Friday, May 18, 2007

Doing the numbers: Bamidbar

The school year often ends before the reading of Numbers begins. Students using the Behrman House parashat hashavua books learn some of the contents of Numbers nevertheless, because those do not attempt to follow the actual schedule of weekly Torah readings. If the class followed the traditional schedule, their study would begin in the middle of Deuteronomy most years, and often end in the middle of Leviticus.

The Hebrew name for the book of Numbers, Bamidbar, means “in the wilderness” or “in the desert.” Indeed, all of the action takes place in the wilderness; it is the history of the Israelites’ 40 years of wandering.

The English name refers to the census figures that compose much of the first parashah. These, and the details about the organization of the Levites that follow, make it a tedious parashah to read or teach.

It can almost be said that nothing much happens in Numbers. What is most apparent to modern readers is that the people grumble a great deal, driving Moses to desperation and to an act of apparently minor disobedience (striking the rock instead of merely speaking to it) that traditional commentators considered the reason for his not being allowed to enter the Land of Israel.

There are also various encounters with surrounding nations and tribes, some of them memorable in themselves. Perhaps the most-discussed of these is the episode of Balaam, a prophet who is hired to curse the Israelites but who is only able to praise them. (If the idea of hiring a professional to curse the enemy seems strange, consider that Iraqi radio during the first Gulf War featured long recitations by poets brought in for exactly the same purpose.) Balaam’s praise is the text for the prayer and song “Mah Tovu.”

And Numbers also includes an episode that has become a touchstone for Jewish women: the daughters of Zelophehad, who demand of Moses that they be allowed to inherit their father’s estate. The ruling itself is only a small victory for feminists, because while they were allowed to inherit, it was only in the absence of any brothers—and they were then required to marry within their own tribe. It is important because Moses had to approach God for clarification of the law, indicating that Jewish practice can include changes from prior custom or popular belief about an issue.

The census figures at the beginning of Numbers present an obvious problem. If we take the word elef to mean “one thousand,” its meaning in modern Hebrew, the number of Israelite men eligible for military service totals at least 600,000, implying a population of more than two million. It is hard to imagine a group of this size moving about as the Torah describes, especially without any comment in other ancient sources.

Some commentators have concluded that elef had an ancient meaning other than the number 1,000, perhaps a large group or “contingent,” as the new JPS translation frames it. By the most conservative reasoning, the number of fighting men might have been closer to 5,500, a figure similar to the size of other ancient armies, corresponding to a total population of about 20,000.

Numbers itself reports, however, in chapter 3 that the population included 22,273 first-born sons. While this casts doubt on the figure of 600,000, it can only be reconciled with the 5,500 figure by assuming that nearly all the first-born sons were underage.

But while Numbers matters to us, these numbers ultimately do not. The question is one we probably cannot resolve, but it is the tradition they represent that is important.

Small schools at CAJE 32

I will be leading a discussion session for participants from small supplementary schools at the CAJE conference in St. Louis (August 5-9). This year our topic is "Small Schools: Building Community to Enhance Learning." Here's the description:

Teaching students to be part of the Jewish community is our goal, but what if our community is small, geographically remote, religiously diverse, denominationally isolated, or all of the above? In this session we’ll discuss the ways that our communities help to educate our students. We’ll share strategies for building community within the school, for building relationships beyond the limits of school time and space, and for helping our students to become part of a larger Jewish world.

I would welcome replies (to okmoreh) from people in small schools, even if you won't be at CAJE this year, about issues and concerns that you might want the session to address. If you have approaches that you've used and would like to share, you might save them for the session if you can attend, or include them in email to me if you know that you can't attend.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Believe it or not - Behar/Bechukotai

This week’s reading comprises parashat Behar and parashat Bechukotai, the last weekly portions in Leviticus. They are read together in a majority of years, but like Tazria and Metzora are separated when a leap year requires additional weekly portions.

The jubilee year is one of the major themes of Behar. From the Hebrew yovel, jubilee refers to a fifty-year cycle at the end of which land would revert to its original owners. (Originally yovel denoted the horn that would be blown to mark the occasion.) The connotation of rejoicing that it has acquired in English comes from a Latin root that is probably unrelated.

