Exploring the Teachings Your Denomination Probably Didn't Teach You

        May 2014    
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Will the Real Judaism Please Stand Up?

By Joel E. Hoffman

Every time I go on a job interview for a position at a Jewish institution I am asked: So what kind of rabbi are you?" My typical response is: "Jewish." I don't answer this way to be flip, but because I did not neatly fit into any of the denominational movement options. Interestingly, one time the interviewer responded to my answer by asking: "Can you be just a 'Jewish' rabbi?"

In this essay I will:

    (1) relay some not-so-well-known but basic teachings of Judaism;

    (2) discuss the limited amount of Judaism that is taught by the current denominations;

    (3) the Jewish wisdom that I learned during my multi-year spiritual journey among the movements;

    (4) my thesis about the one error all of the movements are making; and

    (5) what can be done to help perpetuate Jewish survival. In discussing the above, I reveal real Judaism.

The two main primary texts of Judaism are the Hebrew Bible – which is a collection of 24 books that total 1,624 pages in the new JPS translation, and the Babylonian Talmud – which is a collection of 39 Tractates that total 5,422 pages in the first printed edition. These cumulatively relay early Jewish history, as well as Jewish theology, law, ethics, and values. For an individual to perue these texts to extract Judaism's teachings on a particular topic would be a mammoth task.

The Siddur, (Jewish prayer book) however, is a single edited book of which particular sections of the Hebrew Bible and Talmud were selected for particular reasons for incorporation within the prayers. Thus, the liturgy in the Siddur represents a digestion of Judaism's main spiritual teachings. But how many of us have ever been taught the liturgy or on our own closely read and reflected on even some of the prayers in the Siddur? If one would, s/he would discover a version of Judaism that is radically different from how Judaism is presented by our leaders and teachers and practiced by the vast majority of Jews today.

The Siddur relays a Judaism that is very conscience of the natural world, is spiritual, ultra-Zionistic, and Messianic – all of which are intertwined. Here are some examples.


The Siddur lists various B'rachot (blessings) which are to be recited before smelling certain fragrant smells, upon seeing lightening, upon seeing a rainbow, upon seeing the ocean, upon hearing thunder, upon the new moon, etc. These blessings are intended to sensitize a person to the phenomena of nature. If a person regularly reflected on these B'rachot s/he would be much more in-tune with nature, which was the original purpose of these B'rachot.

Additionally, early in the morning prayer service there is a Psalm that speaks about the sun, moon, stars, earth, fire, hail, snow, vapor, wind, mountains, hills, fruit-bearing trees, etc. all praising God. Thus, if they are praising G-d, they must some how be alive and are connecting to God through praise.


In Birkat Hamazon, or "Grace After Meals," of its four long blessings, one is about the Land of Israel and another is about rebuilding Jerusalem. The message here is that even though one's stomach is full, we are reminded that our soul is not full without the possession of Eretz Yisrael (Land of Israel) and Jerusalem.


The weekday Shemoneh Esray, (silent prayer) which is the main prayer of each of the three daily prayer services, has 19 blessings. The second blessing is about resurrection of the dead, the tenth blessing is about ingathering of the exiles, the fourteenth and fifteenth blessings are about rebuilding Jerusalem and re-establishing the throne of David, and the seventeenth blessing is about the restoration of the Temple service. Thus, a significant amount of the core prayer of every weekday prayer service combines Zionism with Messianism.

Prayer as a Spiritual Experience

We do not know how much time the masses took to recite the Shemoneh Esray throughout Jewish history. But an early rabbinic source highlights a group that would spend an hour reciting the Shemoneh Esray as if this was the ideal way to pray. This means this group spent an average of seven seconds saying each word. At this pace an intense contemplation and meditative state would occur. Even if in the analog the masses throughout Jewish history took an average of, let's say, just 1.5 seconds per word, it would still take over ten minutes to recite the Shemoneh Esray. This is more than double the amount of time the masses (and most rabbis) spend in reciting the Shemoneh Esray in most Orthodox and Conservative synagogues today. (In Reform temples an abridged version is recited). I sometimes wonder what the rabbis who created the Siddur would think of typical synagogue services today.

