Rabbi Rony S. Keller, RJE Yom Kippur Morning 2011/5772
When I first moved to Los Angeles I needed to update my driver’s license. If you’ve ever been to the DMV in LA then you’ll agree it’s a painful experience. The lines are windier than Disneyland and the wait is often unbearable. I didn’t need to take the road test, but I needed to take the written exam to get a CA license. Lisa, my wife spent days studying for the test. And I thought, why do I have to study for this test, I know how to drive.
Needless to say, Lisa passed the test and I did not…and she’s never let me forget it. ‘To become a driver…you have to pass a test that demonstrates your skills and understanding of the rules of the road.’ (Brown 118)
For Example: When driving in fog you should use your: A) Low beams B) Fog lights only C) High beams
You may not park within how many feet of a fire hydrant? A) 5 feet B) 10 feet C) 15 feet D) 20 feet
‘To become a citizen in the US, you have to take a test that demonstrates an understanding of government and civic laws.’ (Brown 118)
For Example: How many representatives are there in Congress? A) 435 B) 100 C) 297
Who said, "Give me liberty or give me death."? A) Thomas Paine B) Samuel Adams C) Patrick Henry
Because citizenship bestows privileges and responsibilities, it requires some measurable means of knowledge…and yet for Judaism, to become a member requires nothing more than birth or conversion’ (Brown 118)
Lets imagine that in addition to learning prayers, Torah, and Haftarah for a bar or bat mitzvah, everyone of us also needed to take a Jewish literacy test. How would we do? Let’s test our Jewish literacy: Question 1: What are the three sections of the Hebrew Bible? Question 2: Who was Abraham’s grandson? Question 3: What are the 5 books of the Torah? Question 4: What are the three Jewish Pilgrimage holidays?
Most professions need a certain number of classes that are required to maintain a license or practice, but nothing like that exists for Judaism. Especially as Reform Jews, we are free to practice or study as much or as little as we want. Because we have free choice, more often than not, people choose to do very little. The problem with our lack of education is that we are the people of the book. Throughout our history we are categorized by our hefty knowledge base. But times have changed. Now, it seems as if our wealth of knowledge is shrinking.
The fact is that many of us are not Jewishly literate. ‘At at time when Jewish life in the US is flourishing, Jewish ignorance is too.’ (Brown 125) It’s our obligation to have a basic understanding of our own religion. Judaism will only survive if we can speak intelligently about our people.
‘We would find it hard to imagine a Jewish parent allowing his or her child to forego college and graduate school; however we find it totally credible that Jewish children are allowed to forego Jewish education, often deciding on their own at bar and bat mitzvah ages to give up on religious school. ‘(Brown 118-119)
Would you want your accountant to have a sixth grade education or your pilot to stop training at age thirteen? How can our Jewish education end with Bar/Bat mitzvah?
Rabbi David Wolpe (pg. 69) writes: ‘My great-grandparents were strangers to America. They did not speak English well. They did not know the customs of their new land. Yet, they were natives to Judaism. My grandfather was not an observant man. But, when they needed a tenth for a minyan, they called him because he knew how to pray. He was a native to Judaism. In our day, we are natives to America. We understand the ways of this country. But, we are immigrants to Judaism. Walking into the shul, we do not speak the language; we are uncertain of the customs; we do not know when to stand, when to speak, what to say. We are as uncomfortable praying in shul as our grandparents were watching football in America. Education turned a generation of immigrants to America, into natives. Only education will turn immigrants to Judaism, into natives.’ Wolpe is right, The sad reality is that we are immigrants to Judaism. We put the onus of educating our youth onto other people and hope that will be enough. We are no longer active participants in passing Jewish ideals and basic Jewish literacy to our children. There is a lot to be done throughout the week: school, work, exercise, extracurricular activities, meetings, and TV. But as much as we have going on, there is always an opportunity to become more Jewishly literate. One of our former Bar/Bat Mitzvah tutors would tell the students that that they might be NBA all-stars, prima ballerinas or the goalie for the Red Wings, but they would always be a Jew. The same is true for us as adults…there is always an opportunity to study and change our status from immigrants to Judaism into natives.
Writer Nina Badzin states ‘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 kiddush, I don’t think it’s fair to blame your childhood clergy, 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.’ (Badzin)
Badzin makes a great point, instead of blaming the past, we must be proactive. We all value Judaism enough that we showed up this morning. So now that we are all here….lets be responsible and literate Jews and make sure that we know our own religion.
Jewish literacy doesn’t necessarily mean Hebrew fluency or the ability to lead the Torah service. Being Jewishly literate means that you have an understanding of Judaism beyond the basics. (Badzin) Like knowing what the Mishna is, or describing the differences between Haggadah, Halacha, and Havdalah?
The High Holidays are an ideal time to assess your Jewish literacy. Being a literate Jewish adult doesn’t mean you’re obligated to become an observant one. (Badzin)
Being literate empowers us. Knowing a little about cars, sports, art, or cooking makes us well-rounded people. The same is true of Judaism, having a strong base of understanding about our people strengthens us as individuals and as a Jewish community.
As we begin this New Year together, I have a challenge for us. In the coming days, our website will have a CBI Jewish Literacy inventory…with a special thanks to Karen Polen. This is our big chance to assess our own personal Jewish literacy as well as the literacy of our congregation. The inventory will not take long and I think you’ll actually enjoy it. The questions will range from easy to difficult and will cover a variety of Jewish topics. Every week, the website will show our community’s progress. How do you think you’d do? Are we Jewishly literate? If you missed a few questions or want to brush up or are inspired to learn more, then we’ll have classes throughout the coming year to strengthen and solidify our Jewish literacy.
As we sit here this Yom Kippur morning…make a promise to become more Jewishly literate. Do it now, as in the words of Rabbi Hillel…’Do not say when I have leisure I will study, because you may never have leisure.’ (Avot 2:4)
I didn’t think that I needed to study for the CA driving test because I already knew how to drive. We who are here today already know how to be Jewish, obviously that’s why we’re here and not at Starbucks…so let’s return to our Jewish literacy test: What 5 things are prohibited on Yom Kippur? (Eating & drinking, marital relations, anointing, wearing leather shoes, and bathing) Well, how did you do on this little Jewish literacy test? Did you pass?
This year make a commitment to learn more, study more, and appreciate the many gifts of Judaism that are all around us. Let’s not be immigrants to our own religion. Make Jewish literacy a priority and it will enrich your life.
Shabbat Shalom and Gmar Chatimah Tovah! *Badzin quotes from: ‘Stop Blaming Hebrew School’ - September 20, 2011– Nina Badzin.
*Brown quotes from: Brown, E Dr. (2009). The Case for Jewish Peoplehood: Can We Be One? Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing.
*Wolpe quote from: Wolpe, David Rabbi. (2004). Floating Takes Faith: Ancient Wisdom for a Modern World. Springfield, NJ: Behrman House.