The Art of Judaism

Jewish Literacy

 ‘Illiterate Jew’ is an oxymoron. (Attributed to Lord Jakobovits)

Literacy is not a luxury; it is a right and a responsibility. (Bill Clinton)

Torah, Torah, die beste sechorah – the best merchandise. (Yiddish saying)

Promoting Jewish literacy – familiarity with classical Jewish texts and the ability to manipulate them – is something that every rabbi holds dear.  Happily, the recent growth in Jewish schooling and other educational initiatives has improved Jewish literacy within our mainstream communities, which had for years viewed synagogues as the sole panacea for their existential ills.

Yet there is a recurrent issue with the relatively low level of textual Jewish studies taught in high schools serving the centrist Anglo-Jewish communities.  This is evident from my numerous conversations with British students about their post high-school experiences in Israel: I have lost track of how many times I have heard bright and motivated British teenagers grumble that they lag behind their American fellow-students; this is corroborated by their perplexed and rather frustrated tutors.

It is important to recognise that the US Jewish high school system differs greatly from ours: the separation of Church and State there means that the schools operate independently from the mainstream system, which apart from making them eye-wateringly expensive, allows them to determine their own agendas.  Although UK graduates generally perform better in secular subjects, there is no escaping that notwithstanding the opportunities they have had for extra-curricular learning, ‘text clubs’ etc., the alumni of our schools are usually much less Jewishly literate than their US counterparts.

I have previously mentioned my view that the greatest impediment to Anglo-Jews engaging seriously with Jewish observance and Torah study is the certainty that it will inhibit, rather than enhance, their life-aspirations.  This conviction lies at the heart of the Jewish literacy issue: parents and even some educators associate textual competence with religiosity and poor social integration; as such, they resist including too much of in the school curriculum.  As far as many Anglo-Jews are concerned, Jewish literacy is only for ‘frummers’.  I have even heard from directors of school Jewish-studies programmes that they are often pressured by parents and board members not to increase the quantity or intensity of their provision.

In contrast, many American educators have realised that Jewish literacy is actually the entrée to every aspect of Jewish life.  They understand that training their students to read Bible commentaries and Talmud, as well as teaching them to speak good Ivrit, are valuable ends in themselves – they regard them as indispensable components of a decent Jewish education.  Interestingly, this attitude cuts across the observance spectrum: Orthodox high schools that would describe themselves as ‘very modern’, along with Conservative educational institutions, devote many curriculum hours each week to high-level textual study.  They realise that every facet of their students’ Jewish lives is enhanced by being able to understand and discuss Judaism ‘in the original’.  Irrespective of their commitment to observance, ‘textual aficionados’ gain an unmediated appreciation of their Jewish origins and identity, connect profoundly with other Jews and communities around the world, form a unique bond with Israel and its people, and, quite simply, internalise a deeper sense of the history, development, challenges and aspirations of the Jewish people than their less-literate friends.  It is clear that many American Jews, irrespective of their degree of commitment and conviction, buy into the idea that proper Jewish literacy enhances their lives and expands their horizons.  Sadly, there is no equivalent educational culture among their British counterparts.

Our children have a right to real Jewish literacy and it is our responsibility to deliver it.  Our communities face many challenges; meeting this responsibility is one of the biggest.  Some adult education centres are pioneers in this field; I am proud to be associated with a number of transformational programmes.  I am also aware that some established schools are improving their textual provision and imagine that the newer ones will build their curricula around it.  But until real Jewish literacy is a central aspiration for our children, they will always be playing ‘catch-up’.

I understand parental resistance to intensive textual study: it can seem alien, consumed with obscurities, and for many who have managed adult Jewish lives without it, a diversion from reality.  Yet in reality, attaining Jewish literacy is a, perhaps, the focal aspect of the ‘Art of Judaism’:  Torah study, more than any other endeavour, including even prayer and mitzvah observance, paints the world ‘Jewish’.  It’s not just about the language, although that’s clearly very important, but about the excitement of learning to see every part of the human condition through a Jewish lens.

At the end of a list of important social responsibilities, the rabbis add the dictum ‘but the study of Torah is equal to them all’,[1] on which the Baal Shem Tov (founder of Hasidism) comments that ‘through the Torah, everything can be fixed’ – Torah study opens doors to every aspect of Jewish life.

