In the aftermath of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, we are compelled to reflect on the journey of redemption undertaken by the Jewish people since the liberation of Auschwitz in 1945. This reflection allows us to analyze two significant movements that have taken place over the past seven decades. One manifestation is the enduring establishment of the State of Israel, a testament to resilience and fortitude. Another important redemption, which is perhaps less widely recognized but equally profound, is the widespread pursuit of Jewish education.
As we delve into the power of education, we encounter stories of personal transformation that transcend geographical and religious boundaries. This redemption finds a poignant symbol in a dear friend of mine—a Quebecois-raised Catholic residing in Montreal. She discovered Judaism through weekly Torah study online with a French-speaking Rabbi in Jerusalem. Although she has not undergone conversion, she attests that this study has profoundly enriched her life. I vividly remember being one of the first Jews she encountered when, at her teacher’s suggestion, she ventured to a synagogue to meet Jewish individuals in person.
Such educational engagements evoke historical parallels, notably the “convivencia” of ninth and tenth-century Spain—a golden age where Judaism, Christianity, and Islam intersected harmoniously. Alton Brooks, a Professor of Religion at USC, characterizes this era as a rare period when the three religions coexisted without distance or conflict. In our present time, the proliferation of Jewish text study among diverse communities mirrors this historical convergence, reminiscent of the intellectual richness found in Córdoba’s libraries.
The notion of redemption extends beyond the Jewish community. I perceive the expansive study of Jewish texts as a potential pathway to redemption for our contemporary world. This sentiment aligns with the spirit of “convivencia,” where diverse cultural and religious influences coalesce to foster intellectual and social well-being.
Recently, I delved into Thomas Cahill’s work, “The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels.” As a Roman Catholic scholar, Cahill explores the transformative impact of the Jewish narrative on world history. Drawing parallels with his other works on the Irish, Christianity, and the Middle Ages, Cahill emphasizes the pivotal role of Judaism in shaping the ideological landscape.
Cahill’s book begins by examining the civilizations that existed before Judaism and how they influenced the Jewish story. He compares Israel to the Greek and Roman civilizations and shows how the combination of ideas from all three civilizations resulted in scientific and artistic progress. Despite later claims of ideological superiority by Christianity and Islam, Cahill highlights the periods in history when these civilizations coexisted peacefully, such as the Islamic “convivencia” in Spain, the European Renaissance, and the Victorian Age in England.
“The Jews gave us the “outside and the Inside” – our outlook and inner life. We can hardly get up in the morning or cross the street without being Jewish. We dream dreams and hope Jewish hopes. Most of our best words, in fact, new, adventure, time, history, future, freedom, progress, spirit, faith, hope, justice – are the gifts of the Jews…
Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone. That accomplishment is intergenerational may be the deepest of all Hebrew insights.*2″
Cahill’s exploration underscores the importance of embracing diverse perspectives and narratives—an approach that echoes the historical periods of fruitful coexistence. As we navigate the complexities of our contemporary world, the profound study of Jewish texts stands as a beacon, offering a potential path to redemption and intellectual enrichment for all.
My Educational Journey
I had a mixed educational experience, both in secular and Jewish schools. Although I grew up in a religious household, I ended up attending an English Protestant school in Quebec because of the limitations imposed by the province’s education system. It’s interesting to note that only Protestant schools were truly open to all students, as Catholic institutions would not accept non-Christian Jewish children.
This dual existence in different worlds left me grappling with my identity. While I spoke English and interacted with English-speaking teachers, I wasn’t English. My social circle comprised Hungarian Jewish immigrants, and the anomaly in my school was the Christian child. My closest connection with an English Protestant individual was my high school art teacher, Helen Mackey, whose influence remained with me throughout her long life in Montreal.
As my peers and I graduated early from high school, I embarked on a brief stint at McGill University but felt lost and disconnected. Desiring a departure from Quebec and my familiar surroundings, I dreamed of studying in Lausanne, Switzerland. However, my plans took a different turn when my mother insisted on Israel as the destination for further education, leading me to earn my BA from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
My Jewish education, woven from various threads, encompassed home teachings, synagogue rituals, Sabbath youth groups, Jewish summer camps, and Hebrew afternoon school. Only recently have I delved into consistent study of Hebrew texts through Shiviti, a newly established Yeshiva for adult women in Jerusalem.
I have come to appreciate the vast range of topics that our rabbis explored through my studies. Professor Yoram Hazony’s seminar on ‘The Really Big Questions About Judaism’ brought to light the unfortunate tendency of disregarding the Hebrew Bible in today’s intellectual climate. However, this ancient text is a valuable source of ideas and utilizes various literary devices, including metaphors and fantasies.
Education as a Unifying Force
Our canonical texts, examined with intergenerational commentators like Rashi and Maimonides, reveal a treasure trove of wisdom. Watching the documentary series “Searching for Maimonides, The Great Eagle” allowed me to appreciate the philosopher born in Spain, revered by multiple faiths, and showcased the interplay between past and present, text and context.
I believe education begins at home and extends to various public venues, encompassing schools, libraries, concerts, movies, and the internet—a collective resource accessible to people of all ages and backgrounds. Access to education serves as the great equalizer, offering opportunities for engagement in the extraordinary tapestry of life.
I contend this is the path to shared redemption: an education that fosters peace and harmony in our homes, nations, and the world. Humanity can confront any challenge or calamity that may arise through unity and harmony.
Throughout our individual journeys, education acts as a unifying force that ties together diverse experiences and perspectives. Whether we learn within academic institutions or in the comfort of our own homes, the pursuit of knowledge provides a pathway to redemption and unity. As we face the challenges of our modern world, we must recognize the value of education and its transformative power to promote peace, understanding, and harmony.
- “Convivencia” refers to the coexistence of various religious and cultural groups in medieval Spain. For more information, see Wikipedia.
- Thomas Cahill explores the cultural impact of Judaism in his book, “The Gifts of the Jews” (1998).
- SHIVITI is an international online women’s learning community with its primary hub in Jerusalem. For further details, visit shiviti.org.il.
- Delve into profound inquiries about Judaism with Prof. Yoram Hazony in his Zoom seminar series, “The Really Big Questions About Judaism.”