Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Basic Books and Questions of Cultural Literacy

This post is appropriate at any time, but maybe especially in the lead-up to Shavuot, raising questions of our Kabbalat Torah and the extent to which we engage in the commitment of Brit Sinai (the Covenant that we made at Sinai.)

I'll begin with an anecdote. The other day, I took my son to the Hebrew bookshop i.e. the Sefarim store - Sifrei Kodesh. we were supposed to make a Barmitzva List - a list of books that he has designated, so that guests to the Barmitzva can have an easy time choosing a gift.

When I asked him what he wanted, he didn't really know, so I suggested that we buy the basic books that a person who wants to learn Torah should have. So we chose a Mikraot Gedolot, a Ramban, a Mishna Berura, Shemirat Shabbat Kehilchata, Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch on Chumash, Nechama Leibowitz and much more. My son asked me what I was choosing and why, and I kept on repeating (somewhat unaware that this was my mantra,) that these are fundamental books that one should have and study. It became apparent that as the list grew in length, my son was getting somewhat nervous, and he challenged me: "Are you saying that ALL THESE are things I have to know?" And at that moment I realised that he was wondering how he was ever going to absorb all of that stuff!

But what is the basic Jewish bookshelf? and what is basic Jewish literacy? and why is it important?

I would say very simply that in every culture there is a corpus of knowledge - intellectual and cultural - that form the bedrock of that civilisation. and that in order to function successfully, let alone to play a central role, to become productive, to lead, to be valued in that society, one must have absorbed that bookshelf. We are talking about facts and ideas that form a foundational set of cultural vocabulary, the very language of that society. And to say something credible or articulate, to be a full member of that society, one must have absorbed that knowledge set.

This is certainly true in western society. and even in the various sub-groups and communities, each group has its own essential knowledge base and culture-set. For academics it will be certain books and papers, for the business community it will be interest rates and stock prices, for the average person it might be what is on TV last night ... i.e. the things that are assumed in your social surroundings.

And now to Judaism. what is literacy for us? For sure, it will differ within our sub-communities. But I have a feeling that if we wish to be "Torah" Jews, Jews who don't simply live life in a robotic set of ordinances and prescriptive directives, then we need to be knowledgeable. If we seek to produce thinking, self-reflective, articulate people who can understand their tradition - Torah Shebichtav and Torah ShebeAl Peh - then there is a certain knowledge base that allows a person to converse within the tradition, to evaluate positions and to find intellectual satisfaction within the world of Jewish ideas. It is from within the traditional bookshelf that we obtain that literacy, and it is only once we speak that language that we can really think Jewishly in the absolute sense of the word.

And it might be precisely this principle that underpins the mitzva of Talmud Torah - daily Torah study. We need to refresh our knowledge base, to encounter new ideas with regularity. We need to be conversant with our Torah texts and concepts in the same manner that we check our emails and favourite web-pages... daily (or multiple times a day.) For these are the experiences that give substance to our experiential reality, to the "now". to the ideas, emotions and impulses in my head.

I was discussing this with my students at Yeshivat Eretz Hatzvi. My students are currently about to leave Yeshiva and to start college. When on campus, where is your head space? Are you totally in the rhythm of the liberal value set of the college campus? Or are your thoughts, behaviour, speech and consciousness dictated by Torah and its values? I am not calling for sidelining college. But what I am raising is what is the "basic" literacy that governs our lives.

as we renew our covenant of Torah this Shavuot, we might want to mull this question, as to the prominence of Jewish substance at the bedrock of our daily reality.

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