Do We Need Masters?

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There is a new trend in French education concerning Masters and the idea is that they are no longer needed. In our modern society, this concept is considered old-fashioned and outdated.

As a result teachers are no longer expected to teach their students but to manage the class. Similarly they should not grade papers or oral presentations themselves but ask the students for their assistance. As for the curriculum, the teacher is supposed to choose topics that are already part of the children’s culture and not impose his/her own choices on the students.

This has been bothering me since I first heard about it a few years ago.

To my mind, the master/student relationship is one that has always existed and I can’t see why it should suddenly stop to be relevant.

On the contrary, in traditional cultures, it is something that is valued and encouraged. It has always struck me that in Judaism the geatest teachers always give thanks to their masters before they express their own opinions and beliefs. It is interesting also to note that a rabbi is not a priest or a leader but a teacher.

Likewise one of the first things that a student of martial art learns in order to address their instructor is the word sensei (master).

I feel that if I am only entitled to teach what the students already know, I am part of a plan which organizes collective amnesia since this would do away with the culture each generation hands down to the next. Part of a society’s identity is its shared heritage of which history and culture are fundamental elements.

On a pragmatic level, I know that I have been influenced and encouraged, both directly and indirectly, by a few people I consider my masters, both when I learned English and today when I read Jewish books for inspiration and guidance.

Were you influenced by great teachers? Do you still consider some people as your teachers? Do you feel that some masters impress your children more than others?

Mesorah Project Round Up

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Thanks to Raizy, Rachel, Mrs. S., Shimshonit and Michael for having made this project a success through your wonderful contributions. It has been an honor to host your posts.

The painting above was done by Leora who kindly allowed me to use it to conclude this project. When I first saw it over a year ago I found it both beautiful and moving. I also find that it evokes one aspect of Mesorah: the passing on of Judaism from one generation to the next. You might enjoy reading what Leora wrote about her painting.

Mesorah Project I

Mesorah Project II

Mesorah Project III

Mesorah Project IV

Mesorah Project V

Mesorah Project IV

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Thank you Shimshonit for this eloquent and meaningful contribution.

My Jewish father notwithstanding, I am not technically a Jew by birth (if you accept Jewish law, as I do).  My father’s Judaism in some sense led me to water without letting me drink.

From the outside, it would seem that I had a luxury with regard to Judaism that born-Jews do not have: to choose to identify or not, to pursue it or not, to live it or to abandon it, with no feelings or baggage attached to those choices.

But the truth is that having a Jewish father, a warm, attentive extended Jewish family, and being told I was Jewish enabled Judaism to get its hooks in me.  From the time I was a child, I yearned for some sense of community, of belonging, of spiritual connection to God and the world.  I knew I would never find that in secular Americanism or Christianity (which appeared to me to have God uncomfortably confused with a hippy in a white dress), which left Judaism my most likely option.

It took me 30 years to convert under the auspices of the Orthodox world.  In the years leading up to my conversion, I was asked by relatives and friends why I was taking this (to some, extreme) step.  My answer then was that I wanted to continue the tradition of Judaism in my family.  I knew I wanted to marry a Jew and have Jewish children.  But for some those answers weren’t enough.  I was already Jewish, some would say.  Wasn’t Reform Judaism (i.e. THEIR Judaism) good enough for me?  Weren’t there enough other people out there passing on their Judaism to their children?  Why did I personally have to do this?  The world can’t stand Jews; why would I want to become one of them?  Those were good questions, and kept me thinking.

After many years of mulling over this question, I think I have come up with an answer.  Daniel Gordis published a book in 1997 entitled, Does the World Need the Jews?  I didn’t make it past the introduction (which was beautiful), but I knew then, as I do now, that the world needs the Jews.  It needs us because of our moral and ethical code that places responsibility for our own actions on ourselves rather than some third party in a red lycra suit.  It needs us because of our belief that everyone, not just the Jews, has a portion in the world to come (and hey, non-Jews only have to observe 7 laws, where Jews have 613).  It needs us because we believe that the same justice applies to everyone, not just the rich or the poor, the favored or the unfavored, the loved or the unloved.  It needs us because of our belief that everyone has a right to an education, a profession, a happy marriage, and meat and wine on the Sabbath table.  (Our word for “charity” is tzedakah, the root of which means “justice.”)  It needs us because in Judaism the worth of every single person is that of the entire universe.  And it needs us because more than anyone else, we deliver hope through our belief that each of us has the power to become a better person by working on ourselves, to make this world a better world for everyone, and that Hashem is pleased with us when we do these things.

