Judaism's Unique Approach to Education

Headshot of Elliot Dorff
Headshot of Elliot Dorff
Rabbi Elliot Dorff, PhD

Sol & Anne Distinguished Professor in Philosophy, Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies
University Rector, American Jewish University

Rabbi Elliot Dorff, PhD is AJU’s Rector and Sol & Anne Dorff Distinguished Service Professor in Philosophy. He is Chair of the Conservative Movement's Committee on Jewish Law and Standards and served on the editorial committee of Etz Hayim, the new Torah commentary for the Conservative Movement. He has chaired four scholarly organizations: the Academy of Jewish Philosophy, the Jewish Law Association, the Society of Jewish Ethics, and the Academy of Judaic, Christian, and Islamic Studies. He was elected Honorary President of the Jewish Law Association for the term of 2012-2016.  In Spring 1993, he served on the Ethics Committee of Hillary Rodham Clinton's Health Care Task Force. In March 1997 and May 1999, he testified on behalf of the Jewish tradition on the subjects of human cloning and stem cell research before the President's National Bioethics Advisory Commission. In 1999 and 2000 he was part of the Surgeon General’s commission to draft a Call to Action for Responsible Sexual Behavior; and from 2000 to 2002 he served on the National Human Resources Protections Advisory Commission, charged with reviewing and revising the federal guidelines for protecting human subjects in research projects. Rabbi Dorff is also a member of an advisory committee for the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History on the social, ethical, and religious implications of their exhibits. He is also a member of the Ethics Advisory Committee for the state of California on stem cell research.

He has been an officer of the FaithTrust Institute, a national organization that produces seminars and educational materials to help people avoid or extricate themselves from domestic violence.  For eight years he was also been a member of the Board of Directors of the Jewish Federation Council of Los Angeles, chairing its committee on serving the vulnerable.  In Los Angeles, he is a Past President of Jewish Family Services and a member of the Ethics committee at U.C.L.A. Medical Center. He serves as Co-Chair of the Priest-Rabbi Dialogue of the Los Angeles Archdiocese and the Board of Rabbis of Southern California.  

posted on October 13, 2022

Jews tend to think that the whole world is Jewish – or, at least, that everyone thinks and acts as Jews do.  Simchat Torah is clear evidence that that is not so.   

In sharp contrast, the Torah records that God repeatedly told Moses to "speak to the Children of Israel -- not just to the priests or elders, and not just to the men, but to the entire people.  A striking example of this difference, recorded by Columbia University scholar E. J. Bickerman (Studies in Jewish and Christian History [Leiden: Brill, 1976], Part 1, p. 199), occurs in the archaeological remains of the Syrian city of Dura in two third-century houses of worship there:

In the Mithra temple at Dura it is a Magian in his sacred dress who keeps the sacred scroll closed in his hand.  [But] in the synagogue of Dura, a layman, without any sign of office, is represented reading the open scroll.

This approach to religious education and access is already articulated in many verses of the Torah.  For example, "Surely, this Instruction that I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach" (Deuteronomy 31:11).  Why could the Torah be sure that it is not too baffling for us or beyond reach our reach?

The answer lies in the educational system that the Torah constructed.  First and foremost, parents had the obligation to teach the Torah to their children: "Impress them [or "teach them diligently"] to your children.  Recite them when you stay at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise up" (Deuteronomy 6:7).  This last verse, famous for being part of the Shema, uses a biblical device called a "merism," where the ends of a spectrum are mentioned in order to indicate everything in between as well.  Thus, this verse is telling parents -- and Jews in general -- to talk about the Torah everywhere (home and abroad) and always (from the first waking hour to the last).  In doing so, it is repeating a heritage going back to Abraham:  "For I have singled him out, that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is just and right, in order that the Lord may bring about for Abraham what He has promised him" (Genesis 18:19). Indeed, the Talmud (B. Sanhedrin 91b) says that anyone who keeps knowledge of any part of  the Jewish tradition from students robs them of their patrimony, for, the Torah says, “Moses commanded us the Torah, the heritage of the congregation of Jacob” (Deuteronomy 33:4).

