Jewish Literacy Empowers Jewish Action

April 24, 2014

Source: eJewish Philanthropy


Previously, I argued for the importance of Jewish literacy as providing a richer and more powerful framework for discussion of the mission of Jewish day schools, compared with the prevalent emphasis on Jewish. Here I’d like to expand upon that idea to explore ways that Jewish literacy can lead to new, creative forms of Jewish action, through embracing contemporary modes of learning. In a technological reality that literally puts virtually everything that can be known into the palm of your hand, the traditional memory-based learning model is becoming less relevant. What emerges instead is the great opportunity to emphasize the application of knowledge, ideally in ways that foster collaboration, draw on creativity, and bring about positive change and lasting good.


Thanks in large part to the enormous and never-ending expansion of technological powers, we live in a cultural moment of DIY – the Age of Google – when it feels like everyone can or soon will be able to make anything or solve any problem and the horizon of what is possible for a few friends with laptops to accomplish roars closer by the second. With great enthusiasm and anxiety, educators are looking to adapt schools to these emerging trends and enable students to have the tools to thrive in this dizzying environment. The term “21st century” has become an adjective for “learning.”


Day schools now encourage students to borrow and sow ideas profligately and see what they can reap. Israel serves as a shining example in this work; schools look to Israel as they bring the innovation and collaboration of the “start-up nation” to day school students, whether through collaborations with Israeli schools and organizations, or by hosting speakers from the Israeli tech sector. Authentic assessment is no longer about taking a test or writing on essay demonstrating that that a student has memorized Rambam’s ladder of tzedakah; instead, it’s setting up teams of students to create an initiative that puts Rambam’s ideas into action, benefitting many people in a way that empowers them to “pay it forward.” The task is to enable students to mine Jewish sacred sources to find inspiration and guidance for contemporary challenges, both in Jewish society and the larger world.


An episode from the Talmud demonstrates that the interweaving of action and learning is a critical ideal embedded in our sacred texts (Ketubot 103b). Rabbi Hanina and Rabbi Hiyya were study partners, and when their arguments waxed hot they would dispute whose approach was greater. Rabbi Hanina’s intellectual prowess was so acute, he could restore the entire Torah and its traditions should they be forgotten. What could Rabbi Hiyya hold up to that? He used to sow flax, from which he made nets, which trapped deer, whose meat he would feed to orphans and whose skin he would process into Torah scrolls, which he would then use to teach children in towns lacking teachers. The Talmud concludes with the verdict of Rabbi Yehudah HaNassi: “How great are the works of Hiyya!”


The Internet has rendered Rabbi Hanina’s impressive skills somewhat less necessary. Day schools today need to cultivate more Hiyyas: Jews inspired by Jewish learning and wisdom, with the initiative to weave their own nets – networks, “Webs” – to sift through the enormous world of ideas and resources available and trap the ones best-suited to their vision. We need to transform the traditional Jewish learning paradigm into one that better aligns with 21st century thinking about education, and at the same time, honors the sacredness of Jewish study. Our task is finding new ways to apply the ancient Jewish insight that “study leads to action.”


Read more at eJewish Philanthropy.

Updated: May. 29, 2014