From the Outside In: Renaissance and Adult Jewish Learning

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November 1, 2000
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Carolyn Keller

“Three years ago, I began a journey. I began to draw more and seek more from Judaism, …my journey was filled with important questions and challenges. Two struck me: What made my home a Jewish home? What distinguished the sacred from the profane in my Jewish life? I felt I had no good answers, so I kept searching. I took a class on the Haggadah, and I joined a Jewish women’s study group. I found myself growing, changing, and embracing all of the new perspectives I gained. More questions, more challenges. Me’ah is the next logical step in my journey. I am intrigued and excited by its potential for learning, for community, for challenge, and for growth. I hope this journey never ends. And I am thrilled that my children are watching and participating in the joyful evolution of my fuller Jewish identity.” – Me’ah student

Lifelong Jewish learning has been a core value of Judaism since Ezra mandated the public reading of the Torah. Batei Midrash (Houses of study) were established so adults could use their “leisure time” to fulfill the mitzvah of Talmud Torah. In America, adult learning became a central programmatic component of both synagogues and Jewish centers (like New York’s 92nd Street Y). In 1940, the United Synagogue of America established the National Academy for Adult Jewish Studies to “encourage and promote adult learning both formal and informal in the synagogue and in the general Jewish community.”

So what is the rage today? Why is there an undeniable sense that we are in a unique moment, a renaissance of Jewish learning? Why are synagogues, religious movements, JCCs, foundations, and – most surprisingly of all, perhaps – federations, gearing up to sustain this momentum for adult Jewish study?

There are several reasons for this renewal – some psychological, others technological, contextual, and sociological. I would like to suggest that today’s adults are engaging in Jewish learning not only in greater numbers but also in greater depth. Previous generations studied in order to “know how,” today they want to know “why.” Going beyond remedying their deficiencies, today’s Jews seek meaning and connection to their lives from texts and teachers. Today’s baby boomers, in their midlife search for respite from the grind, are looking for answers. They strive to excel in all areas of life, even as Jewish parents and role models for their children.

Technological advances – from new translations to the Internet – have made it possible for anyone to study even the most esoteric texts any time, anywhere. “Are you ready to receive Torah?” is no longer the question Moshe Rabbeinu asks at Sinai, but what Palm Pilot owners ask each other.

Moreover, the North American Jewish community has “arrived” socioeconomically. We are all college educated, comfortable with studying on an advanced academic level. Jewish Studies Departments have produced a cadre of scholars who are as adept at critical research as they are at delivering popular lectures. They serve as weekend scholars-in-residence and write books that make Jewish texts accessible, without teaching a “watered-down” Judaism.

In a time of rapid and profound change, we are looking for creative ways to express ourselves and to find meaning amidst an overwhelmingly mundane and materialistic environment. It’s kosher to study Kabbalah!

Our interests in learning are varied: the lawyer who looks for legal foundations of Western law in the Talmud; the mother who grapples with the violence in the Torah’s stories of sibling rivalry; the soup kitchen volunteer who comes to understand the Jewish mandate for action through her study of texts on gemilut chesed and tikkun olam.

Why are some of the vehicles we are using for this journey working so well? In Boston’s two-year Me’ah program (100 hours of Jewish learning), we bring participants into the ageless “Jewish conversation” by exposing them to the core primary texts of Jewish life in the hands of some of the region’s outstanding scholars. The UAHC’s Kallah at Brandeis University is an immersion opportunity for the movement’s leaders to connect authentic study with role models of active, engaged Jews.

Camp Ramah’s Family Camps or six-week LiSh’ma text study programs for young adults create communities of learners, albeit temporarily, that are alternatives to typical urban or suburban settings. Distance learning and the Daf Yomi phenomenon make it possible to set time aside for study corresponding to individual schedules, while uniting Jews worldwide in virtual communities of learners.

Above all, today’s seekers need to find meaning in the experience. Both their lives and the traditional texts require explication. Most of today’s adult learners start with their experience and use it as a portal, a point of connection, into the world of authentic Jewish texts and ideas.

As Franz Rosenzweig offered in his opening lecture at the Frankfurt Lehrhaus in 1920:

“A new learning is about to be born – rather, it has been born. It is learning in reverse order. A learning that no longer starts from the Torah and leads into life, but the other way round: from life…back to the Torah… [F]rom the periphery back to the center, from the outside in.”

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Carolyn Keller is Director of Jewish Education and Continuity at Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston (CJP).

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