December 9, 2018

The Indifference to Adult Jewish Illiteracy

I must begin with a confession. I am a recovering illiterate in Judaism. For most of my life, I attended services without questioning:  “Why am I here? Who am I praying to? How do I do it?” I knew little about history, ethics, values and spirituality. Prayer wasn’t working for me so I started focusing on study. I am still not literate, but I have made significant progress. Study has increased my appreciation and love for Judaism, but it also has generated more criticism and personal dissatisfaction concerning synagogues’ limited response to their adult members’ illiteracy.

Synagogues often identify three roles for their existence: prayer, study and community. I believe they tend to do a good job with the community component but appear to be weakest in the prayer and study components. 
Here is my concern about prayer, one of the core practices of Jewish spirituality: On each Shabbat, many worshipers open their siddurim and proceed through the service with little to no knowledge of Hebrew. Rabbis know that most worshipers are unable to follow the service in Hebrew. In fact, according to the Pew Research Center Report, only 11 percent of Jews can read and understand Hebrew; they know that many people don’t believe in the omnipotent conception of God as described in the Torah, and many people don’t see the purpose of prayer. The congregants also know that the rabbi knows about the confusion in their beliefs and lack of Hebrew skills, but the two rarely say anything to each other about it. For decades, rabbis have ignored the problem and maintained the mindset: “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” This “failure to communicate” doesn’t strengthen synagogue life; instead, it encourages more members to leave the synagogue complaining about the lack of relevancy to their own lives.

Before clergy can deal with prayer, they must start with their members’ beliefs about God. The key question is how to talk about God in a way that makes sense to individuals in their daily lives. The introduction to Mishkan T’filah, the Reform siddur, states:
“… [T]he liturgy needs to include many perceptions of God: The transcendent, the naturalist, the mysterious, the partner, the evolving.” I have never experienced any discussion of these different perceptions and beliefs about God in prayer services or in Jewish adult education. God issues are difficult, complex and often frustrating to resolve. It may appear easier to allow worshipers to recite prayers passively than to confront God issues. Maimonides writes that you can state all the words in Hebrew, but you can’t impact your heart — the purpose of prayer — unless you express yourself in words that you understand. This lack of understanding is a problem in most synagogues. Prayer doesn’t come naturally; it needs to be taught.

Some synagogues are now experimenting with supplemental methods to help congregants get in touch with their spirituality, such as Jewish yoga, Jewish meditation, chanting, mysticism and other contemplative experiences. Many of these contemplative experiences are referenced in the Talmud. Also, many rabbis believe the solution to encouraging members to attend prayer services more regularly is to emphasize music and entertainment. There is no question that music plays an important role in establishing the emotional feelings of the Shabbat experience. However, I have some concern that music often serves as entertainment rather than promoting spirituality. Unfortunately, I must conclude that many synagogues have become places where congregants are not encouraged to talk about God, and therefore they do not discuss their beliefs in God. Neither are they taught synagogue skills and how to make prayer meaningful to them.

I believe the key intervention in dealing with illiteracy is to resolve the major problems found in today’s adult Jewish education. First, rarely do adult Jewish education programs develop measureable goals. Second, the curriculum tends to be poorly designed, with a lack of specific themes that start with beginning courses leading to more advanced courses. Third, some Jewish educators fail to consider the motivation of learners. For example, some rabbis have told me that they tried to offer courses on theology, but congregants don’t enroll in them. Their conclusion is that their adults lack interest or motivation to learn. Remember that many adult learners have limited knowledge about Judaism, and what they remember was arrested at early adolescence. As long as Jews feel incompetent and illiterate about Judaism, they may hesitate to attend classes as they are presently constructed. After all, it is very uncomfortable to learn in an environment when you feel inadequate or embarrassed to answer questions in class. For these learners, there is a need for small group discussion classes, online classes and opportunities to discuss their personal Jewish journey from childhood to adulthood. Often the problem in attendance is not lack of motivation, but fear of failure. 

I believe Judaism has problems that can be solved if we have the courage to deal with them. The path toward change is to begin discussing the “undiscussable.”

Myron H. Dembo is professor emeritus of educational psychology at USC and a member of Temple Judea in Tarzana.