Defining Jewish illiteracy

Literacy, studying and understanding the foundations of Judaism are fundamental to our national identity, vision and meaning of being a Jew.

June 6, 2013 21:59
A woman searches through books

A woman searches through books 370. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

Great controversy erupted in Israel recently with the announcement of the Ministry of Education’s intention to cut funding to schools that do not teach math and English. This announcement makes a bold statement about the government’s educational priorities and about the importance of achieving minimum standards of literacy and numeracy for all its citizens.

However, policies aimed at establishing minimum standards of education should not only be focused on technical, linguistic and numerical skills but also on what may be termed Jewish literacy. What are the minimum requirements for that? Whilst the study of Torah Judaism, with its vast and awesome intellectual infrastructure, is a lifetime’s work, it is possible to establish certain basic, minimum standards for what may be considered a literate Jew and which we can expect a Jewish educational institution to deliver.

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What would those be? One possible benchmark is for every Jewish child emerging form an educational system funded by a Jewish state – or for that matter, by a Jewish community in the Diaspora – to be at the very least instructed in the Chumash (the Five Books of the Torah) from start to finish.

This approach results in radical and controversial questions: Should an Israeli government cut funding to any school that does not teach Chumash to its students? Surely, if minimum standards of general literacy are required, then that should be inclusive of Torah education as well? Chumash is not just another subject at school; it goes to the heart of who we are.

From Chumash, our children learn about our most sacred values, about how G-d created the world, about the purpose of life and about what it means to be a human being and a Jew. They learn that we are the proud children of Avraham, Isaac and Ya’acov, Sarah, Rivka, Rachel and Leah; and about how the 12 sons of Ya’acov became the 12 Tribes of Israel, whose descendants were enslaved by Pharaoh in Egypt until G-d liberated us and gave us His Torah at Mount Sinai.

Learning Chumash helps our children appreciate our connection to the Land of Israel and the State of Israel. They realize that Zionism did not start 100 years ago and that the Jewish people’s connection to the Land of Israel did not need the Balfour Declaration or any subsequent resolutions of the United Nations to be legitimate. The Chumash is proof and testimony that our ancient connection to the Land of Israel has deep historical and, more important, covenantal roots, based on the fact that nearly 4,000 years ago our forefathers lived in the land which G-d had promised to them and to their descendants, forever.

That promise was confirmed at Mount Sinai, and was delivered by G-d through Joshua, after the death of Moshe.

Through learning Chumash, students begin to understand the Jewish way of life as expressed in the 613 mitzvot such as brit mila, Shabbat, kashrut and charity.

Our children learn fundamental moral principles through verses such as “Love your neighbor as yourself,” and about dishonesty in business described as an “abomination to Hashem.”

They learn from Adam and Eve about temptation, accountability and repentance; from Noah about what it means to retain one’s integrity in a corrupt world.

From Avraham, our children understand the importance of ethical living, of compassion and kindness to all, of faith in Gd, loyalty and commitment to His will even at great personal sacrifice. From Isaac they gain insight into what it means to be a faithful transmitter of a received tradition. Through the trials and tribulations of Ya’acov and his family, students will appreciate the significance of earning a living, raising children and finding a secure place in which to live; they will learn that to build G-d’s world one needs faith in His benevolence and dedication to family. And from the brilliant Joseph, who rose from the dungeons to become the viceroy of mighty Egypt while all the time remaining loyal to the values of his fathers, they discover how to be a Jew in a multi-cultural world.

We must ask ourselves, is it conceivable that a Jewish child can grow up ignorant of the very basics of what it means to be a Jew? Is it imaginable that a Jewish child should not learn the depth of the words and ideas of the Shema, and the other tenets of basic Jewish faith, values and behavior contained in the Chumash? Is it acceptable for Jewish children to grow up without learning about their awesome heritage first hand from the Chumash, the Five Books which have accompanied every generation of Jews since the very foundations of our people? The obvious answer to all of these questions is that the Israeli government and Jewish communal leadership in the Diaspora ought to instruct all schools which they fund to teach the Chumash to their students. It follows too that only people who believe that the Chumash is historically accurate are qualified to teach it.

How can anyone impart the accounts of Avraham, the Exodus or the Revelation at Mount Sinai if they do not believe that these reflect facts of actual occurrences? A Chumash teacher must also live in accordance with the values and principles of the Chumash, which is our guide for life. Without the teaching of Chumash to all students from the beginning of their school career to the end, one cannot speak with integrity of a true Jewish education, which justifies being funded by public money. Surely, if the teaching of Chumash is neglected, funding should be cut. Is this not as obvious as the case of no math or English being taught? To lay down that Chumash be taught is not to ask a lot; it is the bare minimum.

The vast, deep and awesome ocean of the Oral Torah would still be neglected, but at least through Chumash our children would discover the Written Torah. At least they would satisfy one of the basic standards of Jewish literacy. And some of the Oral Torah can be introduced into the teaching of Chumash, as the two go hand in hand.

All of this is not only about education – it is about priorities and values. Surely a Jewish state must be based on Jewish values? Surely it is these values which provide the vision and inspiration to be committed to the future of the Jewish people? Literacy, studying and understanding the foundations of Judaism are absolutely fundamental to our national identity and vision and to what it means to be a Jew.

The writer is the chief rabbi of South Africa and his most recent book, The Legacy: Teachings for Life from the Great Lithuanian Rabbis, co-authored with Rabbi Berel Wein, is available at

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