It is very difficult to be Jewish.  We are a tiny minority in the world.  We have never been popular.  Whether one lives in Israel or in the Diaspora, to some extent our existence depends on our friends and what they think of us, and those friends are often fair-weather friends, willing to sacrifice us in their own interests.  If we’re religious and observe the dietary and Sabbath laws, we’re likely not only to confuse our non-Jewish friends, but to alienate secular Jews as well.  I grew up hearing that religious Jews were clannish and reclusive; now I know why they have this reputation.  The more religious you are, the more different you feel in Diaspora society, and the more alone.

And yet, as easy as it would have been, I could not jettison my Judaism.  It was the religion of my father’s family, but I had come to believe it was mine too.  The more I learned about it, the truer it seemed to me, being founded on honesty, fairness, learning and good deeds rather than simple faith, fairy stories, and chauvinism.  So what if the rest of the world thinks we’re nuts?  To cop out of keeping this religion alive and flourishing would be to give up The Good Fight.  It would mean accepting that what I believe to be right and good can be drowned out by numbers, even if those numbers are wrong.

So when all is said and done, for me to nurture my Judaism and pass it on to my children is to preserve hope—of connection with my father’s family, of a unique tradition and sense of justice, and of believe in myself and humankind.

By Shimshonit of shimshonit.wordpress.com

Mesorah Project I
Mesorah Project II
Mesorah Project III

Mesorah Project III

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Mesorah is usually translated as “Jewish tradition”, but its literal meaning is “transmission”.

Tractate Avot, which is devoted to Jewish ethical conduct, opens with a brief history lesson:

“Moses received the Torah at Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua, and Joshua to the Elders, and the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets transmitted it to the Men of the Great Assembly.”

We are told that each generation passed the Torah – both the Written Law and the Oral Law – on to the next generation.

Our commentaries wonder why Tractate Avot begins in this fashion.

One answer is that the act of transmitting the legacy is just as important as the legacy itself.

Jews around the world are familiar with the famous Biblical verse:

Torah tziva lanu Moshe morashah kehilat Yaakov.” (“The Torah that Moses commanded us is the heritage of the Congregation of Jacob.”) (Deuteronomy 33:4)

In an article written in honor of Yom HaAtzma’ut, Rav Yechiel Wasserman notes that this verse employs the word, “morashah” (heritage) rather than the more common, “yerushah” (inheritance).

Rav Wasserman cites Rabbenu Bechaye, who explains that yerushah refers to a gift which comes with no strings attached. In contrast, a morashah must be subsequently bequeathed to future generations.

As committed Jews, we are challenged with the responsibility of preserving, protecting, and safeguarding the Torah while simultaneously bequeathing it to the next generation.

May we be privileged to discover the proper means to transmit this legacy to our children in a way which is meaningful to them yet does not detract from our heritage.

American-Israeli blogger “Mrs. S.” (ourshiputzim.blogspot.com) made aliyah from the United States with her husband and kids eleven years ago.

Thanks Mrs.S. for this insightful contribution and for reminding us of our responsibility in the transmission of the Torah.

Mesorah Project I
Mesorah Project II

Mesorah Project II

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Thanks Rachel for contributing to the Mesorah Project in your unique way.

If I had read about this project this time last year, I would probably have thought that I had nothing to offer. There I was, at almost the very beginning of my conversion journey, knowing very little about what I was about to do, other than that I was totally driven towards the day when I would become a Jew and then be able to continue on my journey of constant learning and developing.

