David Kuney
David Kuney
Advocate for bankruptcy justice and Jewish values

Dealing with the PEW Report: Does Jewish Literacy Matter?

I recently did a zoom book presentation for Congregation Kerem Shalom, located in Concord, Massachusetts. My topic was “Is American Jewry Hanging by a Thread?” The presentation was based on my new intergenerational memoir, On Rockingham Street: Reclaiming My Family’s Identity—Our Journey from Vilna to the Suburban South.

The notion that American Jewry might be hanging by a thread grew out of two different sources. I wrote as an eyewitness to what it was like to grow up in the suburban south in the 1950s and 1960s. Our Jewish education was limited mostly to sight reading of Hebrew block letters. We were surrounded by the iconography of the confederacy and the vast Christian churches and Catholic schools. My book presentation was also tied to the recently issued Pew Research Center Report on American Jewry, issued in May of 2021, but covering the period ending 2020. While the PEW Report had not been published when my book was being printed, I came to think of it as the “last unfinished chapter” of my memoir.

Little wonder, I said, that American Jewry was suffering a decline in commitment and interest (other than in the Orthodox branch). PEW found that most American Jews do not care greatly whether their grandchildren are Jewish; that sports and pets give them more life satisfaction than Judaism and that of those who married in the last ten years, almost two-thirds married non-Jewish spouses. In response to the PEW Report, the Jerusalem Post said, “we are coming apart at the seams.”

My book presentation was followed by the important question of, “what are we to do.” I was reluctant to answer this. I am not a professional Jewish educator nor clergy, and I have this belief that one needs decades of training and work in a field before venturing to tell the world what it needs to improve. When I was still active as a law partner, we had a saying at my firm: “no dabbling.” It meant to stay in your lane and don’t hold yourself out as being qualified in other fields. I thought this was correct.

Despite that useful warning and having written my book and having raised the issues of our lack of Jewish literacy and education, I felt obligated to try to provide some modest insight into what I had learned as a lay person. After all, I have been attending Jewish services and have been a member of a Jewish congregation since I was ten years old. Plus, my work as an attorney for over four decades had taught me the importance of close textual study. In all these decades surely, I had learned something about what was working and what wasn’t. Indeed, the premise of my book, On Rockingham Street was that what I saw growing up on Rockingham Street was hardly the best way to assure Jewish continuity and survival.

In my presentation I said I doubted we could win the assimilation wars; soccer was almost always going to take priority over many Jewish events: “first things first” as one parent said to me when a child had missed a Passover seder to participate in an important match. After all, did not the PEW Report find that sports events are more meaningful than Judaism to many.

Does Jewish literacy matter—the Shakespeare issue.

 Part of the response to the issues identified in both the PEW Report and On Rockingham Street is the prevalence of Jewish illiteracy. I believe Jewish literacy matters. I think of Jewish literacy as the ability to read text, to interpret text and to be able to deploy the text as we move through life. Professor Barry Shrage, one of America’s leading Jewish educators argues that universal Jewish literacy as a communal norm must be our highest priority: “We must . . . create a Jewish world that places the same value on understanding the basic works of Maimonides as on understanding the basic works of Shakespeare.”[1]

I think of the literacy issue as the Shakespeare issue. He may have been too optimistic on whether we even know Shakespeare. But the point is well taken. Shrage was telling us that reading text is an art and a discipline and our highest priority.

The Torah and the Jewish Bible are a form of sacred narrative. And as a writer, I believe that literature and narrative is what helps us unlock the meaning of life. We don’t just want to follow the service with our finger on the Hebrew word. As a lawyer, I have learned that the meaning of text is not always obvious on its surface. Nuance, irony, metaphor, allusion, and rhetoric shape and change meaning. We cannot rely on the low-hanging fruit to capture the meaning of our faith.

The same applies in our secular knowledge. We cannot read Romeo and Juliet as merely a love story between two teen-agers. It is a tragedy of youthful love and hope destroyed by a society engulfed in its own selfish tribalism and identity crisis.  The struggle between the Capulets and Montagues destroys youthful love and the hope for the future. We cannot read Moby Dick as a whale story. It a story of the fatal harm from obsession that has no apparent purpose and is ultimately destructive.

The exodus story stands as a good example of how literacy and textual nuance changes our view of biblical text. There is a raging debate about whether the exodus story as told on Passover is historically accurate. Some say it was not possible for a million or more Jews to leave; they say there is no archeological proof.

But that misses much of the point. The exodus from Egypt was the escape from slavery of the body and mind. It was an escape from the pagan world into the world of monotheism. It was a psychological escape from the “narrow places” into human maturity and a better understanding of our relationship to the divine. It was a spiritual escape and our gateway to becoming a people of the covenant with God.

