Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish New Year, is a wonderful time to assess the past year and consider what we hope to achieve, spiritually speaking and otherwise, in the year to come. It’s also a time when hoards of Jewish adults show up at a synagogue for the first time since Yom Kippur of the previous year and make self-deprecating jokes about their lack of Jewish literacy.
By Jewish literacy, I don’t mean Hebrew skills or the ability to keep up with the prayers, though that’s certainly a major obstacle for many Jews (including yours truly). I’m referring to a full array of knowledge such as what the holidays mean beyond a surface level, or other information like the Jewish stance on marriage, friendship, free will, business ethics, suffering, and so on.
Why am I harping on Jewish literacy? It bothers me when Jewish adults blame childhood circumstances for the holes in their Jewish education. If you’re forty-two years old and you get nervous when someone invites you to a Shabbat dinner because you don’t know the long version of the kiddush or even the short one, I don’t think it’s fair to blame your childhood rabbis, the denomination in which you were raised, the Hebrew and/or religious school you did or didn’t attend, or your parents’ lack of observance. Same goes for not knowing why your kids are making Sukkot decorations at their preschool, or that in Judaism giving charity is a mitzvah–which means “commandment” and not “good deed.”
You’re an adult. It’s time to take some ownership of this area, because you’re likely missing out on wisdom that would make your life more fulfilling and meaningful (which is a key point, though one I’ll save for another post).
There’s no opportunity as fruitful as the Jewish New Year to study an element of Judaism you never understood before, or to simply learn the basics (like naming the five Books of Moses, the Ten Commandments, and knowing the difference between the Torah and the Talmud.)
Being a literate Jewish adult doesn’t mean you’re obligated to become a religious one. Sure, adding new rituals could bring a welcome sense of rhythm to an otherwise chaotic world, but there are benefits to knowing the answers to basic questions as well as deeper ones, or least having people in your life you can ask such as teachers and rabbis.
When we’re at work, when we’re speaking to our children, traveling, or in any situation where someone might look to us as a representative of Jews in general, I believe we each have a responsibility to speak somewhat intelligently about who we are.
Let me illustrate that last point. I spent a good chunk of my junior year of college living with a devout Catholic family in Santiago, Chile. They had endless questions about Judaism. While nobody would expect me (or anyone) to know all the answers, I’m still mortified about the misinformation I spread. For example, I told them in Judaism there’s no mention of the afterlife. That’s simply not accurate, yet so many under-educated Jews seem to think so.
Eventually the questions got so complex that I asked my parents for reinforcements. They sent Joseph Telushkin’s Jewish Literacy (this was in 1998 when accessing the internet required waiting in line at the university’s computer lab.) Telushkin’s book has a page on everything you can imagine from history to rituals to philosophy. I’d find the topic my host parents wanted to know about then translate it into Spanish.
As you can imagine, I learned a tremendous amount myself. In fact, those eight months sleeping under a Crucifix in Santiago was the true beginning of my adult Jewish education.
A reference book was a great place to start. Nowadays, the internet provides excellent resources such as myjewishlearning.com and a myriad of other options. Then there’s my personal favorite option of finding a rabbi, educator, or even a friend with whom you can study any area of Judaism that interests you. And every denomination in the Jewish “umbrella” offers group classes and casual study groups if that’s more to your liking. As someone who’s studied Jewish texts and issues of interest to me quite a bit in the past ten years, my personal goal in the next year or two is to brush up on my Hebrew. And by brush up, I mean keep up with my first grader. Sad, but true.
Folks, perhaps I’ve lost my sense of humor. Perhaps I need someone to explain what’s so knee-slapping funny about Jewish adults walking around with a sub-par Jewish education. The wisdom and insights contained in our holy books as well as the ancient and modern commentaries are waiting for us to discover. Let’s not waste another year separated from them.