September 22, 2019

Torah Portion:The Holiness of Literacy

For many years, the Allen School was the worst in the Dayton, Ohio, system. Located in the dilapidated inner city, the dropout rate was astronomical. Fifth graders had parole officers. Then came a new principal. He brought the staff together and said to them: “We have to understand that the young people we are working with have nothing of external substance or support. They have dangerous neighborhoods. They have poor places to live. They have little to eat. They have parents who live out on the edge and are barely able to care for them. But these students have one thing no one can take away from them. They have their souls. And from this day forward, in this school, we are going to lift those souls. We are going to make those souls visible to the young people themselves, and to their parents, and to the community. We are going to celebrate their souls, and we are going to reground their lives in the power of their souls. All this will require this faculty to recover the power of our own souls, remembering that we too are soul-driven, soul-animated creatures.”

Within five years, the Allen School had risen to the top of every measure of school success. Something is missing from education in America. Not another technique for raising test scores or evaluating teacher performance. We’ve been “back to basics” twice in the past 20 years alone, vacillating between phonics and whole language, between new math and old. In the meantime, schooling has become an obstacle course – something to conquer and surmount.

In traditional Jewish communities, a child’s first day at school was filled with ceremony: The elders would come and carry the child to school on their shoulders. A clean slate was presented, on which the letters of the alphabet were written in honey. As each letter was mastered, it was licked off. Learning was celebrated as a sweet gift. Learning was directed not just at the mind, but at the character, the emotions, the heart. Learning was personal – an offering of life wisdom from heart to heart and generation to generation. Jewish tradition grasped that all education is education of the soul.

On display in New York’s YIVO institute is a battered copy of the Mishnah. Unremarkable except for the flyleaf: “Property of the Teamsters’ Mishna Circle of Bialystok.” Each evening, after an exhausting day of hauling freight, a circle of drivers would gather to study Jewish law. In Judaism, learning is a lifelong adventure. One doesn’t learn to earn a living. One earns a living to have the chance to sit and learn. There is no word in Hebrew for what we call a “school.” There was never such an institution in Jewish life. The traditional beit midrash is a place where people of all ages gather to learn. It is filled day and night with scholars and seekers, the old and the young.

No one is more revered in Jewish life than the teacher. If one’s parent and one’s teacher are threatened, instructs Jewish law, you save your teacher first. Your parent gives life to the body; your teacher give life to the soul. One stands up when a teacher enters the room because the teacher represents the Presence of God. In very religious neighborhoods, kids trade cards with images of great rabbis. Instead of Mark McGuire and Shawn Green, they collect Rashi, Rambam and Hofetz Haim. Imagine the impact on kids if a superstar is celebrated not for his towering home runs but for breathtaking interpretation of holy text and humble acts of compassion.

This week we celebrate the festival of Shavuot. This holiday embraces an audacious claim: God enters the world through a book. To come close to the Presence of God, one learns to read the book. Literacy is not for economic expediency or cultural empowerment alone. Literacy is holy. Literacy permits us to experience God’s revelation. Learning is communion with the sacred. When the rabbis of the Midrash read the story of Moses on Mount Sinai, they wondered how an 80-year-old man could traverse the rocky slopes of the mountainside carrying two heavy stone tablets. It wasn’t that Moses carried the tablets down, they concluded. The letters of the law were written in the hand of God. The tablets flew down the mountain. All Moses had to do was hold tightly – the words carried him. And they will carry us, too.

Rabbi Ed Feinstein is a rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino.