Barry W. Holtz

The Jewish Theological Seminary of America


Several years ago I was invited to participate in an interesting experiment in adult religious education. The Reconstructionist Rabbinical College had received a grant to bring together a group of six American Jewish poets with six Jewish scholars and teachers. As one of the teachers, I had the chance to spend five intensive days teaching Jewish texts to the poets, many of whom were world-renowned and most of whom were fairly unlearned in Judaism or Jewish literature. In many ways that week was one of the most extraordinary teaching experiences I had ever been involved in, but one small moment is relevant to our concerns here. At the opening reception on the first night, one of the poets came up to me with a question. We had never met, but he knew my name because each of the poets had received in advance a copy of the book I had edited, Back to the Sources. "I have only one question," he said to me. "Yes?" I asked. "Mishnah, Midrash, Talmud," he answered, "which is which and what’s the difference between them?"

I was taken aback. Not because the question was difficult but because the very last thing I expected from this literate, sophisticated man, the author of three or four books of poetry (who would a year after our meeting win the national award for poetry that is second only to the Pulitzer Prize) was a question of simple description and definition. He was not asking about theology or philology or literary structure. He just wanted to know the facts.

In matters of religion what adults want to learn and how they want to learn it is a tricky matter, more complex, it seems to me, than what we may assume. Some of our expectations about adult learning may be shaped by the literature currently available in the adult education field. But at the present moment approaches to adult learning are extremely variegated and it would be difficult to argue that there is one dominant theory or paradigm of adult learning in that literature (Langenbach, 1988; Merriam, 1993; Rossman & Rossman, 1990).

For example, we may believe—and find in the literature—that adult learners prefer "collaborative" models of education, settings in which they learn from one another, rather than from the teacher. Yet we will often find that learners in religious settings may want to learn in a teacher-centered environment precisely because such situations seem to suggest a kind of religious truth, and such teachers an aura of authority, which is what the adult learner is seeking when turning to a religious class rather than to a Great Books discussion group or a course in pottery making.

For me these issues are made more complex still by the specific nature of the Jewish religious tradition. For Jews the question of learning and religious "formation" (a term rarely used in Jewish circles) are related in two essential ways. First, because Judaism itself is a complicated religious tradition that requires a host of competencies and knowledge, learning is a critical component of gaining access to the tradition itself.

To be an "insider" in Judaism one needs first and foremost to master at least one language (Hebrew) in its various historical permutations ranging from Biblical texts to the latest editorials in the Israeli press. One needs to know in addition the choreographic movements of synagogue ritual (when to sit or stand or bow or sing) and the skills of daily and festival practices, all of which insiders perform with a kind of second-nature ease. Add to that the musical tropes for the public readings of Torah and Prophets, the languages (Aramaic and Yiddish are the obvious choices, but others are possible as well) that Jews have used both for religious and secular purposes over many centuries, and the bits of knowledge that insiders always seem to have at hand—historical facts, aphorisms and quotations, for example—and it is no wonder that the challenge for education seems almost overwhelming.

But the second aspect of learning is perhaps even more important. For Judaism the fundamental religious act is learning. Every day Jews recite a Talmudic passage in the traditional prayer book, asserting that the study of Torah is equal to a whole variety of other commandments including honoring of parents, visiting the sick and devotion in prayer. Studying Torah in its various guises is not simply a matter of learning the whats and hows of being Jewish. Studying is the essence of being a Jew. It defines who one is. Hence Jewish learning is not only the instrumental gaining of skills, knowledge and competencies. It is the religious act par excellence. And religious education is not only a preparation for what will come later; it is being a Jew, realizing one’s Jewishness, in the very act of studying.

Innumerable statements in the literature of classical Judaism attest to centrality of Torah study as the religious act sine qua non. Study is not instrumental. It is not pursued because of honor, gain or even practical knowledge. One studies, in the vocabulary of the rabbis, "Torah Lishmah," Torah for its own sake. Hence the Mishnaic tractate Avot relates the following discussion:

. . . Rabbi Zaddok said: Do not make words of Torah a crown with which to magnify yourself, nor a spade with which to dig. And thus Hillel used to say: He who makes worldly use of the "crown" shall perish. From this you learn: one who uses words of Torah for his own benefit, removes his life from the world (4:5).

The Jew studies Torah because it is the core value of Jewish identity. Indeed, we know that we should study because even God sets aside the first quarter of every day for learning Torah (Talmud, Avodah Zarah, 3b)! Thus for Judaism one crucial aspect of imitatio dei is the model God offers of one who learns, indeed, as one who dedicates a fixed portion of every day for Torah study.

And study is not only an individual’s act, sanctioned or modeled by God’s behavior. Study is the way that Jews build community. Hence the moving story related in the sixth chapter addendum to Pirkei Avot (6:9).

Said Rabbi Yose ben Kisma: One time when I was walking along a road, I met a man who greeted me. I returned his greeting.

He said to me: My teacher, where do you come from?

I answered him: I am from a great city of sages and scribes.

He said to me: My teacher, if you agree to live with us in our place, I will give you thousands of golden dinars, precious stones, and pearls.

I answered him: Even if you give me all the gold, silver, precious stones and pearls in the world, I would only live in a place of Torah. So it is written in the book of Psalms by David, King of Israel, "I prefer the Torah You proclaimed to thousands of gold and silver pieces" (Psalm 119:72).

Especially in a religious culture as literary as the Jewish tradition is, learning offers its own rewards and goes to the heart of membership in the religious world of being a Jew.