A Deeper Look

In further looking at a couple of themes cited above (nature and spirituality), there are a large number of both affiliated and unaffiliated Jews who are concerned about the environment but are totally unaware that Judaism's environmental concerns date back over 3,300 years (see Deuteronomy 20:19). Also, classical rabbinic texts that were written over 1,500 years ago contain scores of material about conservation, ecological sustainability, green belts, grafting, ecosystems, improper resource extraction, waste disposal and pollution – though they don't use these terms because such terms didn't exist at the time, but the concepts did. (See Authur Waskow, ed., Torah of the Earth: Exploring 4,000 Years of Ecology in Jewish Thought, Volume I.)

One of my favorite Jewish environmental teachings is a circa fifteen hundred year-old rabbinic teaching which states that God said: "See my works, how fine and excellent they are! All that I created, I created for you. Reflect on this, and do not corrupt or desolate my world; for if you do, there will be no one to repair it after you" (Midrash Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:13). Kabbalistic and Hasidic texts are also full of positive teachings about nature -- though most of these texts have not been translated.

There are also a large number of both affiliated and unaffiliated Jews who are involved in various spiritual practices such as transcendental meditation, but they are totally unaware that Judaism contains a rich and diverse history of meditation that also goes back to the Biblical period. (See Aryeh Kaplan's Jewish Meditation and Meditation and the Bible.) There is also a system of Jewish yoga that dates back to the Jewish mystics in the late medieval period and possibly earlier.

The Judaism That Is Taught in Jewish Schools

Before relaying what is actually taught in Jewish schools – both in Hebrew schools and in day schools, let me first briefly relay my qualifications for making such observations. In my professional career I've taught in Reform and Conservative Hebrew schools and Hebrew Highs, as well as in a modern Orthodox high school. I was also the principal of an inter-congregational Conservative Hebrew school, then the rabbi-in-residence of a Jewish community day school, and then the director of a Bureau for Jewish Education-equivalent. These experiences encompassed the geographical regions of the Midwest, the South, and two different cities in the Northeast. Thus, I write with ample insider experience and perspective.

In non-Orthodox schools, Judaism is mostly taught as a Peoplehood with a history, a culture, and a Divinely inspired ethical system, while, for example, the very, very deep mystical concept of Tikkun Olam has been watered down to mean "community service."

The theology that graduates of non-Orthodox schools learn is doubt of our theological historicity, or put another way, the only absolute is that there are no absolutes. How can one be absolutely sure of this?

The Holocaust, although an important chapter in our recent history, takes up a disproportionate amount of our children's limited Jewish education – up to 15% of the total instructional time in many schools.

Orthodox schools are also not immune from critique. They, too, have a limited scoped Jewish studies curriculum. Few schools require a serious study of Jewish thought, and at most schools beginning around the sixth grade approximately two-thirds of the Jewish studies hours for boys is devoted to studying the Talmud.

In all types of Jewish schools, few students are ever taught that Judaism teaches how to get the most out of life and is a spiritual path for getting close to God.

In order words, few Jewish students ever learn a compelling reason to the "why be Jewish" question.

Jewish Education For What?

Nine of the past fifteen summers I have gone to a Jewish education conference. At these conferences the latest textbooks were promoted and the newest fads in instructional methods were taught -- all in hopes that these will finally be effective in curving assimilation. But what good are new textbooks and new instructional methods (which often were introduced in secular education 5 to 10 years prior) if the content is lacking? The lacking content is the articulation of a compelling reason why it is worthwhile to live a Jewish life today (no matter how Judaism is understood). To me, these conferences have been distribution centers of placebos.

If a child can recite the "Four Questions" parents are pleased and think that their child is getting a good Jewish education. But isn't just as import to teach our children to be able to give tell an idea Torah at the Seder about Matzah and Chametz that applies to real life?