The jubilee is actually a super-sabbatical year. According to the Torah, every seventh year is a sabbatical, during which land is not cultivated and debts are forgiven. After forty-nine years (seven cycles of seven years each), the jubilee year occurs. It has all the characteristics of a sabbatical year, plus the reversion of land.

It is known that the provisions of the sabbatical year were observed for many centuries; indeed, the agricultural restriction is nominally observed in Israel today, although generally through the token sale of agricultural land to a non-Jew. The forgiveness of debts eventually became the cause of hardship and was essentially abrogated by Rabbi Hillel’s prosbul, which turned personal debt into what we would call contract law.

There is serious doubt, however, about whether the requirements of the jubilee were ever carried out. First, there would have been hardship in observing two sabbatical years in a row.

Second, scholars question whether the restoration of every parcel of land to the family that had received it in the time of Joshua could ever have been possible. More specifically, they question whether Joshua’s division of the land could ever have taken place, at least in the way that the Bible describes.

There is even doubt about whether the Israelite conquest of Canaan took place, an issue that has been the subject of general controversy in the Conservative movement and, of course, in Israel. Although there is legitimate disagreement, many scholars believe that, if such a conquest took place, it did not happen as quickly and efficiently as the narrative in Joshua suggests.

Indeed, the Bible itself presents evidence that it did not. Battles against other tribes inhabiting the land are a major subject of Judges and Samuel.

Should we tell children all this? Generally, we will choose not to. The full weight of modern scholarship adds nothing to a child’s understanding of the Passover story, and suggesting that the exodus from Egypt might not have taken place at all removes a great deal.

Nevertheless, we do students little good by insisting that they accept as truth that which they find frankly incredible. Traditional commentators who argue that all the provisions of the jubilee year were carried out do so only by ignoring the plain sense of the text.

The “plain sense” is what Jewish pedagogy calls the p’shat, and learning to extract it is the first step for any student beginning to work with the actual text of the Torah. Merely understanding all the words, in English or in Hebrew, isn’t always enough. Full understanding of the p’shat may also require knowledge of the context and of the conventions of Biblical narrative, as well as of the basics of interpretation.

Jewish reading of the Bible doesn’t stop with the plain sense. In mainstream teaching, we also give equal attention to d’rash, which refers to commentary and interpretation: the kind of meaning around which a rabbi might build a sermon, for example. We usually give less attention in classes to remez, the philosophical meaning, and sod, esoteric meaning.

Much of our teaching actually begins with d’rash. We don’t expect young children to grapple with a text in order to find the p’shat; instead, we paraphrase it and usually emphasize the d’rash, the lesson that a student should learn from the passage.

Inconveniently, the age at which students are ready to work directly with the text is also the age at which skepticism develops. Thus, it’s also to d’rash that we return when a passage is difficult to accept on its own terms.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Emor: Why remember priests?

Parashat Emor consists largely of material that is specific to the Temple priests. This should not be too surprising: most of Leviticus contains instructions for the priests, and a common Hebrew name for it is Torat Kohanim, instruction of priests. Even material in this parashah that is not exclusive to the priests, such as instructions about various holidays and festivals, is presented from the priestly point of view.

One of the striking features of Emor is the discussion of special rules that affect not only the priests’ work in the Temple, but all aspects of their lives. This emphasis on the specialness of the priests has led many scholars to conclude that it might be of relatively late composition, stemming from the reforms following the discovery (or composition) of Deuteronomy in the reign of Josiah.

One of these reforms was the centralization of sacrificial worship in Jerusalem, eliminating regional shrines such as the one at Shiloh and disenfranchising rural priests. Some scholars hold that the emphasis on the special quality of priests here reflects the insistence of the “Zadokite” priests in Jerusalem, who claimed direct descent from Aaron, that only they qualified to officiate at the altar, and that Levites not of such descent could only do the menial work of the Temple.