[1] Mishnah Peah 1:1; TB Shabbat 127a

The Art of Judaism

Shabbat and Self-Awareness

More than Israel has kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept Israel. (Ahad ha-Am)

Rav Yehudah quoted Rav: anyone who delights in Shabbat is given all the desires of his heart. (Shabbat 118a)

I am, indeed, a king, because I know how to rule myself. (Pietro Aretino)

As I’m on Sabbatical, I thought that I’d begin my ‘Art of Judaism’ series proper with some thoughts about Shabbat and self-awareness.  I realise that even for Jewish aficionados, the connection between them is not obvious and may even be counter-intuitive, but I will try to explain.

Apart from having a few months of Shabbatot when I’m ‘not the rabbi’, while I’ve been in Israel on my own, it’s been a rewarding experience being the Shabbat guest rather than the Shabbat host.  I've had a chance to think about what Shabbat means to me rather how I can make it meaningful for other people.

In a previous life, I used to conduct pre-Bar and Bat Mitzvah basic Judaism tests.  One of the questions was, ‘tell me four things about Shabbat’.  Invariably, the response started with ‘can’t watch TV and can’t drive a car’ and continued in the same negative vein; in effect, the answer was always, ‘all the fun things that I want to do when I’m not at school, like going out and watching TV, I can’t do on Shabbat’.  This reflects the prevalent Anglo-Jewish ‘straight-jacket’ perception of Shabbat observance: a tedious day of unfulfilling and largely meaningless prohibitions.  It’s no wonder that most people wouldn’t even consider giving it a try.  Yet for the experienced Shabbat-observer, who ‘calls Shabbat a delight,’[1] the restrictions provide only the lightest of backdrops to what is an overwhelmingly positive experience.

I’ve been struck by the references to Shabbat as a ‘queen’ or a ‘bride’.  This idea may enable me to unravel some unfamiliar aspects of Shabbat, so I’d like to explore it a little.  It originates with two third-century Galilean scholars, Rabbis Hanina and Yanay, who would dress in their best clothes to greet Shabbat.  The Talmud[2] records that Rabbi Hanina would say to his disciples: ‘Come!  Let us go out to greet the Shabbat Queen’, whereas Rabbi Yanay would proclaim: ‘Come, O Bride, come O Bride’.  This practice was revived in sixteenth-century Tzefat, where the circle of mystics around Rabbi Yitzhak Luria (Ari) would go out into the fields at sunset on Friday to welcome Shabbat.  Rabbi Shelomoh Alkabetz, a prominent member of this coterie, composed the most cherished of all Shabbat hymns, ‘Lekha Dodi’ – ‘Come my beloved’, sung in all communities on Friday night; the most famous line of this song is: ‘May your God rejoice over you like a groom rejoices over his bride’.

Why have rabbis and mystics throughout the ages chosen to compare Shabbat to a queen or a bride?  And if Shabbat is the bride, who is the groom?

For Rabbi David Abudirham (fourteenth-century Seville), God himself is the groom: Shabbat and God experience a wedding-like transformation in their relationship over the course of the day.[3]  Friday night is the marriage ceremony, Shabbat morning is the simhah, and in the waning moments of Shabbat, the union of the ‘happy couple’ is consummated.  And as if to mark this transition, the two, separate candles which celebrate the beginning of Shabbat are twisted into a single havdalah lamp, whose luminescence marks the end of the holy day.

For others, however, we are the groom,[4] and Shabbat is a weekly opportunity to consummate our relationship with God, allowing us to spend at least a seventh of our lives basking in the presence of the Divine.

While this seems rather abstract, it has a real and accessible aspect.  ‘Meeting’ God on a weekly teaches us to see ourselves as God sees us and to benefit from a powerful and renewed sense of purpose and self-understanding.  But this can only occur in an environment of mutuality: if we wish to profit from the gift of contact with God, then we must attune ourselves to His way of being on Shabbat.  On the very first Shabbat and on each Shabbat thereafter, God ceased all creative activity, choosing instead to infuse theworld with spiritual meaning.[5]  As such, we can only take advantage of our encounter with the Divine if we emulate God by refraining from creative activity during Shabbat, investing ourselves in spiritual matters instead.  Hence Shabbat observance consists of positive, spiritually-focused activities balanced against a blanket prohibition of creative activity.

