The Torah of Relevance: A Dinosaur Deserving Extinction

For at least a generation, Jewish educators have striven to engage students by making class material more relevant, the theory being that teens tune out during Bible (and rabbinics) because the topics and texts we teach are not sufficiently germane to their lives.

While this hypothesis appears, prima facie, both logical and reasonable, it is supported by little more than anecdotal evidence. Deeper scrutiny suggests just the opposite: that the best strategy for engaging our students is to embrace the Bible’s irrelevance. Let us begin, in the beginning, with dinosaurs.

Rare is the student not enraptured by dinosaurs. Children unable to name five states or identify their capitals can name ten species of dinosaur and tell you whether they are herbivores or carnivores. This is certainly not because dinosaurs have any relevance to their lives—nothing gleaned from the experience of prehistoric raptors can be properly applied to the youth of the 21st century. Indeed, it is precisely the Jurassic era’s utter lack of relevance that makes it so interesting to students. The dinosaurs’ unimportance is part of the joy of learning about them, Torah lishmah in its purest sense.

In her fine essay, “From China Shops to Jungle Gyms: Evaluating the Durability and Fragility of Our Classroom Learning Cultures,” Tali Hyman contrasts the uninhibited exuberance of learning in general studies courses (the Jungle Gym) with the careful and confined culture of the Jewish studies classroom that she cleverly christens The China Shop. To follow her metaphor, the contents of our limudei kodesh classes are too precious. When teachers are overly concerned about driving home fundamental lessons, the content becomes too fragile to play with.

One of the pleasures of Bible study is that the stakes are so low. Because the Biblical text is traditionally of no relevance to practical halachic decision making or theology, we have allowed much greater latitude in exploring the Biblical world than other spheres of Judaic scholarship. Radical peshat and wild midrashim enjoy a high level of tolerance even in traditional Chumash study due in large measure to the fact that, regardless of how outlandish the student’s suggestion, it will have no impact on formal Jewish practice or thought. We introduce more relevant readings into our classrooms in the hope that our students will care more about what they are studying. But paradoxically, the more we are invested in the outcomes of the Bible class, the more we constrict the arena in which we allow our students to play.

Traditionally, Jewish children were taught our Testament beginning with the book of Leviticus, as recounted in Vayyikra Rabbah 7:3: “Rav Assi said that young children begin their studies with Leviticus and not with Genesis because young children are pure, and the sacrifices recounted in Leviticus are pure, so the pure study the pure.”

Whatever the original rationale of this scope and sequence (the reasoning in the Midrash, while charming, is transparently post facto), its effect was to frame the study of Bible for the Jewish student through the lens of the cult rather than primordial and patriarchal narratives. This approach had two effects. One, it clarified that while the Torah combines narrative and law, it is the law that is primary (cf. Rashi on Gen. 1:1). Two, wittingly or not, giving primacy to Priestly law transmitted the message that the world of the Bible is foreign and fantastic. While it is true that Leviticus contains most of the Torah’s proverbial 613 commandments, the majority of them are irrelevant in that they are not practiced, but belong to a world long ago inhabited by clerics in jeweled robes ministering before a now-lost golden ark guarded by armed sentinels and winged griffins.

We have become so focused on achieving relevance in our Bible classes that we have ignored what often makes texts and topics interesting: how the worlds they portray and the ideas they convey are so different from our contemporary reality. Which brings us back to the dinosaurs. True, we can learn nothing of immediate applicability from studying the Tyrannosaurus Rex, but isn’t a 20-foot lizard awesome? The lost world that literature portrays is part of its lure. Michael Weingrad, in his lament on the paucity of Jewish fantasy writing, “Why There Is No Jewish Narnia,” captures this beautifully:

The experience of wonder, of joy and delight on the part of the reader, has long been recognized as one of the defining characteristics of the [fantasy] genre. This wonder is connected with a world, with a place of magic, strangeness, danger, and charm; and whether it is called Perelandra, Earthsea, Amber, or Oz, this world must be a truly alien place. As Ursula K. Le Guin says: “The point about Elfland is that you are not at home there. It’s not Poughkeepsie.”

