 19:38). The parshiyah, established in ancient times, can be considered as a literary unit, and forces the reader to consider the entire narrative that falls within it in a holistic fashion. In this parshiyah, the very same angels that destroy Sedom inform Avraham of the birth of his son, implying a relationship between these two events. The annunciation is followed by God saying, “Shall I hide from Avraham what I am about to do, since Avraham is to become a great nation? … For I have singled him out in order that he will instruct his children and their family afterward to keep the way of God by doing what is just and right (tzedakah umishpat)” (18:17-19). The story of Sedom and its lack of righteousness is, it would seem, the literary counterpoint to the very central mission of tzedakah umishpat that God has given to Avraham and his children, promised in the first part the parshiyah. Read this way, the core idea of the entire parshiyah is that tzedakah umishpat, qualities absent from Sedom, are at the core of what God wants of Avraham and his children following, including us today as Jews.
What makes this reading particularly valuable is its capacity to serve as a larger story within which many Jewish values and practices gain meaning and significance. It creates a framework for talking about everything from social justice, to the laws of tzedakah (this language is used by the Rambam in Hilchot Matanot Aniyim 10:1), to tefillah (the eleventh prayer of the Shmoneh Esrei: “Blessed are You...O King who loves tzedakah umishpat”) and more. In this way, tzedakah umishpat emerge as core language to be used in class and school that represent the highest values of Jewish purpose, and they emerge from the foundational stories of the Torah. This approach provides our students with a Jewish language rooted in the Torah’s story. When this language comes to inform student practice through service learning, it allows learners to live within a Jewish story through the breadth of their lives.
Tanakh literacy is more than just about creating material that is compelling or personally relevant. It is about building a contemporary Jewish story upon our most basic Jewish stories, and one that is meshed with the narrative of today’s day school student. And while one could argue that Talmud, or other eras or ideas of Jewish life (Hassidut, Haskalah, the Holocaust, or the State of Israel and Zionism) are also potentially compelling narratives, all have the downside of their more limited scope relative to the broad reach of the Torah’s stories. At its core, this is the central narrative of the foundation of the Jewish people, regardless of one’s community, religious proclivity or affiliation.
One could argue that there is no revolution in the ideas I present here. After all, what day school does not teach these stories? What is significant, however, is the lens through which these texts are approached, the means by which they should be approached, and the ends they are meant to achieve. Do they function as grand communal narratives, or are they quaint stories of an ancient tradition? Finally, this is not an argument for a Tanakh-only education. Rather, it is an argument about placing the foundational stories of the Chumash at the center, and the understanding that students need to be able to access these stories directly, in order to support a vitalized, contemporary, relevant Jewish story.