During the week, how many of us have the time or composure to think about the purpose of life and who we really are?  How often do we re-evaluate our aspirations and consider whether we are actually achieving them?  Which of us feel that we ever attain sufficient self-awareness to delight in our strengths and address our weaknesses?  Shabbat, with its inimitable combination of delightful family meals, complete cessation from productive activities, opportunities for Torah study and contemplation, special prayers and physical rest, affords us the opportunity to achieve all of these and much more.  As Professor A.J. Heschel notes, Shabbat is ‘more than an armistice, more than an interlude; it is profound conscious harmony of man and the world, a sympathy for all things and a participation in the spirit that unites what is below and what is above’.[6]

Of course, none of this means much to children, not least those who answered my test.  Clearly, for little ones, Shabbat should be filled with wonderful play, delicious treats and relaxing family time.  As they get older, they could also be encouraged to think about what is important to them, their priorities and how a day away from their regular routine focusing on 'meaning' might be valuable.  If Shabbat has always been a delightful and positive day, they will probably be capable of internalising some of its more esoteric and 'adult' aspects as they mature.  This requires us to think hard about how we celebrate Shabbat as families and communities, something that I will address in a subsequent article.

The art of Shabbat observance provides not just a break from the endless banality of weekday activity, but a profound opportunity for self-discovery in a safe, nurturing and holy environment.  This transformational opportunity is, I believe, what the Sages meant by the neshamah yeteirah[7] – the extra soul granted for the duration of Shabbat, something to cherish, cultivate and celebrate.

[1] Isaiah 58.13.

[2] TB Shabbat 119a.

[3] Abudirham, Order of Shabbat Evening Service and its explanation, 1963 edition, p.147.

[4] Commentary of Rabbi Menahem Meiri to TB Shabbat 119a.

[5] Cf. Commentary of Rabbi Hayyim Attar (Ohr ha-Hayyim) to BeReishit 2:2 and Shemot 31:16.

[6] Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1951, repr., 2005), pp. 31-2.

[7] TB Beitzah 16a.

The Art of Judaism

Prologue – learning from everyone

Ben Zoma asked, ‘Who is wise?’ He answered, ‘Someone who learns from everyone’. (Avot 4:1)

The problem to be faced is: how to combine loyalty to one's own tradition with reverence for different traditions? (Abraham Joshua Heschel: ‘No religion is an island’)

I’ve often thought that Anglo-Jewry, and especially the United Synagogue, is vague about what it actually stands for.  We’re good at defining what we’re not – not too frum, not too Zionist, and generally not too excited about overt expressions of religiosity – but rather poor at settling on who and what we are.  In a world where attractive alternatives to Orthodox Judaism abound, it is unlikely that we will successfully capture the hearts and minds of educated people (who, like all of us today are ‘Jews by choice’), without a clear sense of who we are and what we stand for.

We have a wide range of self-descriptions for our spectrum of the Orthodox world.  These include ‘Torah im Derech Eretz’, ‘Torah u-Madda’, and ‘modern’, ‘open’, ‘centrist’ or even ‘contemporary’.  Whatever the description, they all believe in two key principles: the historical truth of the Divine revelation at Sinai and the binding imperative of halachah, as understood by the Talmud and other traditional sources, as discussed in more detail here.  While scholars continue to discuss the  ramifications of these ideas, they remain the indispensable tenets of normative Judaism.  As such, they are the principles on which the United Synagogue stands, together with the rest of the Orthodox world.

However, I don’t plan to add yet another designation to the burgeoning lexicon of ‘Orthodoxies’.  Instead, I have in mind a broader project, which leads me back to the theme of this series – ‘The Art of Judaism’.  If the centrist Orthodox community is to have a distinguishing motif, I suggest that it should be ‘to learn from everyone’, in the words of Ben Zoma.  While this can include those within and even outside the Jewish world with whom one may fundamentally disagree, in this series I will focus on the plethora of ideas, outlooks and approaches within the Orthodox world.  The epigraph from Professor Heschel refers to tolerance of traditions outside of Judaism, but I have taken the liberty of applying it within the Orthodox world.

