October 19, 2006
Judaism 101: everything we need to know
Prerequisites for Jewish literacy
What is Jewish literacy? What does it mean to be Jewishly literate? Who is an educated Jew? |
Paula Hyman, professor of modern Jewish history at Yale University, wrote in an issue of Sh'ma, "There has been no consensus on the issue of 'Who is an educated Jew?' for more than 200 years."
Clearly, our definitions have changed over the centuries. But where are we today? What must we know to function as literate Jews?
Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, in his introduction to "Jewish Literacy: The Most Important Things to Know About the Jewish Religion, Its People, and Its History," observes, "At a time when Jewish life in the United States is flourishing, Jewish ignorance is, too."
He goes on to say that while large numbers of Jews of all ages are seeking Jewish involvement, in many cases, they are secretly "Jewishly illiterate."
Modern Jews, Telushkin writes, are either vaguely familiar with or completely unaware of the most basic terms and significant facts about Jewish life and Jewish history.
The traditional definition of literacy is the ability to use language - to read, write, listen and speak. In modern contexts, the word means reading and writing on a level adequate for written communication and generally a level that enables one to successfully function at certain levels of a society.
For our purpose, the phrase "successfully function at certain levels of a society" is where we must begin. What do we need to know to function in or create a Jewish home, to function in the synagogue, to function in Jewish communal life and to function in the world as a knowledgeable Jew? What should we know, feel and be able to do to be considered a literate Jew?
Jewish educators wrestle with these questions on a regular basis. Whether working in a congregation, in a day school or in a graduate program in Jewish education, the questions are the same, although the answers may vary greatly from setting to setting.
Let's begin with some basic categories: God, Torah, Jewish nation, Israel, holidays, life cycle and deeds. These categories, once briefly explored, will form the basis on which most Jewish learning, leading to Jewish literacy, is built.
Jo Kay is director of education of the School of Education at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York City and vice president of educational resources for the Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education.
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