We are ready for a renaissance of Jewish learning

As we near the six-month mark of the Israel-Hamas War, the Jewish people are at an inflection point. Many in the Diaspora, particularly in the United States, are experiencing the end of an era in which Jews were in many ways welcomed into and even celebrated in their societies. At a moment of American Jewish disillusionment with those previously seen as allies, and with the increasingly hostile environment on our college campuses, there may be a greater desire for Jewish content than there has been in many decades.

We know from earlier in our experience that increases in antisemitism and marginalization can raise Jewish consciousness and Jewish identity and spark a renaissance of Jewish learning. Today, Jewish philanthropists need to look seriously at the sort of long-term investments that have always proven to be the most effective in combating antisemitism: Jewish knowledge, Jewish content, and a deeper Jewish life.

Jewish life in America is replete with so much creativity and innovation. Our communities are welcoming and inviting. We are committed to social justice, tikkun olam and making the world a better place. And yet, despite these vital qualities, many of us have an alarming lack of content and depth in our Jewish lives. We are missing the anchor of Jewish learning that would provide a richer source for our creativity and a clearer understanding of what exactly we are welcoming and inviting people to. With notable exceptions, too often the Torah of the Jewish social justice space consists of cherry-picked verses that serve as a Jewish veneer to activism that is largely unengaged with Jewish knowledge.

A century ago, the desire for greater Jewish content alongside a rise in antisemitism inspired a project called the Bucherei des Schocken Verlag (Library of the Schocken Verlag), a subscription series of books on Jewish life and literature, published in Germany from 1933-1939. Its 83 volumes encompassed Bible, Rabbinic literature, medieval and modern poetry, history, mysticism, philosophy, and more. The first volume, a translation of Isaiah’s prophecies of comfort by Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig, was published six months after the Nazi book burnings in Berlin. The last volume, by the philosopher Hermann Cohen, was printed in the late months of 1939.

What will be our educational response to this moment in American Jewish life? Leon Wieseltier, in his bold 2011 article, “Language, Identity, and the Scandal of American Jewry,” distinguished between two instruments of Jewish identity: conviction and competence. To an American Jewish community marked by significant intellectual capacity matched with skepticism, Wieseltier correctly posited: “I have no doubt that the future of Jewish culture in America will be determined more by Jewish competence than by Jewish conviction…” He argued for prioritizing knowledge over faithfulness. “If we cannot make sure that we will be followed by believing Jews, we certainly can be sure that we will be followed by competent Jews…Ignorance, I think, is much more damaging than heresy.”

There are successful models of the work to revive and amplify the beit midrash in contemporary Jewish life. At the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, we focus on this exclusively, as do other organizations such as Hadar and Svara. Each, in distinctive ways, lifts the centrality of texts and ideas. Thankfully, today there are also diverse delivery systems and new technology that can make Jewish learning more accessible and inexpensive for all. Sefaria, the Jewish Learning Collaborative; the Lehrhaus in Boston; and many others do this quite well.

Last year, in his moonshot for universal American Jewish literacy in 20 years, Andres Spokoiny persuasively argued for a “Birthright Judaism” that includes destination retreats and built-in incentivizations such as day school, and camp discounts for those adults who complete 100 hours of study. In the wake of the worst day in Jewish history since the Holocaust, let us recommit to bringing to the table even more ideas, our best minds, and our most committed funders.

Now, more than ever, we need an American Jewish community that can apply Jewish texts and ideas to the most pressing issues of our day. These texts hold the key to the values we affirm and the types of communities we seek to build.

About the Author
Rabbi Leon Morris is President of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies.