The Value of Jewish Literacy

The annual Torah-reading cycle has only just begun. Join in, whoever you are.

Dr Samuel Lebens / Jewish World blogger
Dr. Samuel Lebens
Dr Samuel Lebens / Jewish World blogger
Dr. Samuel Lebens

When writing this blog for Haaretz Jewish World, I often find myself wondering what the Jewish world is. As I’ve said in the past, it simply isn’t true that our identity is a matter of race - the Jewish world is multi-racial. We’re not united by a single ideology – the famous adage has it that for every two Jews there will be at least three views. And we’re not united religiously.

Without wanting to give a full account of the nature of Jewish identity, I think it safe to say that one thing that we do share is a literary cannon. From the Bible, the Talmud, the Midrash, right down to the stories of Shalom Aleichem or Shai Agnon, the Jewish people have produced and continue to produce a distinctive literary cannon.

Furthermore, what makes a book distinctively Jewish is often the fact that it refers back to older books in the cannon. The works of the Rabbis contain echoes of the Bible. Biblical and Rabbinic allusions abound in the works of Shalom Aleichem, Shai Agnon, and (even) Amos Oz. Each generation refers to those that have past.

Given this introduction, I think we can agree that there is a great Jewish virtue (not merely a religious virtue, but a civic and national one too) to be “Jewishly literate.”

A few years ago I heard a rabbi of mine speaking to his son. It was a mundane, everyday sort of a conversation. The son had just got home from giving his sister a ride to the bus station. As he came in through the door, the rabbi asked him, ”Did you wait to see her get on to the bus?”

”No,” the son replied, “but I left her at the station with some of her friends. She was fine.”

Unsatisfied with this response, the rabbi continued, ”Well, you could have waited behind the bulrushes like Miriam.” Just as Miriam followed baby Moses in his basket, hiding behind the bulrushes until the Princess of Egypt discovered her brother, the rabbi’s son could have stayed in his car until he saw his sister safely onto the bus.

This quick and casual Biblical reference stayed with me. So immersed in Jewish literature was this rabbi that even a casual aside in a mundane conversation was steeped in the symbolic landscape of the Jewish literary cannon. The memory became something of a litmus test for myself when I ask myself whether I’m truly Jewishly literate.

How does a person become Jewishly literate? On the one hand, it’s true to say that there are no quick fixes. The Jewish literary cannon is vast. One has to be patient, read a lot, study a lot, go to classes, etc. On the other hand, there is one trick that doesn’t take too much time, and, over the course of a year, can do wonders.

Every synagogue around the world reads a portion of the Torah each week. Over the course of the year, they complete the entire book. Some non-Orthodox communities have revived an ancient custom of reading less each week, completing the entire book over the course of three years – but the yearly cycle is far more common.

Whether you’re religious or not, there is something majestic about huge numbers of the Jewish people reading the same text each week. Much like the Daf Yomi project that reads a page of the Talmud every day, the weekly Torah reading is something that has moved into the digital age and attracts all sorts of Jews for all sorts of reasons. People blog about it (from deep rabbinic analysis of the weekly Torah reading to creating related arts and craft projects for kids) and tweet about it. It’s part of what makes a common literary cannon so important to the sense of being Jewish collectively: we’re all reading the same things, at the same time, asking the same questions, absorbing the same imagery.

The weekly reading in almost any Jewish publication of the Bible is split into seven sections, which makes it pretty easy to read through the weekly reading by yourself in bite-sized chunks. One section each day over the course of the week and you’ll complete the weekly reading.

Reading the weekly portion puts you in touch with hundreds of thousands of Jews worldwide, but more than that, within time, you’ll see how it makes you Jewishly literate. Whether you’re a religious Jew or a secular Jew, or something in between, to know your way around the Bible, especially the first five books of it (which comprise the Torah), is the key to becoming a Jewishly literate person. You’ll start to make associations between the images and themes of the Bible and the things that are happening around you.

And the time is now! Having just come through the holiday season where even the most unaffiliated Jew often feels quite connected to their heritage, synagogues around the world are only just starting the yearly cycle again. We’re right at the start of the book of Genesis. Jump on board. And, when the going gets tough, like, toward the end of Exodus, and pretty much all of Leviticus, and you’re wondering how all of the animal sacrifices and tent building can have any relevance to your life, religiously or culturally, I cannot advise highly enough finding a weekly summary that inspires, uplifts or provokes you. There are, literally hundreds to find online (of all ideological bents). Personally, I find that there is nothing quite like Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks’ weekly commentary, ”Covenant and Conversation.” He finds a way of synthesising the weekly reading, however obscure it might seem, with all of the other layers of the Jewish literary cannon, and with secular thought too.

Rabbi Dr. Samuel Lebens is a Fellow at the Center for Philosophy of Religion at the University of Notre Dame.

Open the door to Judaism by becoming Jewishly literate.Credit: AFP

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