Second, adults as well as children would know the Torah because they would be reminded of it through an elaborate ritual system.  Contrary to things like tables and chairs, the abstract ideals and even the specific stories and laws of the Torah do not exist in the world in which we live.  We must be constantly reminded of the existence and the message of the Torah if it has a chance of affecting our lives.  As a result, the Torah requires us to mark the seasons so that their passage can trigger in us an appreciation of our connections to nature and to Jewish history (e.g., Exodus 12:24-27; Leviticus 23:42; Deuteronomy 26:1-11); to mark life cycle events with yet other lessons in mind (e.g., Genesis 17:9-14; Leviticus 15); and, even more pervasively, to put on the tallit and tefillin each day (Deuteronomy 6:8), to put a mezuzah on our doorposts (Deuteronomy 6:9), to restrict our eating in accordance with the dietary laws (e.g., Leviticus 11, especially 11:43-45; Deuteronomy 12:23-25), and to surround eating with blessings (Deuteronomy 8:10).  All these rituals remind us many times each day of aspects of our Covenantal relationship with God; they teach us what that relationship requires of us; and they reveal to us the values and concepts embedded in that relationship.

Every seventh year, the year set for remission [of debts], at the Feast of Booths, when all Israel comes to appear before the Lord your God in the place that He will choose, you shall read this Teaching aloud in the presence of all Israel.  Gather the people -- men, women, children, and the strangers in your communities -- that they may hear and so learn to revere the Lord your God and to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching.  Their children, too, who have not had the experience, shall hear and learn to revere the Lord your God as long as they live in the land that you are about to cross the Jordan to possess.  (Deuteronomy 31:10-13)

That every Jew is privy to the sacred texts of the Jewish tradition has several important implications.  First, this feature of Judaism confers significant status to each and every Jew.  Since we can all learn the revelation of God, we can all interact with God directly.  Rabbis and others learned in the tradition can teach Jews the skills necessary to understand the content and methods of the tradition, but ultimately no intermediary stands between a Jew and the sacred texts of Judaism.  Each Jew may learn the Torah, wrestle with it, and interpret it in the way most plausible to him or her.  Anyone who wants to make his or her interpretation the official stance of the Jewish community (or a subset of it) must justify that reading to those s/he wants to convince, but even if every other Jew thinks your interpretation is wrong, you have not only the right to suggest it, but the duty to reveal the new facet you have found in the sacred text. 

The Rabbis (Numbers Rabbah 13:16), in fact, claim that “There are 70 faces to the Torah” – that is, multiple ways of reading any verse.  This is in sharp contrast to those traditions that insist that only one way is correct.  It is for very good reason, then, that "Where there are two Jews, there are at least three opinions!"

Second, the sacred status of each Jew as student and interpreter of the Torah comes with a reciprocal duty: each of us has not only the right, but the responsibility to learn the tradition.  None of us can pass off that duty to others.  Some, by virtue of their learning, may have the special charge to help others learn, but in the end each of us has the duty to learn as much about the tradition as we can.  And we cannot blame bad teachers for our failure to learn it ourselves!

Third, learning the tradition brings with it yet another responsibility -- namely, to act in accordance with it.  Each and every adult Jew can justly be held responsible for transgressing the Torah's commandments because all Jews are expected to know what they are.  This applies not only to our individual behavior, but to the actions of our community as well, for we all are supposed to know what is right and wrong:

Whoever is able to protest against the wrongdoings of his family and fails to do so is punished for the family's wrongdoings.  Whoever is able to protest against the wrongdoings of her fellow citizens and does not do so is punished for the wrongdoings of the people of the city.  Whoever is able to protest against the wrongdoings of the world and does not do so is punished for the wrongdoings of the world.  (B. Shabbat 54b)

Knowledge brings with it responsibility for our own actions and for those with whom we are associated.

Finally, when only a small elite possesses the secrets of a tradition, they can retain their special power only if they keep the tradition both secret and constant.  If everyone knows the tradition and lives by it, though, the tradition will inevitably adjust to the new realities of each generation.  That is not only a good thing, but a crucial one, for only when traditions are learned and challenged and adjusted can they live on from one generation to another.

So we mark the annual end of the reading of the Torah and the beginning of the next reading of it as a festival, Simchat Torah, literally, “the joy of the Torah.”  We rejoice in having access to the sacred texts of our tradition and yes, to the duty to learn them and act according to them.  As our daily evening liturgy says, we “rejoice in the words of Your Torah and in Your mitzvot forever and ever, for they are our life and the fullness of our days…”  So rejoice in this great gift that our Tradition has given us and do not take it for granted, for most traditions do not provide the education and access to their sacred texts as our tradition does. Chag same’ah!