September 15, 2023
This weekend celebrates one of the most significant moments in the yearly calendar for most twenty-first-century Jews and our connection to our faith, tradition, and history. Beginning with this evening’s Erev Rosh Hashanah service and ending with the Neilah evening service on Yom Kippur, an overwhelming number of otherwise marginally engaged Jews will make their way to synagogues, temples, and social gatherings to celebrate Judaism’s “High Holy Days.”
Although this opening might sound critical, it is, in fact, very optimistic, as I am neither a glass half-full nor half-empty type of person. For me, the proverbial glass needs to simply be not empty! And why am I so optimistic? I am reminded of one of the most inspiring stories of Jewish literacy, the story of Rabbi Akiva’s journey toward becoming a renowned scholar in his lifetime and one of our greatest sages in Jewish history.
Rabbi Akiva was born into a shepherd’s life, living in poverty and illiterate until the age of 40. It wasn’t until one day, while drawing water from a well that Rabbi Akiva noticed a rock that had been worn down by the constant drip of water. This observation led Rabbi Akiva to a profound realization about the power of persistence and learning. “If something as soft as water could penetrate something as hard as a rock through consistent effort,” thought Rabbi Akiva, “then surely, I can learn and study Torah.”
Jewish education and literacy have been of critical importance to the Jewish people and essential to our survival throughout history. Jewish literacy…
- Preserves our Traditions: Jewish tradition, culture, and religious practices have been passed down through generations. Our commitment to Jewish literacy has ensured that our sacred texts are read, studied, and transmitted, safeguarding the continuity of Jewish tradition.
- Enhances our Religious Practices: Jewish religious life has been heavily centered around the study of sacred texts and our practice of religious laws and customs. Our knowledge and literacy have been prerequisites for participation in religious rituals, prayer, and the observance of holidays.
- Maintains our Connection to our Identity: Our Jewish identity is deeply intertwined with our rich literary and intellectual heritage. Jewish literacy enables individuals to connect with our heritage, fostering a sense of belonging to the broader Jewish community and reinforcing our identity as Jews.
- Develops our Spiritual Growth: Jewish texts provide a pathway to spiritual growth and self-improvement. The study of Torah and other Jewish writings encourages individuals to reflect on our guiding moral and ethical values, helping each of us strive for personal and communal betterment.
- Encourages Leadership and Community Involvement: Jewish education and literacy produce leaders, scholars, and educators who can guide and serve the Jewish community. Knowledgeable individuals are essential for leading religious services, teaching, providing guidance, and maintaining communal institutions.
- Ensures our Historical Resilience: Throughout history, Jews have faced numerous challenges, including persecution and exile. Jewish education and literacy have helped the community adapt, endure, and rebuild in different environments by preserving our cultural and religious practices.
- Provides Social and Economic Advancement: Education and literacy have empowered Jews to succeed across all disciplines, including academia, business, science, and the arts. This success has not only benefited Jewish communities specifically but our global community in general.
- Increases our Intellectual Engagement: Judaism has a long tradition of intellectual inquiry and debate. Literacy fosters critical thinking, encouraging individuals to question, explore, and engage with religious and philosophical ideas, which further enriches our Jewish intellectual heritage.
- Safeguards our Social Cohesion: Jewish literacy promotes a sense of shared knowledge and values within the Jewish community. It enables Jews from diverse backgrounds to communicate, cooperate, and maintain a sense of unity.
Although we may not all be future Rabbi Akivas, all of us can certainly embrace our personal Jewish literacy journeys. Jewish education and literacy have played a crucial role in preserving our Jewish identity, traditions, and shared values. Jewish literacy has fostered our intellectual and spiritual growth and enabled the Jewish people to adapt and thrive in different historical and cultural contexts.
As we greet one another during this 5784 High Holy Day season, may we not only wish each other a shanah tovah u’metukah (happy and sweet New Year) but may we also wish one another a safe and fruitful journey along our respective travels in Jewish literacy. We have much to be optimistic about because we are…