HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal
Faith in Am Yehudi
The whole notion of faith has been a difficult one to understand and to define, let alone to teach or to nurture. Since the age of enlightenment (and in other points in the development of Jewish thought) the hitherto assumed notion of faith has been disintegrating. As more and more people question religion, G-d, halakhah, and biblical authorship, the whole concept of faith has lost much of its stronghold. Even defining what faith is becomes challenging: are we assuming that faith is belief in G-d? What if one does not accept the existence of G-d? Is faith a declaration of a belief in personal providence? Even those who accept the idea of G-d may feel uncomfortable stating unequivocally that G-d has a hand in one’s day to day existence. And yet, in looking at the enduring history of the Jewish people, most would agree that faith has been a major ingredient in ensuring the survival of Jews, their traditions and culture.
While faith in G-d, religion, Torah, and halakhah may be difficult to define, to teach, and to describe, faith in the Jewish people and their ability to depend on each other is tangible, proven, and continues through today.
The question then is how to nurture an idea in students that today some find difficult to maintain and even difficult to define. Perhaps the best way to develop faith in today’s students is to redefine the parameters of emunah. Perhaps educators need to turn to a notion of faith that is not just more relevant to today’s students, but one that is more vital to Jewish continuity. I propose here that faith as an active concept should be taught in terms of faith in the Jewish people. Teaching faith in this way would mean emphasizing for students the vital importance of Jewish peoplehood. Rather than focusing on theological and religious definitions, curricular material would focus instead on how students connect to the Jewish people as a whole.
How can educators put this kind of teaching into practice? As an example, I would like to borrow a concept espoused by Dr. Shlomi Ravid called “social capital.” Social capital describes how people will, consciously or unconsciously, align themselves into specific social groups because of certain social advantages they will gain from such associations. Translated into Jewish terms, Jewish social capital describes how despite where they lived, their backgrounds, or denominational affiliations, Jews have always been able to depend on each other in all types of circumstances.
We do not need to use the term “social capital” to understand to what ideas Ravid is referring. Stories abound how Jewish merchants who traversed dangerous roads and conditions knew that they would always find a safe haven and would be accepted within Jewish communities throughout the known world. A Jew who was taken as a prisoner could depend on his community to make every attempt to redeem him. Today, a traditional Jew can count on being able to find a host if her plane has been grounded minutes before Shabbat in a town to which she has no personal connections. A Jewish university student can count on finding camaraderie with other Jewish students at a campus Hillel. A stranded Israeli in Thailand can be sure that he will find a warm meal at a local Chabad house.
Taken as an educational initiative, the notion of social capital presents another prism with which to present the notion of faith. While faith in G-d, religion, Torah, and halakhah, may be difficult to define, to teach, and to describe, faith in the Jewish people and their ability to depend on each other is tangible, proven, and is not simply history, it continues through today. It can likewise be highlighted in multiple subjects. When teaching Torah, educators can underscore the development of the Jewish people, from the time of Abraham onward. When did the Jewish people begin to have faith in each other? When were they able to begin to depend on each other and know that they were safe with each other? How did Moses, David, and Solomon use their leadership to promote (or failed to promote) the notion of the Jewish people? Discuss how as much as they needed faith in G-d, the Jewish people needed a faith in each other throughout history.
This then becomes a rich topic for other subjects as well. In discussing Jewish values and middot, the conversation becomes rich in the values that have ensured the continuity of the Jewish people. Lessons can begin with the notion of kol yisrael areivin zeh lazeh, that all Jews are responsible for each other, and how this is translated into day to day life. The list of values that can then be connected to the subject is of course endless: tzedekah, protecting the orphan and widow, redeeming prisoners are just a few examples. The notion of faith in the Jewish people demands an understanding of moral values, how they were practiced in the past, and how they can be implemented today in order to ensure the continuity of the Jewish people as well as faith in it.
The question remains whether this concept can be applied to religious values as well. Without touching directly on a faith in G-d, how can religious values be taught through the prism of a faith in the Jewish people? What comes to mind is Ahad Ha’Am’s memorable statement that as much as the Jewish people have kept the Shabbat, so has the Shabbat kept the Jewish people. Here is an example of how a religious value, so integrally tied to a basic faith in G-d and in G-d’s commandments, can still be seen as a concept existing outside of a strictly religious framework. Ahad HaAm’s notion of Shabbat reflects directly back on a faith in the Jewish people, Shabbat becoming a safety net from where Jews were able to sustain themselves as well as each other. The challenge for educators is to expand this concept and apply it to all aspects of Jewish education.
I am in no way recommending that theology and traditional faith be taken out of the curriculum. Rather, an emphasis on this type of faith, a faith that has been proven and is tangible, can be promoted in cases where theology is difficult, or where students’ age makes traditional faith difficult to accept or digest. Faith in the Jewish people is real, can be seen in all areas of Jewish learning, and demands action on the part of students: now that you understand what the Jewish people can do for you, and that you can have faith in the Jewish people, what are you doing to ensure the continuity of the Jewish people? ♦
Catriella Freedman, the Coordinator of Curriculum and Program Development for the International School for Jewish Peoplehood Studies at Beit Hatfutsot in Ramat Aviv, Israel, is also the author of the Florence Melton Adult Mini School Curriculum Foundations of Jewish Family Living: Jewish Values for Parents to Share With Their Children. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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Faith is the most elusive quality to inculcate, the hardest to measure. Yet at some level, everything Jewish day schools seek to achieve depends upon it. The sense of belonging and connection that is fundamental to Jewish identity resides, at heart, in a sense of emunah, of trust and belief in something larger than ourselves. This issue considers factors that nourish Jewish faith of different kinds.
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