For children these matters have obvious implications, but issues of adult Jewish learning are raised by the Catholic-Jewish Colloquium described so movingly in the article by Boys and Lee. Hence before turning to the Colloquium itself, I want to say a few words about adult Jewish learning and what I have experienced not so much as a formal researcher, but as a teacher of adults over a good number of years.

What are these learners seeking? To begin with, it seems to me, they are looking for a sense of connection to the past, a sense of place on the family tree that is the history of the Jewish people. What does it take to acquire that feeling of belonging? One obvious starting place—as with my poet friend described above—is with the rudiments of factual knowledge. Who was who? When was what? What does this term mean?

But beyond facts there is something else. Jews today are seeking an experience of authenticity, a belief that their confrontation with Judaism is real, complex and not watered down. I gave a talk not long ago to a group of adults interested in Jewish study and afterward one of the participants told me about the very positive experience she had recently had studying Talmud in a group. "Why did it work so well?" I asked. Talmud is hard stuff and I wanted to try to understand why she had had such a good experience with it. Her answer: "No Xeroxes!" And I think I understand what she meant. Walking into class, holding a real book in hand, she felt she wasn't just "taking a course." She was instead part of the ancient tradition of learning Torah.

Finally, I think that we need think about what Theodore Rozack has called "the contemporary hunger for wonders," a search for meaning in an age that supposedly has seen the "eclipse" or "death" of God (Rozack, 1981). Rozack claims that despite the secularity of our age—or perhaps for that very reason—we live in a time of religious search. It is clear to me that Jews too care about religious search and that therefore we must look at the ways that Judaism is more than an accumulation of ancient facts or a great intellectual tradition. Judaism makes another claim. It says: These bones live. This tradition is mine too. As I have written elsewhere: "I believe that anyone who studies the works of the Jewish past must begin with a kind of faith assumption. . . . Simply put it is this: We believe that there is, to use an old-fashioned word, wisdom to be found in the library [of the Jewish tradition]. The texts of the past can teach us something, can speak to our lives" (Holtz, 1990, 8).

What does the discussion above have to do with the Catholic-Jewish Colloquium? It seems to me that one fruitful way of looking at the Colloquium is as an experiment in adult religious learning, and reading the report by Boys and Lee raises a number of interesting issues directly related to the questions that I have discussed earlier. The most crucial is the question of what does it mean to learn another religion’s tradition? The Colloquium raises the possibility that learning about another’s religion may, in fact, be a way—in the words of the article by Boys and Lee—"of deepening one’s particularity." How might the three aspects of learning about Judaism that I have mentioned above—knowledge, authenticity and meaning—connect to the hypothesis suggested by Boys and Lee?

At first glance their suggestion seems to fly in the face of our earlier argument. If one is seeking authenticity and meaning (here the category of "knowledge" may be less relevant), why would one find these qualities in an encounter with another’s religious tradition? Indeed, we often talk about the distinction between learning about a religion as opposed to learning a religion. Michael Rosenak, the Jewish educational philosopher, speaks about this as the distinction between first-order and second-order relationships to tradition. We can study about Judaism, in a second-order way, as a matter of historical interest, the way one might study about the ancient cultures of China or the world of Elizabethan England. But

first-order teaching and thinking is concerned primarily not with what Jews have said in defense of Judaism and how they have explained its beneficent functioning but how, under new circumstances or in conditions of changed consciousness, it has been seen as still true. (Rosenak 1987, 106)

One can, as he says, "instruct about a tradition in a secondary relationship, but one cannot teach it; one cannot educate toward commitment to it."

Learning another’s religion seems to be the most obvious example of learning about. As Rosenak continues,

Second-order justification makes my friend or colleague of a different faith appear more reasonable to me; his philosophical reflections and rhetoric are "interesting," and I am happy to learn that his tradition deals with issues that indicated in mine as well. I am not "converted" to another faith by second-order justification but reconciled to its existence.

Yet Boys and Lee have raised another possibility in their article: "Study in the presence of the other was the key to transformation." By transformation they mean gaining new insights into one’s own tradition, a "reformulating [of] one’s own religious identity."

How this process may come about is not entirely clear, but it does appear that the dialogic relationship that participants were put in, together with the safe and encouraging environment of the Colloquium, broke through natural defensiveness and moved the participants to a deeper connection to their own religious tradition. Although this was not "authentic" Jewish religious learning in the traditional sense, the environment created by the Colloquium led the participants toward reflection on their own self-identity, and clearly this self-reflection must have been a crucial part of the Colloquium’s success. And just as importantly, we must remember that the participants in the Colloquium were themselves educators, not a lay audience. How much the project described here might be relevant to a non-professional setting is an issue that would need more exploration.

The report offered by Boys and Lee is an example of some of the surprises that may be in store for us as we think about adult religious learning. The elusive process by which individuals come to know, value, appreciate and even love their own traditions is mysterious and more complex than any of us may suspect. The report by Boys and Lee helps us see new dimensions in this ever-unfolding story.

Barry W. Holtz is Associate Professor of Jewish Education at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York City.

List of Works Consulted

Holtz, B. W. 1990. Finding our way: Jewish texts and the lives we lead today. New York: Schocken Books.

Langenbach, M. 1988. Curriculum models in adult education. Malabar, Florida: Robert E. Krieger Publishing Company.

Merriam, S. B., ed. 1993. An update on adult learning theory. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Rosenak, M. 1987. Commandments and concerns. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society.

Rossman, M. H. & Rossman, M. E. 1990. Applying adult development strategies. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Rozack, T. 1981. On the Contemporary Hunger for Wonders. Originally published in Michigan Quarterly Review, anthologized in The Pushcart prizes VI: Best of the small presses, 1980-81, edited by Bill Henderson. New York: Avon Press.