As we become more literate the Passover seder becomes a brilliant story of the world’s greatest transformation and turning point. The debate over how many Jews could really leave Egypt falls away. We begin to ask this: why do the Ten Commandments not begin with God saying I am the lord you God, but instead, I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt with an outstretched arm? One answer is because this was the second creation story. Mankind was now ready for its covenantal relationship with the divine. The pagan world in Egypt had reached its apex. The world needed more.

 By becoming more literate, we enlarge our ability to see the biblical narratives in this kind of broader scope. We begin to see the Jewish Bible as one of the most transformative works in the history of human civilization. Maybe we begin to see it as sacred—and a guide for life.

Jewish education

 Literacy of course requires educational institutions. Rather than battling against assimilation, I think we may be more productive if we add a greater emphasis on Jewish education and on Jewish literacy. Leading Jewish educators agree with this.  I agree— Without serious Jewish education, we cannot explain why Judaism matters, and thus we cannot teach our children why Jewish survival matters.

And, if Jewish education matters, how much is enough? Is it enough to train our children, or must we commit to lifelong Jewish education? Are Jewish Day Schools the Answer?

Rabbi Daniel Nevins, head of the Jewish Theological Seminary stated that the most important key to forming an enduring Jewish identity is Jewish Day Schools. He said this: “Day schools were lifted up in my mind as the place where the most important Jewish identity formation was happening.”

Part of the magic of Jewish Day schools is the iconography. When I last walked into a Jewish Day School I was struck by the images. The walls were filled with pictures of Moses and the Prophets. The Israeli Flag. The Hebrew letters. Jewish wisdom sayings filled the walls. Those images hard wire the soul into belief. Nothing in secular school can serve that role.

But not many Jewish children attend Day School. According to the PEW report, 25% of our children get a rigorous Jewish education, such as a Jewish Day school. The rest of us do something else less demanding. Pew says 60% of American Jews participated in some other kind of formal Jewish education program, such as Hebrew school or Sunday school, (PEW, 108).  I am guessing that it is this group of 60% for whom the importance of religion is somewhat lower than pets or sports. Those of us who got the other kind of Jewish education are those for whom first things first does not include an intensely Jewish life and who are most likely to intermarry and put continuity at risk.

Lifelong learning is also critical. Young Jews between thirty and forty years old seem preoccupied with family formation and career building. Raising young children and working takes all of their energy—at least for many, if not most.

Still—institutions must be available to provide lifelong adult learning. Institutions such as the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies offers world-wide and non-denominational immersive textual study. By way of disclosure, I have served on its Board for several years in large measure because I support its goal of spreading the notion of Jewish literacy to North America—where I fear the very notion of Jewish literacy is not widely embraced. Pardes’ weekly and often daily podcast, its summer programs for working adults, and its educational and yearlong programs for Jewish educators and lay leaders are regarded as exceptional. The Reconstructionist Rabbinical College often sends it rabbinic students to Jerusalem for a semester abroad to study at Pardes.

 Does Learning Hebrew matter

I believe learning Hebrew is an important part of Jewish continuity and survival. I am very much aware that the study of Hebrew and the dominance of Hebrew in our services is a barrier for many Jews.  Maybe even the major barrier.We ask Jews to attend a service that runs almost three hours and in a language they don’t understand.

To see how important Hebrew is, read the opening lines of Robert Alter’s “Introduction to the Hebrew Bible.” He writes, “Why after so many English versions, a new translation of the Hebrew Bible? There is, as I shall explain, something seriously wrong with all the familiar English translations, traditional and recent.” Alter dislikes the notion that the Hebrew Bible is set to merely prefigure the coming of Christ. But more broadly, he is saying that by learning Hebrew we can read and understand the Torah more completely, and challenge some accepted notions from earlier translations.

But there is more. I believe there is a certain intimacy in the Hebrew text. That somehow, we get closer to the actual meaning and nuance.  It is our universal language that we all speak in every synagogue over the globe. It is our timeless language that we have always spoken; we were Hebrews in Egypt before we were the Jewish people at Sinai. These are the sacred connections that somehow tie us together in time and space and maybe eternity.

For more information on my book, please see https://www.davidkuney.com.  @Pardes: @RRC.edu

[1] Barry Shrage, Building a Community of Torah and Tzedek: A New Paradigm for the Jewish Community of the 21st century. Boston: Combined Jewish Philanthropies, 1996.

About the Author
For the past twelve years, David has been actively involved in Jewish adult education and literacy. David has served on the Board of Directors for the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, and the Adat Shalom Congregation in Bethesda, Maryland where he chaired the Adult Education Committee. He studied in Jerusalem at the Pardes Institute’s Executive Learning Session in 2010, 2011 and 2013. He served as the chairperson and organizer of a full day program at the Georgetown University Law Center entitled “The Moral Economy” which involved both academic and rabbinic professionals in discussions on the intersection of Jewish law and American civil law.
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