What is the Essence of Judaism?

    July 2011          
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On Teaching Judaism to Seventh Graders

By Alan Luxenberg

It is not easy to engage students in a supplementary religious school program after a full day of school, but if done in a spirit that encourages inquiry and argumentation, then I think not only is it possible but the method itself conveys the spirit of Judaism.

In my 7th grade class called “Judaism 101,” we explore one fundamental question: What is the essence of Judaism? There may be no one right answer but, in a classroom, it is the search itself that really counts.

We begin our first class with a discussion of ethical dilemmas drawn from the ethics column in the Sunday NY Times (as compiled in the columnist’s book The Good, the Bad, and the Difference, by Randy Cohen). The students are typically quite animated in discussing these dilemmas and usually demonstrate a strong sense of right and wrong.

But where do we get our sense of right and wrong?, I ask. Parents, friends, teachers, experience are usually offered as answers. But one source – perhaps, the “mother of all sources” -- is Judaism’s rich store of sacred texts, and for the next seven weeks we dance from one text to the other in search of Judaism’s essence.

We turn in the next session to the Torah,1 and specifically the Ten Commandments. It turns out that everyone knows some commandments but hardly anyone (child or adult) knows them all; nor is the word “covet” in the tenth commandment understood by all seventh graders.

The third commandment – not to utter the Lord’s name in vain – is usually interpreted by students to mean that you can’t say “Goddamit” or something like that. But, I ask, does God really mean to put a prohibition like that on the same level as “do not murder?” I suggest that perhaps what is meant is we should not commit evil in the name of God. When I say “think 9/11” and remind everyone of the hijackers’ final words -- “God is Great!” – they immediately catch my drift, and I have found, somewhat to my surprise, that a couple of years later when I have the same students again, at least some of them demonstrate that they absorbed this interpretation of the third commandment.

After we get each of the commandments down pat, we work through a series of questions designed to make the students think more deeply about the meaning of the commandments:

  • How is commandment 1 different from all the rest? (not a commandment)

  • How are commandments 1-4 different from commandments 5-10? (how we relate to God vs. how we relate to each other)

  • How are commandments 1 and 10 different from 2-9? (thoughts vs deeds)

  • How are commandments 1, 4, and 5 different from 2, 3, 6-10? (positive vs. negative)

  • Which do you think is the most important commandment? (There’s no right answer here, of course.)

I mention one fact that many adults are not even aware of: that although Christians and Jews share the same text, we number the commandments differently. What we call the first commandment (I am the Lord your God Who …), the Christians treat as an introduction rather than as a commandment. The Protestants divide what Jews call the second commandment into two separate commandments (have no other gods and do not make a graven image). The Catholics divide what Jews call the tenth commandment into two separate commandments (do not covet your neighbor’s wife and do not covet your neighbor’s property). So when the ten commandments are posted at a courthouse, it is controversial not just because of a general inclination to keep church and state separate but, more specifically, because of the different versions of the commandments.

This past year one student asked a question that, some weeks later, I was still thinking about: What happens if you violate the commandments? On the spot, I decided to break down the question into two questions: What happens to a society that consistently violates the commandments? vs What happens to an individual who violates the commandments? In the first case, a society that permits murder, stealing and false witness simply breaks down into anarchy. In the second case, it is not as clear, though it is clear that murder, stealing and bearing false witness will land you in jail for the simple reason that those commandments are incorporated into the legal systems of countries around the world. But what the students really want to know is whether God will in some way at some time strike you down. That doesn’t seem to be the case but violation of at least some of the commandments definitely take a toll on a person’s character and ultimately his or her happiness. Perhaps, someone else can provide a better answer than me.

In the succeeding class, we turn to Nevi’im, the books of the prophets, from which Haftorah portions are derived. To get started, we turn to the story of Jonah, a man who tried to flee from being a prophet, and we examined a poem called “Prophet,” by Pulitzer Prizewinning poet Carl Dennis. The poem teaches that a prophet is not someone who predicts the future but rather is someone who changes the future, who challenges his community to do better. And indeed when we study some of the more well-known sayings of the prophets we learn that their principal concern seems to be justice and kindness rather than ritual unaccompanied by these important principles. As the prophet Amos intoned, "I loathe, I spurn your festivals, I am not appeased by your solemn assemblies . . . . Let justice well up like water, righteousness like a mighty stream."

Then we turn to the Talmud, probably unique among holy books of any religion for arguing with itself, or for presenting competing arguments of rabbis across the generations. Drawing on a neat little book called The Talmud and the Internet, by Jonathan Rosen, I ask the kids to find parallels between the two by asking them to compare the structure of a page in Talmud to the structure of a homepage on a website; both offer lots of links to other materials. Coincidentally, as Rosen points out, we speak of “surfing the web” and “swimming in the sea of Talmud.”

We learn a little bit about one section of the Talmud called “Damages,” which treats of just the kind of ethical dilemmas we discussed so passionately in our first session -- cases where property damages or bodily harm is done, and the key is to determine who is at fault, and what kind of compensation is required. One classic example is when one man’s ox gores another man’s ox. What should be done in such a case? Well, it depends, of course, on whether the ox was known to have gored before.

One of the things we learn from the Talmud, I explained, is that arguing is a very Jewish activity; so, in my class, you get extra points, if you argue with the teacher! After all, we are the people Israel, and Israel literally means “wrestling with God.” We are the people who grapple.