Most teachers faced with this parashah would probably build a lesson around the section on holiday observance, or possibly around the section dealing with the punishment for blasphemy. The latter is of some extra interest because it is one of the few occasions, and the only one outside the book of Numbers, on which Moses found it necessary to consult God about a specific law. The best-known of these occasions is probably the episode dealing with the daughters of Zelophehad and their right to inherit their father’s estate.

A lesson on the special rules for priests would present a challenge. Given that kohanim have so few priestly functions today, students are likely to ask why this section should even be studied.

One reason for studying this section would be simply to understand the special quality that Biblical religion imputed to the priests. It is by no means unusual to have special rules that set priests apart from other people; the rule of celibacy for Roman Catholic priests would be an obvious contemporary example. (In contrast, Hebrew priests were expected to marry, although they were barred from marrying a divorced woman.)

Another is that the vestiges of priestly function that remain part of Jewish practice--in traditional settings, pronouncing the birkat kohanim and officiating at pidyon ha-ben, the redemption of firstborn sons, come to mind--serve as reminders of the work that was once the main function of priests.

Thus, the care with which traditional communities have maintained those few priestly functions that are still possible, and with which families have retained knowledge of their priestly status, can be understood as reflections of Jews’ longing for a return from galut, “exile” in the Diaspora and the re-establishment of a Jewish homeland in Israel.

Which has come to exist -- it is barely a week since we celebrated Yom ha-Atzma’ut. Most of us, whatever our feeling for Israel, probably do not anticipate the construction of a Third Temple and the reinstatement of sacrificial worship. In fact, it usually comes as a surprise to learn that there is a yeshiva in Jerusalem that now trains men of priestly descent to carry out the Biblical sacrifices. (For many of us, it’s an unwelcome surprise; current Reform prayer books omit or rephrase prayers that refer to this.)

Instead of looking to hereditary priests as the sign of a future redemption, we tend, in the language of a prayer found in Conservative siddurim, to think of Israel as “the first flowering of our redemption.”

Beyond the Age of Mitzvah

Congregations often ask what can be done to encourage students to stay enrolled in religious school after they have become b'nai mitzvah.

By the time the question is being asked, it may be too late for the current group of students. I genuinely believe that the single most important thing is to instill excitement in Jewish learning while students are young. It's been said that nearly everything students know after bar/bat mitzvah was learned in third grade or earlier. If that's true, and if we make students attend school for four more years anyway, it is no wonder that they don't see any reason to continue attending through high school. Why stay in school if there is nothing to learn after third grade anyway?

In other words, I think that it is important to have sufficient verticality. A lot of what we do in supplementary school comes across as "same old, same old": we study the holidays and Shabbat every single year, and students don't always learn in greater depth. Students need a sense of progress, of learning material that is new and more complex than what they learned the year before.

Beyond that, there's one very important factor in persistence that we can usually do nothing about: tradition. If a congregation has a tradition of persistence beyond b'nai mitzvah -- for example, a Reform congregation that has emphasized confirmation since sometime in the nineteenth century -- high-school enrollment will probably be good. It is much harder in congregations that have no tradition of high-school enrollment (including, by the way, many suburban Reform congregations founded in the past 40 years).

Nevertheless, there are some things we can do:
  • Teach things that are worth learning. Although there is a place for "light" courses, if the entire curriculum consists of crafts and cooking, the overall effect will be negative.

  • Teach at the appropriate level. Eighth and ninth grades shouldn't seem like a rehash of seventh grade, nor should they seem like college courses.

  • Give students a choice. Include elective courses -- a combination of core and elective courses is best -- or, if electives aren't feasible, solicit student input about course topics.

  • Include a (small) social component. School is school, but part of the motivation to attend is to spend time with friends.

  • Work with parents. Since friends' participation is so influential, consider fomenting the kind of conspiracy that Joel Grishaver recommends: a secret agreement among parents not to let their child be the first to drop out.

  • Especially if confirmation is not well-established in your congregation, consider emphasizing high-school graduation (at the end of grade 12) rather than pushing confirmation (after grade 10 or 11). It's more resonant in American culture.