We are encouraged to have ‘five-a-day’, of course this is to encourage the consumption of at least five portions of fruit and vegetables for our physical wellbeing.
I have engaged in five-a-day today but not fruit and veg (yet, the day is still young!). My five-a-day was five articles in the JC which appear unrelated but taken together can help us paint a picture that allows us to see what we as a community must do for a vibrant future.
They deal with areas such as the upcoming Limmud Festival (p8), the dangers of Tikkun Olam (p10), a survey of academia (p12), Jewish primary school SATS results (p15) and a look at American Synagogues (p31).
We start with the SATS results. It does on the whole make very positive reading. 88% of our primary schools are above the national average of reading standards with some 45% achieving 15% or more above the national average. However, it is sad to see that six of the bottom nine schools and five of the bottom six are from Charedi schools. The reason is obvious; they have significant Kodesh in their curriculum which therefore has a knock-on effect on the Chol that can be taught and leads to poorer results in English. However, the fact that Independent school tops the charts is a demonstration that a passion and commitment to a strong Kodesh curriculum does not need to have a detrimental effect on the Chol the children learn. With a strong Modern Orthodox and Religious Zionist ethos, Independent is showing the way forward, strong on both fronts, Torah and Secular.
This brings us on to our second article. That of a new JPR paper ‘Academic achievement and engagement in Jewish life’. It is a fascinating read and shows that unfortunately British Jews with postgraduate degrees have weaker religious beliefs, support Jewish charities less and are more likely to marry out than those without university qualifications.
This is caused simply by people believing that Judaism is based on fables and myths and you cannot marry rigorous academic intellect with the beliefs and practices of Judaism. On the other hand, there are also Religious Jews who believe there is no need to invest in secular studies. Both of these opinions are false. As long as there has been a Jewish people, some of our greatest minds have soared to the tops of their field in both secular and Torah. Whether Rav Chai Gaon, the Rambam or Rav Soleveitchik, there should be no need to have to choose one or the other. We can and should combine Torah and worldly wisdom – Chochmah. As Rabbi Sacks says ‘“Chochmah is the truth we discover; Torah is the truth we inherit. Chochmah is the universal heritage of humankind; Torah is the specific heritage of Israel. Chochmah is what we attain by being in the image of God; Torah is what guides Jews as the people of God. Chochmah is acquired by seeing and reasoning; Torah is received by listening and responding. Chochmah tells us what is; Torah tells us what ought to be. Chochmah is about facts; Torah is about commands. Chochmah yields descriptive, scientific laws; Torah yields prescriptive, behavioural laws. Chochmah is about creation; Torah is about revelation.”
We then however move on to the other three articles which deal with the impact of the diminishing centrality of Torah and Halacha within many streams in the Diaspora.
Jonathan Neumann’s excellent analysis of the failures of modern Jewish America (p12) by making Tikkun Olam into the centre of things Jewish and then mistranslating it as ‘Social Justice’ is demonstrated by the piece on American Synagogues (p31). In a remarkable and tragic article we learn that in America (outside of Orthodoxy) there is declining synagogue memberships, falling attendances at services, spiralling rates of intermarriage, waning belief in God and a general disinterest in in traditional practice and belief. The line that interested me the most was the following. ‘Both Reform and Conservative Judaism have wagered their future on a ‘big tent’ approach, seeking formulae that include as many people as possible. Belief and ideology are subsumed into a ‘what works best approach’. It is not working; Orthodoxies success demonstrates the need for Torah and Halacha at the centre of any Jewish ideology.
And finally, we come to Limmud (p8) a darling of the JC and the venue of a real smorgasbord of Jewish culture and education. At Limmud every Jew is welcome and every Judaism is welcome. The former is laudable and the latter less so from an Orthodox perspective.
We can tie everything together with a powerful insight on this week’s Parashah . Vayechi details the blessings of Ephraim and Menashe who in many ways become the paradigm for Jewish children and is in fact the blessing that we give to our boys on Friday night. What was it about these two boys that Yaacov saw a uniqueness and bequeathed on them such honour and grace? It could well be that Ephraim and Menashe are who we wish our children to follow – brought up in an alien land, with alien culture all around them they identified as Jews and refuses to barter away their Jewishness.
As Rabbi Hertz beautifully puts it, “Every Jewish parent may well pray that his children show the same loyalty to their father and God as did Ephraim and Menashe.
However, there is further connection between Ephraim and Menashe and the blessings we give to our children. On Simchat Torah when we call up all the children ‘Kol Hanearim’ who are not yet Barmitzvah, who cannot have their own Aliyah, we sing to them the very blessing that Yaacov gave to Ephraim and Menashe in this week’s Sedra. HaMalach HaGoel– may the angel who redeemed me from all harm bless the youths, and may they be called by my name and the name of my fathers, Abraham and Isaac, and may they multiply abundantly like fish, in the midst of the land.”
Why did he bless them to multiply like fish? I gave one answer last year in terms of how kosher fish and kosher animals are very different. With animals it is very complex but fish are entirely different, go down to a river anywhere in the world, thousands of miles from any kosher butcher or restaurant, catch a fish check it is a kosher fish, fins and scales, and that’s it.
When it comes to a Jew it is the same; check they are a Halachic Jew and that is it, no need for any exams or inquisitions about how religious they are, a Jew is a Jew whether he or she keeps everything or keeps nothing. Whether they believe or don’t believe they are part of our people.
Yaacov is bequeathing a blessing to Ephraim and Menashe and in some ways to all Jewish children yet unborn, whoever you are you are part of our people. Obviously, Yaacov hoped that his future children would respect the traditions of our people, commit themselves to its observance and endeavour to transmit to the next generation but, like fish, even if they did none of the above, theywere still part of the Jewish people, a positive and inclusive message.
However, another answer adds a very important proviso.
A fish lives in water, and we all know that once you take a fish out of water it can survive briefly but eventually it will die. Rabbi Akiva (Brachot 62b) compares the Torah to water and argues that if we leave Torah, spiritually we will die.
Unfortunately, as we look around the Diaspora we are seeing this pattern, unless you connect yourself to Torah which means Halacha, the Mesorah, the observance of Mitzvot, that Judaism dies out. It is nothing new, we have seen this our entire history.
To take these two ideas and put them together we have a very powerful narrative which is reflected in our JC articles. We have to love every Jew, whomever they are and whatever they do, believe or observe butwe have to realise that unless the education has a foundation of Torah and Halacha – it will not last.
We have to realise that the Torah we teach has to be combined with the world around us to demonstrate to all Jews that you can be a leading economist, a leading scientist and a leading philosopher and still be an observant and religious Jew, there is no contradiction.
So maybe all Jews need their own five-a-day as it says in Pirkei Avot, “On three things the world stands; Torah, Prayer and Chesed.” We learn that Torah means Torah She Bichtav, the written Torah and Torah She Beal Peh, the oral Torah that gives us four. We then add Chochmah to get your five-a-day.
If our Jewish lives were governed by all five. Not just by Torah or Chesed or chochmah but by a holistic combination that fuels an ideology that is rightful continuation from Yaacov and Yosef down to Rabbi Soloveitchik and Rabbi Sacks.
It is powerful, it is relevant and it is needed now more than ever.
Rabbi Andrew Shaw