In our fifth session, we consider the words of the great rabbi Hillel, who, when asked to describe all of Judaism while standing on one foot, replied “That which is hateful to you, do not do to others. The rest is commentary; now go and study.” That was one great rabbi’s attempt to distill the essence of Judaism, and while students emphasize the first part of the answer, I emphasize the second part. It is peculiar, I argue, that the essence of Judaism should be in the form of a negative (“do not do to others”); so that must be a clue that the real essence is in the second part of the answer: “now go and study.” In this view, Judaism is study. As one rabbi put it, “when I pray, I speak to God; but, when I study, God speaks to me.”

This leads to the fun part of the lesson: I display a bag of “wisdom candies” modeled on fortune cookies, except that the messages attached to the candies are statements of Jewish wisdom from the Torah, the prophets, the Talmud, the great rabbis, and, forgive me, one Jewish “philosopher” known as Bob Dylan. (I can’t help it; I’m a Dylan fan.) Everyone picks 2 or 3 candies but before they can be consumed, each student must read and explain the wisdom statement – while standing on one foot, of course. Sometimes sitting in a seat is just not the best way to learn.

All the statements are designed to help the student think in different ways about the essence of Judaism, and I try to pick some that suggest the unexpected, such as the Talmudic saying that "He who only studies Torah is considered as one who has no God," or "For a day-old infant [whose life is endangered], the Sabbath is desecrated; for David, King of Israel, dead, the Sabbath must not be desecrated." Or in a world where tolerance of the faith of others has often been hard to come by, I offer this saying from the Mishneh Torah: "The pious of all the nations shall have a share in the world to come."

The next session begins with these questions: Who plans to get married? How many children will you have? What will you name them? After we compile the answers on the board, even to the point of creating a future family tree, I ask the students how all this relates to the statement on the board (from the Talmud): “If you save a single life, it is as if you have saved the entire world.” With the future family tree right before their eyes, it helps them see that when you save a person, you save that person’s future children, grandchildren, and so on. Students typically offer their own stories of lives being saved, drawing on their own family stories, and one year I compiled these stories into a neat little booklet.

The students are then given an unusual homework assignment (at least for a Hebrew school) designed to prove the literal truth of the Talmudic statement we’ve been discussing. It is a math problem: if you save a single life today, then, assuming that every person on average brings into being two people, and assuming that 100 years comprises three generations, how many years would it take to save 6 billion lives, or the equivalent of the entire world? Usually one or two students – with the aid of parents, teachers, and even astrophysicists – find the correct answer, which is 1,084 years, or thereabouts.

Recalling the wisdom candies, one of my favorite Talmudic sayings is that “the world rests on three pillars: study, worship, and acts of lovingkindness.” I have seen personally how an act of lovingkindness can change a person’s life, and so I collapse this proverb with the previous one to create a new one: if you change a single life, it is as if you have changed the entire world.

In the following week, I begin with the semi-solemn warning that “now we are going to do something really difficult,” and I recite the story of the physicist I.L. Rabi, who, when asked to explain his success as a physicist, attributed it to his mother, who each day when Rabi came home from school asked him not what he learned that day, but “did you ask a good question today?” 2 The assignment, then, was to ask three good questions about Judaism but not simple question of fact like “When was Moses born?” The questions, I explain, should be drawn from things that puzzle the student or bother him (her), from apparent contradictions or tensions.

Inevitably, whenever I do this lesson one student always asks some variation of “Why does God permit evil in the world?” We go around the room trying to answer this question, which has troubled people of faith (of all faiths) from time immemorial, and, most pressingly, perhaps, since the era of Adolph Hitler. I am honest with my students; there are several answers that have been given by great theologians but none are fully satisfactory -- and so we live our lives with questions not fully answered.

In the last session, I give a “quiz.” I do not grade the quizzes; I do not even collect them. (This is Hebrew school after all.) But the quizzes are designed to help the student to collect or re-collect the different pieces of our study together, and to suggest to them what is the bare minimum they must know – the ten commandments, the difference between Torah and Talmud, the composition of the TaNaKh. But the final question on the exam is of course: What is the essence of Judaism? (As you might already surmise, the answer -- for 7th graders at least -- is itself the process of asking and trying to answer the question.)

Since I hate to end with a quiz, we do one final activity emulating an important Jewish tradition. We remember the deceased, I explain, by recalling one or more of their good attributes and incorporating those attributes into our own lives; in this way, the dead never really die. Since the final class occurs around the time of Thanksgiving, which coincides with the anniversary of the death of the Chabad Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg, murdered in the massacre at Mumbai in 2008, we recall his custom for Friday night dinners, which was to go around the room and have everyone either tell an inspiring story, or describe a mitzvah they have performed, or sing a song. We then do exactly that, and sometimes this exercise is itself an inspiration.

In case you are wondering about what quote I use from Bob Dylan when I hand out the wisdom candies, it is this: “if you’re not busy being born, then you’re busy dying.” Perhaps, that is more meaningful to me than to my students. For at the age of 50 (6 years ago), I became a Hebrew School teacher, and if that’s not “busy being born,” then nothing is. In fact, each week as I struggle to find ways to engage my students and grapple with the subject matter – and with God -- I feel I am “busy being born.”3

* * * * *

Alan Luxenberg taught grades 7-10 in two supplementary religious schools in suburban Philadelphia for six years and is the author of two books for middle and high school students: “The Palestine Mandate and the Creation of Israel” (Mason Crest Publishers, 2007) and “Radical Islam” (2009). He directs the Wachman Center at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

1 The most consistently stimulating source I have found for thinking about Torah are the sermons of Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth – all available on www.chiefrabbi.org.

2 For neat little stories like this, I find a wealth of material in Jewish Literacy, by Joseph Telushkin.

3 Lesson plans available upon request.

For more articles on Ethical Jewish Thought, see our Ethics Archives
For more articles on Jewish Philosophical Thought, see our Philosophy Archives


from the July 2011 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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