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Judaism: Our System of Vocational Education

Some weeks ago, I concluded a column with these words:

…we need to find a compelling way to finish the sentence that begins with the words, “It is important that the Jewish people survive in order to…” In order to what?

There is, I believe, one core idea that defines us and could, perhaps, bring us together, make of us one people. To be a Jew is to know, fundamentally, that this world is not working the way it was meant to, or the way it is supposed to. It is badly broken.

In that sense, we are all — all of us — in exile, whether we live in Jerusalem or in New York. Exile is not a place; it is an existential condition. And the meta-understanding that Jews bring to that condition is that we are implicated in the world’s repair.

The most obvious challenge to such a formulation is, simply, “What’s so Jewish about that?” After all, you don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s real Jewish rye or to be passionate about tikkun olam. (Given our paltry numbers, that’s good news for both the Levy’s people and for our compoundly fractured world.) The good news is that the challenge can be met.

Here’s how I believe we answer that challenge:

Being Jewish gives us no special inherited advantage in either virtue or wisdom. That is a hard sentence to write, given our conventional conceits. But such advantages as we may from time to time display appear to be the product of specific investments rather than of genetic encoding, at least as can so far be known. We are not born with a sense of Exile; we are taught that sense. We are not born with a passion for mending the world; we are taught that passion.

How are we taught? Through our texts and our history, through sermons and rallies, through culture and custom. As others — not all, but more than a few — are taught in their particular ways.

I mean “taught” quite literally, because I see the system we call “Judaism” (and some of us call “yidishkeyt”) as a form of vocational education — that is, as an elaborate way of teaching a vocation.

What is it that defines a vocation? The word comes from the Latin vocare, to call, comes in its current usage more specifically from Martin Luther and, more recently, from the church: A calling. (“Vocal,” “advocate,” “evoke” are all in the same family.) After all, the very first question ever asked, according to the biblical narrative, was God’s to Adam: “Where are you?” And in that same narrative, after Adam fudges his answer and Cain, upon being asked, “Where is your brother,” gets it entirely wrong — “Am I my brother’s keeper?” — then, many generations later, it is Abraham who comes up with the answer the Bible intends: “Here I am.” “Hineini.”

To live as a Jew is to live a serious and ongoing response to exactly the same question. It is to know not only before whom we stand, but what we stand for. Hearing the question is not all that easy, not in a world as noisy as ours, not in a world with so very many distractions. Living one’s life as an answer, living hineini as a constant, is considerably more difficult. Being called is no big deal; hearing the call is large; responding to the call is enormous.

Think, then, of our traditions, both ancient and emergent, as elements in a curriculum, the core curriculum in the system of vocational education that is our pride and glory. The system is designed to call our urgent attention to the question, and to induct us into the many ways of responding to it.

My own very favorite “course” in that core curriculum is Pesach, whereby we learn that we were slaves unto Pharaoh in Egypt, that that is how we are obliged to see ourselves, that all who are hungry are welcome to enter and dine with us, that though we are now free men and women, we still have a desert to cross.

But this, of course, is a different season, the season of awe, and that, too, is a key element in our core curriculum, filled with lessons of renewal and repentance and response, marked by two remarkable prophetic documents (Jonah and Isaiah), distinguished by its central teaching: We cannot approach God for forgiveness unless and until we have set things straight with our fellows, equally God’s children. (I suppose it needs saying that in this scheme, it doesn’t much matter how literally, if at all, you take the word “God.” You don’t have to take God literally in order to take God seriously; a metaphoric understanding works just as well.)

This is very heady stuff. It is also very hearty stuff. And significant numbers of Jews have graduated from this system of vocational education with high honors, even if many have coasted through with C’s and D’s, even if more than a few have flunked out.

The examples I have offered do not comprise the whole of what I have called the core curriculum. Nor is the core curriculum the whole of what is there for the teaching, for the learning. There are electives, too: song and dance, poetry and service in a soup kitchen, the healing arts and philanthropy, advocating for those locked out and those left out and those left behind, and on and on.

I have not included “kindness to the stranger” in the list; it belongs not to the electives but to the core, because we were strangers in the land of Egypt. Oh yes. Here we are, a people called through the particulars of its curriculum to reach, always, for the universal.

Shana tova.


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