If Judaism is an art-form, then producing an appealing and sophisticated picture requires us to paint with every shade in the ‘paint-box’ of the Jewish world; this means recognising that each part of the traditional world has something to contribute to a modern ‘post-denominational’ Orthodoxy, even if we do not accept any one in its entirety.  While not an exhaustive list, our outlook will certainly draw on the warmth and traditionalism of the Sephardim, the Litvaks' utter commitment to Torah study, the infatuation with God and love of every Jew of the Chassidim, the great Jewish philosophers' intellectual rigour, the passion for the Land of Israel of the Religious Zionists, Chabad's sense of mission, the synthesis of Torah and modernity of the Modern Orthodox, and Rav Kook's mystical zeal and  revolutionary belief in the Jewish people.

I will draw my inspiration from these and other traditions and others in the forthcoming articles, the first of which will discuss Shabbat and self-awareness.

The Art of Judaism


Be of glad heart, those who seek God… (Psalms 105:3)

Life is too short, or too long, for me to allow myself the luxury of living it so badly. (Paulo Coelho)

Over the past few months, I’ve been thinking about the religious complexion of Anglo-Jewry and why so few of us seem to engage seriously with Jewish ideas and observance.  Of course, many are very generous to Jewish causes, identify strongly with Israel and ‘drop in’ on various festival and life-cycle observances, and all of us enjoy the odd Jewish gastronomic experience.  Yet it is fair to say that despite feelingly proudly Jewish, for most of us, this does not translate into observance or an interest in learning more about Judaism and its approach to life.

This is not a new phenomenon and many explanations have been offered for it.  A popular suggestion is that most Jews simply know very little about Judaism and what it has to say about the world.  Although the recent proliferation of Jewish educational opportunities has improved things considerably, I think that the actual cause of disinterest in Judaism runs rather deeper.

I’ve realised that many of us perceive the prospect of increased involvement with Jewish life as an impediment to achieving our most important life-goals.  As someone who loves Judaism with a passion and has the great privilege of living as a ‘professional’ Jew, this is a difficult thing to admit, but  I’m convinced it’s true.  For those who have thought about it, greater identification with the Jewish world through observance of Jewish law and Torah study is considered stifling a life-option that prevents, rather than facilitates, personal fulfilment.

Torah study is considered a dreary endeavour, focused on antiquated ideas and rules; Jewish law a ‘dead hand’ preoccupied with minutiae that have no relevance to the modern world .  For example, a common view of Shabbat observance is that it consists of a group of random and irritating restrictions, producing a frustrating experience far removed from one’s aspirations for a day off from work.  Scrupulous kashrut observance imposes on one’s social and professional life, not to mention one’s vacation options, and religious life appears to revolve around attendance at synagogue services that even those  familiar with liturgical Hebrew would find it a struggle to sit through.  And I admit that there are members of the religious world who reinforce this view; we have all come across those who seem judgemental and unsophisticated and, sadly, some who are obviously rather unhappy and unfulfilled.

Yet I think that this perception is a distortion of what properly understood and sensitively deployed Judaism can enable us to achieve.  Far from frustrating one’s objectives, serious engagement with Jewish learning and observance offers a powerful opportunity for the realisation of the ideals to which all of us aspire.  While these obviously vary from person to person, they likely include: raising balanced and well-mannered children, developing appropriate values and priorities, sensitivity to the lives and needs of others, social justice and improving the lot of the less-fortunate, contributing to one’s society and to the betterment of humanity, and gaining a sense of the purpose of life and what lies beyond it.  Most importantly, it will certainly include the attempt to attain self-knowledge and to grapple with achieving a sense of personal mission, which empower one to make a unique contribution to the world.  And while happiness and self-fulfilment are not the explicit goals of Judaism, it is correct to say that when its project is properly implemented, contentment and a sense of meaning are a natural consequence.  As King David said, ‘be glad of heart, those who seek God’.

But to achieve this, I suggest a different approach to Judaism and its potential is needed – this demands treating it not as an obligation, but as an art-form.  To master it requires commitment, patience and the investment of time and resources; in common with all worthwhile art-forms, Judaism enables its connoisseurs to understand the mind of its (Divine) creator and be profoundly transformed by the encounter.

In this new series of articles, I will attempt to explain this alternative approach to Judaism and to demonstrate how its majestic ideals can enhance and elevate every aspect of life.  I have entitled them ‘The Art of Judaism’ to reflect this goal.[1] Do join me on what I hope will be an interesting journey.

[1] I am grateful to Rabbi Dr. Steven Gaffin for agreeing to the use of this series-title: several years ago he and I dreamt up the idea of referring to Judaism as an art-form.