Indeed, I still describe myself as a sponge – constantly soaking up all things Jewish. But now, I can see that I am beginning to help others on their journey, whether they are Jewish from birth, or just embarking on their own conversion process. I have a historical knowledge that I have garnered from being a high school student. Studying as I did, modern world history, I have learned things that others have not had access to, for whatever reason. This knowledge, and the ability to absorb large amounts of detailed information (a skill I constantly hone through my work), has enabled me to put my theological learning into context and pass it on where I can.

To me, Judaism isn’t just about the rites and practices – what happens in the synagogue, the prayers we say, the blessings, the Torah, the Siddur – although of course they are absolutely fundamental. Judaism is also about the history of a people. How we have survived through the centuries, despite having to globetrot in order to save our lives. It is also about how we live on a day to day basis, in the world at large and outside our communities. People have noticed a change in me – how I treat others, my approach to charitable giving, the time I spend doing things not for me, but for others. I consider this ‘doing Judaism’ in a most positive way since if asked ‘why?’ it is the perfect opportunity to tell them what drives me to be different.

Perhaps this interpretation of mesorah isn’t the traditional approach – I must admit I am looking at it in a more secular way than some might. This is probably due to the fact that my Torah knowledge is relatively limited compared to many others and my skills at interpreting all the nuances therein are going to take a lot of brushing up, that’s for sure! But I am looking forward to a lifetime of learning, in that department.

So, I guess my viewpoint now is that most people have something to offer. You don’t need to be extremely learned, you don’t need to be born Jewish. You just need to embrace Judaism, enjoy its wonders and pass on your love for your faith and your tradition to the best of your ability. Even if what you know doesn’t fit with someone else’s understanding or theological viewpoint, you can at least enjoy the very Jewish discussions that will follow…

By Rachel of shavuatov.wordpress.com. Contributions are still welcome; just send them to me (ilanadavita@orange.fr).

Mesorah Project I

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Thanks Raizy for having been the first to respond to the Mesorah Project and with such a moving submission.

I am a 40 year old divorced mother of 3, living in New York and doing the best that I can. Long ago, I chose to forgo the lucrative paychecks that my education and connections could have afforded me. Instead, I chose to become a mother and a teacher. Here’s why.

Growing up as the child of Holocaust survivors is not an easy thing. There are silent shadows that lurk about the house, daring you to ask what they have seen. But you don’t ask, because you don’t really want to know. You see your father squint his eyes in disapproval when you fail to finish all the food on your plate. You hear him scream in the middle of the night as the horrific events of his past visit him again and again. You see your parents cry silent tears as they murmur the Yizkor prayer in shul. It seems to take them a long time to finish, perhaps because there are so many departed souls for them to pray for. And many of your childish questions go unanswered: “Daddy, what was it like when you lived in Europe? Why did you come to America? Why haven’t I ever seen any of your relatives?”

When you grow up that way, eventually you come to understand that you are more than simply a child. You, like your parents, are a survivor. And being a survivor carries with it an enormous amount of guilt, and a compulsion to prove that you are worthy of having been chosen.

And so you try your best to rebuild what was lost. You have children, and you teach them the traditions that are almost gone, and you become a teacher so that the message will reach even more children. You do the best you can to ingrain in them the same sense of responsibility that was ingrained in you: to learn the traditions of those who are gone, to embrace them and fulfill them and make them come alive once more. You are helped along this path by a whole community of Jews who, like you, are trying to justify their survival by passing on the ways of their fathers. Is it enough? Of course not. There is no way that you can ever bring back what was lost. But it’s all you have, so it’s what you do.

by Raizy of http://www.SuperRaizy.blogspot.com

It is not too late to take part in this project; feel free to send your own contribution.

Mesorah Project

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I’d love to initiate a series of host posts over the summer on the topic of Mesorah. In Jewish tradition, the concept of Mesorah is very important. It means passing on and refers to the way the Torah has been handed down throughout the generations.

Therefore I’d be delighted if you, i.e. my readers (regular or occasional), could write a few lines or paragraphs on what “transmitting Judaism” means to you.

I’d post one contribution every week, starting on June 21st. You may choose to remain anonymous or have a link to your blog if you have one but a short introduction (with your age, family background, job…) would be appreciated.

You can mail your contribution to: ilanadavita@orange.fr