My Thesis

The denominational movements (including the modern Orthodox), by focusing on the symptom of assimilation, since their creation have only propagated a portion of Judaism as being essential in hopes it will not be perceived by its masses as being "too burdensome." In my opinion, the denominational leadership has failed to recognize that people want deep meaning and purpose, not pragmatic sociology or empty praxis.

In contradistinction, the ultra-Orthodox version of Orthodox Judaism (both the Yeshivot and Hasidic sub-versions), which has very clear-cut theological absolutes, is growing in part though the influx of "returnees." These are Jews who grew up in the Conservative or Reform movement, or grew up assimilated, but after studying their heritage as an adult they decided to adopt a version of Orthodox thought and practice. I am not advocating that everyone become Orthodox. Rather, I cite this phenomenon as an example that people want meaning and purpose in their lives and will make major life changes and sacrifices to follow what they perceive as Truth.

What I've Learned From Each of the Movements

During my entire twenties (I am now 45) I was engaged in an intensive Jewish spiritual journey that included spending a significant amount of time within each of the denominations and many of their sub-groups, including being involved in synagogue/temple life and studying with a variety of different types of rabbis.

Concurrently, six years of this I studied Judaism full-time -- first in graduate school for Jewish studies and the final two years in a yeshiva in Israel earning rabbinical ordination. Perhaps the most important thing I learned is that I do not know very much, at least not with depth. Never the less, during my Jewish spiritual journey I did acquire a broad array of Jewish wisdom.

From the "Yeshiva" sub-group of the ultra-Orthodox world I became ingrained with the importance of avoiding Bittel Torah – wasting time - that could have been used for learning Torah.

From Chabad I learned about the "inner-dimension" of Judaism, which is relayed via Kabbalistic and Hasidic texts. In doing so I learned the importance of the Mitzvah of always being B'Simcha (happy/joyous), the Mitzvah of Ahavat Yisrael (unconditional love for every Jew), and what it means to really pray -- at least in theory as explained in Hasidic texts. Chabad's approach is an intellectual approach to the spiritual.

From the Modern Orthodox I learned Religious Zionism and that one can be observant and fully participate in all the appropriate aspects of the secular world. (Though it may take creative and advanced logistical coordinating because of Shabbos.)

From Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach's teachings and Hevrei (group of followers), in addition to the importance of sometimes praying with one's feet (i.e., dancing during Kabbalat Shabbat), two of Reb Shlomo's teachings which I found to be very profound were:

    (a) beggars should not be given less than a dollar because of their dignity; and

    (b) one can be scrupulous in meticulously observing all the do's and don'ts of Shabbat, but this doesn't mean s/he has "achieved" Shabbat. Can you see a connection between these two teachings?

From the Conservative movement, and from my Jewish studies professors in graduate school, I learned the importance of utilizing critical methods of study and to understand texts in their historical context. But this doesn't mean I accept every conclusion from such studies.

From the Jewish Renewal movement I learned about the interface between Judaism and nature, and I became exposed to the spiritual practices of Jewish meditation and Jewish yoga. Although engaging in yoga or meditation are not part of my regular spiritual practices, I am richer for having learned about and experienced these practices, and I do incorporate some aspects of meditation when I pray.

From the Reform movement I learned the importance of community service by actually participating in community service and seeing first-hand how this positively affects people's lives. I have also experienced how musical instruments can enhance a prayer experience (though this practice is not exclusive to just the Reform movement).

From my teachers at Yeshivat Darche Noam (a.k.a., "Shapells"), I learned how to engage in in-depth textual analysis. In particular, I learned how to uncover many layers of depth that is imbedded within every statement of a classical Jewish text.

