As I contemplate International Holocaust Remembrance Day, commemorating the liberation of Auschwitz in January of 1945, I prefer to recall the dual redemptions of the Jewish people that have occurred since then.
The first redemption is the miraculous refounding and maintaining a sovereign Jewish political entity, the State of Israel, for the last seventy-five years. The second redemption is the enormous proliferation of serious study of Jewish texts among Jews and non-Jews alike, in person, in books and online.
This redemption is symbolized for me by a dear friend, a Quebecois-raised Catholic living in Montreal who discovered Judaism through weekly Torah study online with a French-speaking Rabbi living in Jerusalem. To date, she has not converted to Judaism, but she claims that this study has improved her life immeasurably. I was one of the first Jews she encountered when her teacher suggested she venture out to a synagogue and meet some Jews in person.
This kind of educational engagement is reminiscent of another historical era, the “convivencia” *1, the golden age of Spain, in the ninth and tenth centuries, representing a near-perfect crossroads of the three monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Alton Brooks, Professor of Religion at USC, describes this period as “one of the rare periods in history” when the three religions did not either “keep their distance from one another or were in conflict.” During most of their co-existing history, they have been ignorant about or attacked each other. María Rosa Menocal, Sterling Professor of Humanities at Yale University, describes the libraries of Córdoba as “a significant benchmark of overall social, not just scholarly well-being representing a near-perfect crossroads of the material and the intellectual.”
We are in a similar era today. Therefore, I consider this enormous proliferation of the study of Jewish texts among Jews and non-Jews alike a valid path to redemption for the world as we know it.
I recently read Thomas Cahill’s book, The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels *2. Cahill is a Roman Catholic scholar who has written several other similar books, which he calls the “Hinges of History.” *3 One is about the Irish, How the Irish Saved Civilization, one about Christianity, and another about the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.
In The Gifts of the Jews, Cahill begins with a study of pre-Abrahamic civilizations, such as the Sumerian Philistine. He then gives a detailed account of the Jewish story that grew from that context. Finally, Cahill compares Israel with the parallel Greek and Roman civilizations, which form the bedrock antecedents of our current times. Although Christianity and Islam adopted the Hebrew Bible as their foundational text, they also practiced ideological imperialism, claiming they were the true heirs to the Jewish story and denigrating Jews and Judaism. However, it was only in those times when the ideas of all three civilizations co-existed amicably that science and the arts flourished. Such is the case of Spain’s Islamic “convivencia” periods and the “renaissance” in Europe.
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.
But like Moses or Martin Luther King, though we may remember that we “have been to the top of the mountaintop,” we do not enter the Promised Land but only glimpse it fleetingly. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone. That accomplishment is intergenerational and may be the deepest of all Hebrew insights.
My Own Education, Secular and Jewish
My Jewish learning has come to me in dribs and drabs. Although I grew up in a religiously observant home, I did not attend a Jewish school but an English Protestant one. All Jewish children in Quebec who did not participate in a private Jewish school were assigned to a Protestant English public school because the French Catholic schools in the province refused to accept nonchristian Jewish children, so only the Protestant schools were genuinely public open to all. Although the “religious” education was minimal, it left me with a puzzling grasp of who I was meant to be.
Growing up in these different worlds, I struggled with my identity. I spoke English, and our public school teachers were English, but I was not English. We did not know any English Canadians. Also, we have yet to learn any French Canadians. My parents’ friends and neighbours were all Hungarian Jewish immigrants like ourselves, as were most of my school friends in the public school I attended. But, as in Bancroft elementary and Outremont High School, the Christian child was the anomaly.
The closest I came to a more intimate interaction with an English Protestant person was my dear high school art teacher, Helen Mackey, whom I maintained contact with throughout her long life in Montreal. Our Outremeont High School class organized a formal weekend reunion, and we learned some interesting details about the lives of our former teachers. Some of our teachers were of Scottish origin, and we even had one or two Jewish teachers, like Mrs. Barsky, who had to hide the fact that she was pregnant because, in those days, pregnant teachers were disqualified. I am grateful that I was able to film our glorious weekend reminiscing about our school days.
My peers and I graduated from high school at the age of seventeen. If you had good grades, you were awarded an early placement at McGill University without applying. So I attended McGill U, BA classes for two years. I did not do well. I felt so lost that I was determined to participate in college far away from Quebec and my home circle. I dreamed of Lausanne, Switzerland because I thought it sounded interesting. I applied and was accepted. But, still dependent on my parents, I had to share my plans with them. My mother gave me an ultimatum. No to Lausanne, but I could attend University in Israel if I wanted to. So that’s how I came to participate in the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
My Jewish education, growing up, was gleaned from the home, the synagogue, Sabbath afternoon youth groups, Jewish summer camp, and a Hebrew afternoon school a few days a week. However, only recently have I had the opportunity for consistent daily study of Hebrew texts with a chosen teacher when I discovered Shiviti, a newly formed Yeshiva for adult women in Jerusalem.
Through my studies at Shiviti *4, I care to understand that there is no subject in the material world to which our rabbis did not address their serious attention. In the first session of his zoom course, The Really Big Questions About Judaism, Prof. Yoram Hazony’s seminar laments that in our present intellectual climate, the Hebrew Bible is too often disparaged as antiquated and even perhaps perhaps perhaps geared to children and the unsophisticated. However, many ancient and contemporary scholars have found the Torah a marvellous source of ideas on all aspects of human striving.
Our Jewish canonical texts use every literary device, from metaphor to parable to outright fantasy, to convey their thoughts. When Jews look at their canon today, they do so with the aid of the many intergenerational commentators who have left us their writings, such as the eleventh-century French author and vintner, Rashi, known for his straightforward elucidation of the texts of the Torah and Talmud, or the twelfth-century physician to the Egyptian Caliph, Saladin, Maimonides, also known as the Rambam.
I just watched a three-part documentary series called Searching for Maimonides, “the Great Eagle.” a philosopher revered by all three faiths. I loved this series for its interplay between past and present, text and context, scholars and simple folk.
Education begins in the home and then branches out to public venues and sources such as schools, libraries, concerts, movies and the internet, hopefully accessible to all people of all ages and backgrounds. Access to education is truly the “great leveller,” opening opportunities for all to fully engage in all aspects of this amazing life we have all been blessed with.
This is the true path to our shared redemption, education that creates peace and harmony in our homes, nations, and the world. If we can learn to unite in harmony, there is no challenge or calamity that humanity cannot address.
*1 Convivencia, Wikipedia
*2 Thomas Cahill, The Gifts of the Jews, 1998
*3 Thomas Cahill, The Hinges of History
*4 SHIVITI is an international, online women’s learning community with a home base in Jerusalem.