Not quite Judaism 101

 By Matt Bloch

            I began the Sinai Scholars class with several expectations that the course proved incorrect. My motivation for joining Sinai Scholars was logical. Judaism isn’t a large part of my life currently, and that’s fine – for now. My days don’t feel empty. I spend a small amount of each day working or in class, but the vast majority is spent with my friends and family. If I need spiritual fulfillment I usually opt towards what I would call a universal truth approach. The greatest authors have come as close to the greatest rabbis at describing metaphysical truths; so I read Hesse or Borges in place of Talmud. At the same time, however, I realize that college is not life. In a few years time my twelve-class-hour-a-week schedule will be replaced with sixty-five hours a week of work and all the stresses of being a junior lawyer. When you are working sixty-five hours a week you have to be far more selective with your friends if you have any intention of sleeping. So I could spend my one free day a week with other lawyers, investment bankers and doctors at the country club, or I could try and connect with people on a deeper level. That is where I planned to integrate Judaism into my life. After med-school, residency, marriage and children my brother became very involved in his synagogue (I think he is considering becoming a Cantor); he says it is one of the most fulfilling things he has ever done. Christian politicians sometimes patronizingly praise the “Jewish faith” for its traditions. But I honestly felt that the traditional aspect of our religion would be the most valuable for me. So Sinai scholars would be a way of easing into these traditions. While I am sure there will always be Jews in the world willing to teach an ignorant Jew about religion, I doubted I would ever have a better opportunity to be instructed systematically on a basic level than Sinai scholars. 

            Of course, as I alluded to above, there were several problems with my plan. The first among them was obvious to me as of our first class. Sinai scholars, was not – at least not strictly – about instruction. While you (I assume Rabbi Levi is the only one reading this paper) certainly are always willing to clarify a Jewish law or tradition, the class was obviously focused on a critical discussion of Judaism. Moreover, much of what we learned wasn’t the sort of being-Jewish-101 lesson that I expected. Looking at the placement of the Ten Commandments, for example, doesn’t help you understand what is going on at synagogue on the many Jewish holidays. So I was faced with a bit of a problem; what am I doing here? The discussions were enjoyable enough, but in terms of my mission they didn’t seem to be very productive.

            My progress in answering that question was largely assisted by an ostensibly unrelated parable you told in class. You brought up a story about a man who asked to be taught only written Jewish law. I can’t remember exactly how you came to this conclusion, but the logic was convincing to me that without oral law Jewish law was wholly incomplete. I applied something analogous to this lesson to my approach to Jewish traditions. Yes I could spend a great deal of time learning prayers, Jewish traditions and holidays, but If I didn’t wrestle with the foundational debates of Judaism, namely the Ten Commandments then my understanding of the religion would be utterly incomplete. The type of things I learned when I was ten in Hebrew schools – the meaning of the candles at Shabbat, why we face the Jerusalem when we pray etc. – are very much conversations for a ten year old. The pedagogy is such because when you’re ten that is what you are capable of understanding. You learn them first so that when your Christian friend asks you “what do Jews do” you have something to tell them. I shouldn’t expect the same questions in a collegiate discussion.

            Understanding the value of critical analysis to my development as a Jew I was able to appreciate the value of my faith on a deeper level. There is something that Judaism can offer that transcends universal truths or tradition, the possibility of an answer. For a counter example, when at the end of Siddhartha the Indian prince looks at the face of a river man and sees the faces of a thousand men the author is essentially coming up with a construct for existence. All is one. But despite its aesthetic value has the author proved anything? Of course not, it is one man’s interpretation of the world. If we accept the Torah as the word of G‑d, however, then by careful debate and analysis it is possible to approach metaphysical truths. There are actual answers in the Torah, decoded by Judaism’s philosophers and jurists and eventually studied by classes like Sinai scholars. If you believe that G‑d wrote the torah then you don’t have to create any construct when analyzing the layout of the Ten Commandments. There is a real meaning there worth trying to understand.

            Had I never taken Sinai scholars I doubt I would have ever made any effort to comprehend that meaning. So I am glad I took the class. I got to connect to the Jewish population around Penn and explore Judaism in a way I never had and with a depth that I hadn’t experienced since my Bar Mitzvah. Thank you for the opportunity and the time. I really appreciate it.