From another Jewish educational institution, I learned additional methods for evaluating the authorship of the Torah than just the methods of academic Biblical criticism. These include a critical analysis of the accuracy of scientific claims, historical claims, and of prophetic predictions in the Torah; plus, a critical analysis of the theories of transmission, Oral Tradition, and imbedded codes within the text. I also learned the amazing teaching: "Judaism is for our pleasure." Whereas many erroneously teach that Judaism is a yoke, it is really for our pleasure -- the Torah is an instruction manual to get the most "real" pleasure out of life.

If I only stayed within a single movement in my studying and explorations of Judaism, I would have missed out on ninety percent of the above.

Imagine if one medical school didn't teach the circulatory and respiratory systems, another didn't teach the digestive and excretory systems, etc. But this is exactly what our denominational movements do with Judaism.

It amazes me that not one of the major denominational rabbinical schools requires studying a significant amount of any of the following spiritual classics with depth: Rabbi Moshe Luzzatto's Darech HaShem, Rabbi Shneur Zalman's Tanya, nor even Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel's God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism.

Judaism is a living organism. If Judaism is constricted it becomes ill and is toxic for its followers – read: assimilation, intermarriage and then disappearance. But if all of its parts are allowed to breath, Judaism can adapt to any environment and flourish, which means the masses of Jews utilizing Judaism's teachings to lead spiritually meaningful lives.

A Proposal

It's time that the leaders of our denominational movements, rabbinical schools, Jewish educational organizations, and schools look deep inside our tradition to see what the totality of Judaism contains, and to relay the comprehensiveness of our heritage rather than positing a limited version of Judaism.

Our schools need to help our students come up with a menu of answers to the "Why be Jewish?" question. While in our high school programs and adult education forums, we need to expose everyone to as much of our Jewish heritage as possible because one never knows what will capture one's heart, mind and soul.

This includes: how archaeology illuminates the Biblical text; the poetry and personal development messages in the Psalms; analytical Talmud study; probing the depths of one's soul, the universe and God through studying Kabbalah and Hasidut; spirited Carlebach davenning; Jewish meditation; a "hike & learn" where Jewish texts about nature are studied in context in the forest; the phenomenology of Jewish history and survival; a community service practicum; etc. And if our rabbis aren't offering such classes and opportunities, then we need to ask them to do so. And, if our rabbi won't, or can't, then we should find rabbis who will and learn from them.

Moses wasn't Hasidic, Yeshivish, modern Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Renewal or Reform. According to the Torah and its wide spectrum of commentaries, Moses observed Jewish law, studied Torah twice daily, studied Kabbalah, frequently meditated, was concerned for his fellow Jews and made self-sacrifices for their benefit, respected the differences in tribal customs, was environmentally conscience, passionately desired to live in the Land of Israel, and yearned for the Messianic Era. Thus, we shouldn't feel bound by denominational labels. A wise rabbi once quipped: "labels are for suits, not Jews!"

Some will say my depiction of Moses is an anachronism, but one can only make this claim after s/he has first either rejected or limited Judaism's teachings, thus, anachronistic claims are logically circular and invalid.

Of the Jewish leaders of the past 100 years, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the Chief Rabbi of pre-state Israel, comes to mind as an exemplifier of living and teaching the same original version of Judaism as Moses.

We all cannot be Moses the leader par excellence, but we can, and should, strive to study, emulate and teach to our children the totality of the Judaism Moses received, lived and taught.


Where does one begin to learn the comprehensiveness of Jewish wisdom and traditions that our denominations have deprived us of? Being aware that such wisdom exists is the beginning of this process and that was the purpose of this paper. So what should be the next step?

One of my favorite books is Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel's The Earth is The Lord's, which exposes one to the spirit of the Jewish people when we lived in Eastern Europe -- and it is only 109 pages! But perhaps most important is not where one begins, but that one has begun learning and exploring the various aspects of their rich and meaningful Jewish heritage. In the words of the sage Hillel: "Now go and learn!"

Rabbi Joel E. Hoffman was a Jewish educator for over a dozen years. He currently works as a special education teacher at a public high school.


from the May 2014 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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