Mibereshit is a Jewish education organization that aims to “strengthen the bonds between the Jewish people and their land, between Diaspora Jews and Israel, and between all Jews and their shared tradition by revealing our common foundation.” The group reaches out to secular Israelis and hopes to give them knowledge and connection to their tradition. One of their projects is a weekly Torah portion study sheet that parents and children can discuss together.
The sheets are colorful, well laid out, and packed with entertaining stories and games. They share a great deal of information about Judaism that might not otherwise get to secular families There is a lot to praise. None the less the weekly sheet raises concerning questions about how this organization is teaching Judaism and encouraging Jewish connection.
The weekly parsha sheet aimed at 6-12 year olds comes in two versions: a “religious” version and a “values” version. Their website offers a sample of each. The rest of this essay is a reflection on the samples and what they tell us of Mibereshit’s approach to Jewish education.
In the secular world “values education” is an approach to learning that gives students thought provoking material and then asks students to use this material to bring unstated values to the surface and to reflect on how they prioritize values when conflicts occur. Although the “values” version is aimed at so-called secular Jews, it is not in any way “values” education In fact it would be best described as dumbed down Judaism.
In place of a direct encounter with the Torah and its interpretive tradition, the “values” version substitutes stories and sermonettes. Whereas the “religious” version introduces the reader to Ibn Ezra, Rambam and Rashi’s interpretation of God saying “Let us make Adam (humanity) in our image” , the “values” version tells a story about a boy going back in time with the help of his grandfather’s diary. The religious version encourages children to get down and dirty with the text by matching visual riddles with verses from the parsha. The values version has a cartoon strip explaining that the moon is smaller than the sun because she got jealous of having another light (the sun) the same size as her.
Jews are people of the book. No serious engagement with Judaism, whether purely cultural or religious can happen without an engagement with the core texts of our tradition. If Mibereshit’s goal is to create an engagement with the tradition that pulls together all Jews it fails miserably. This kind of education essentially makes secular Jews into second class citizens. It implies that you have to be religious (whatever that means) to wrestle with the text directly. If you chose values over “religion” then all you are given is the interpretation of those core texts by someone religious.
A second problem with the values version is the way it conceives the link between the secular and the profane. In the story of the boy who goes back in time, he sees two scenes (a) the Beit HaMikdash with its musical instruments and copper vessels (b) a conversation between two of Cain’s descendents. Yuval, the music maker, and Yaval the metal worker are talking. They decide their work has nothing to do with Hanoch who talks to God. However, our little boy remembers seeing the Beit HaMikdash. He realizes that music, technology and prayer all came together in the Temple.
Recognizing that even seemingly secular things are needed in the Temple drives home the necessity of secular activities. If it weren’t for technology and music the worship in the Temple would be incomplete. However, it is also indicative of a religious outlook where God is only recognizable in formal religious institutions. It takes a Temple to make music and metalworking into something that is part of prayer. In reality though, God is everywhere. Music is a form of prayer. So is admiring the beauty of something. We don’t need a Temple to make the connection. We simply need an act of thanksgiving.
The formal institutions of religion more often divide than unite. Institutions need a human management. A human management must be chosen and recognized by humans. There is no conceivable way that a humanly managed organization can ever be anything except political. Human institutions are also bound in time and space. They cannot do all things for all people. At the end of the day one group will impose their will on another. The other group can chose to accept it or walk away. Even if they accept it they will be united in name only but separated at heart.
The capacity for prayer and awe, on the other hand unites us. Shared moments of beauty and wonder break down barriers. They help us recognize both the humanity and the divinity in each other.
The third problem is that neither the religious nor the values version encourages actual dialog with the text. The value version simply tells the child and parent what values Judaism teaches and hopes they will agree those values are wise.
The religious version encourages some discussion but then immediately constrains it. Parents and children are exposed to classic commentary by Ibn Ezra, Rambam and Rashi, but they are never asked if they have their own additional interpretations. They aren’t even asked what they think of Ibn Ezra, Rambam, or Rashi.
Dialog with text cannot happen unless people are free to question the text in their own way from their own perspective. Yet even the process of questioning the text is constrained. The reader is told “There are two important questions regarding the creation of man” rather than “these are two of many important questions we could ask, what are some other questions?” or “these are the questions that inspired Rambam, Rashi, or Ibn Ezra, what are your questions?” The bottom line message of this section is that “70 voices of Torah” refers to the fact that there are many historic commentators.
There is no hint of an alternate reading of “70 voices”, i.e. the idea that Torah is so rich that it can be defined and redefined by generation after generation. Each generation engages with the text in its own way and from its own reference point and still the text does not exhaust itself.
Any true engagement of Jews in Diaspora and Israel has to account for the fact that some forms of religious Judaism encourage personal engagement of the text. Additionally, texts like the Torah belong to all Jews. All Jews have a right and even responsibility to read them and personally engage with it on their own terms. True shared engagement requires a willingness to accept that we share a text but do not necessarily read it the same. If we wish to bring everyone together around tradition we need to allow everyone to deal with the text directly and respect the diversity.
When all three issues are taken together, the underlying goal of the weekly parsha sheet is clear. Although it purports to build bridges and unite people in the name of a shared tradition, in reality, it is a subtle method of retaining controlling ownership of that tradition. Viewing the 70 voices of Torah as something solely in the past constrains the tradition and closes it to new interpretation. Teaching people to see God in institutions rather than through awe and wonder coupled with thanksgiving allows a political in-group to control how God is experienced and perceived. Handing warmed over interpretation to Jews and calling it “values”, ensures that no one who has rejected the authority of traditional religion even has a chance to directly encounter the text and form their own values based interpretations.
True bridges respect the integrity and equality of all parties. True Judaism seeks to help all Jews find a personal connection to their tradition and cultural heritage. There can be no true respect of a Jew’s personal and religious integrity without granting them equal access to core texts and an equal right to interpret them.