While not fantasy literature in any strict sense, the Hebrew Bible is filled with the fantastical: witches and wonders, miracle workers and magical talking animals. For hundreds of years our rabbis and scholars have so rationalized and allegorized our canon’s marvels that we have exsanguinated the spirit that animated both the scripture and its student.

But the 19th century is over, and the 20th too, for that matter. Students in today’s Jewish schools are not asking the same questions as their parents or grandparents. The latter wanted to know that the holy writings that were central to their nation—and their nascent state—made sense. Today’s students are not part of generation how or generation why but generation zzz. Bible is a burden or at best, a bore. The supernatural plagues, splitting seas and food falling from the sky that may have unsettled Enlightenment Jews have the power to excite the postmodern student by allowing her a fifty minute passage into another reality.

Making Tanakh relevant certainly serves to make our ancient scrolls more accessible to today’s children and teens. Focusing on issues such as parental favoritism, sibling rivalry, leadership, and ethical decision-making undoubtedly makes hoary Writ feel contemporary, but doing so renders them pedestrian. Gone is the magic and mystery of a time long ago in a faraway land, replaced by texts concerned with the same struggles pervading our students’ lives, just with more opaque language. They have the right to ask—and many of them do—why they must endure the rigors of mastering Biblical Hebrew only to discover the same values they learn from our general culture.

I am reminded of a father whose son came home from Hebrew school with the assignment: Complete the sentence, “To be more like God I will…” The child had been given examples from class such as, “To be more like God I will take care of the earth,” and “To be more like God I will work for economic justice.” The father suggested instead something simpler such as, “To be more like God I will kill the firstborn of my enemies.”

We sit up, all senses firing, when we encounter literature that awakens us from our dogmatic slumber. The fact that the Bible contains ideas irrelevant and counter to our current culture should make students question the world around them rather than reactively challenging the text. This is the widest that we can open the young mind: to allow it to imagine a universe different than our own, with values and ideals that run against the grain of polite society.

Which is why we must allow the sacred words to speak for themselves. When we sacrifice potentially inspiring texts on the altar of relevance, we transmute the learning experience from one of intellectual discovery to one of imbibing the ideological message of the institutions in which they are taught. If in traditional schools it is important to portray our ancestors observing the mitzvot in a manner that mimics the Shulkhan Arukh, in more liberal institutions the Bible needs to enforce or foretell ideals of tolerance and egalitarianism. The agendas are competitive, the results are identical: in order to make the Word relevant its words must be twisted, forced and expunged. When this fails or cannot be done, students are instructed to critique the text from our modern vantage point. Forcing a text to speak in this way renders it not only irrelevant, but rubbish.

Finally, a risk of making Tanakh relevant is that anything that is fashionable will, ipso facto, cease to be so with time. While it is a venerable Jewish practice to connect the weekly parashah to events transpiring in society at large, it is precisely the freshest and most pertinent sermons that have the shortest shelf life.

Real relevance comes when our students enjoy the Bible as a beloved classic, a great work that has stood the test of time. True relevance is not about being timely, but about being timeless. Our role as Jewish educators is to relay the ancient and everlasting value of our Holy Writ. Our own relevance rests upon our ability to offer our students transcendent ideas they will get nowhere else, a taste of eternity. Such wisdom is not easily attained or understood; it is hard won, not Wiki-ed. Classical Scriptural virtues like faith, commitment, honor and Truth might not be consonant with our students’ lives today, but challenge them to imagine what life could be. If we cannot offer this in our Bible classes we will simply be adults trying to make old books look hip. In another word, dinosaurs.&daims;

Rabbi Eric Grossman is the head of school at Frankel Jewish Academy, an Open, Halakhic, Zionist, American school in West Bloomfield, Michigan. He can be reached at egrossman@frankelja.org.

Author
Eric Grossman
Issue
Teaching Tanakh
Knowledge Topics
Teaching and Learning
Published: Summer 2012