The First Class in Basic Judaism
"The book of Bereshit, of Genesis, is the worst possible choice of text for an introductory course to Judaism."
These were the words of "encouragement" with which I launched one of my most challenging, yet ultimately successful, teaching experiences.
I had been approached by a large nondenominational Jewish organization to teach a course for beginners on the basics of the Jewish religion. I had taught other courses for the adult education department of the organization, so the fellow in charge was confident that I would do well with a group of young adults who insisted that they were totally ignorant of Judaism, yet were willing to learn.
I gave much thought to the question of what to use as a text. There are numerous books written introducing the reader to the fundamentals of Judaism. Two of my all time personal favorites came to mind: Isadore Epstein's The Faith of Judaism, and Aron Barth's The Modern Jew Faces Eternal Problems. But I immediately dismissed them as being too philosophical.
I even considered teaching the course with no text at all, just relying upon my lectures and a few assigned readings.
Then, I had a creative flash. Why not use the book of Genesis as my introductory text? After all, as the first book in the entire Bible, it is a natural introduction to the whole subject of Judaism and the Jewish people. When I shared my ingenious idea with a friend and rabbinic colleague, I received the discouraging response with which I commenced this column.
Thankfully, I ignored his advice and proceeded to write a course description mentioning that the book of Bereshit would be the required text. When the time came for students to sign up for the course only three enrolled, perhaps because the notion of studying introductory Judaism by reading the first book of the Bible was not an enticing one to the other candidates for the course.
What ensued was a four-month adventure of discussion and debate during which I and the three students delved into the book of Genesis in search of hints and traces of the fundamental concepts of our faith. So, dear reader, I ask you to patiently bear with me over the next 12 weeks as I devote these Person in the Parsha columns to summaries of those discussions. In doing so, I hope to convey some of the excitement, and yes frustration, of this adventure. In the process, I promise you that we will learn much about the basics of Judaism.
In advance of the first course, I asked the students to read this week's parsha, Parshat Bereshit (Genesis 1:1-6:8), in preparation for the class discussion. To my surprise, they all complied and the action began.
To my further surprise, they did not focus on the obvious themes: God, creation, evolution, or the nature of man and woman. Rather, each of them focused on a theme he felt contained an essential message for how to live his own life.
Thus, the first student, to whom we will assign the pseudonym Richard, found the passage at the beginning of Chapter 2, in which God blesses and sanctifies the Sabbath, to be crucial. He enabled me to indicate that the concepts of "blessing" and "sanctity" were basic Jewish concepts.
The second student, let's call him Simon, found the notion of temptation intriguing. For him, the dialogue between Eve and the serpent was an inner dialogue, exemplary of the internal moral conflicts we've all occasionally confronted. Here too, I was able to make a case for the inclusion of our need to resist temptation as one of the basics of Judaism.
Our third student, whose name really was Leon, established what we will see in the weeks to come as his personal pattern. He barely read most of the parsha assignment. Instead, he scrutinized the last few verses of the Parsha: God sees how evil man has become; He regrets His decision to create man and decides to eradicate all of His creatures. But, one man, Noah, "found chayn, favor, in the eyes of the Lord."
Leon was like a man possessed: What did Noah do to find favor in God's eyes? Why does the Torah not simply say, "All mankind was evil, but Noah was good."? And why are we not told what earned him God's favor so that we might emulate his behavior? These questions became the subject of a heated and fascinating debate.
Fortunately, I was familiar with what the commentator Chaim ibn Atar, the holy Ohr HaChaim, has to say about these very questions. He writes:
"It was not Noah's righteousness which saved him. It was, rather, the special nature of the righteous acts he performed which earned him salvation... For you must know that there are specific behaviors to do, no more than three or four, which will elicit chayn in the eyes of the Lord. We are not told which righteous acts do, because then everyone would perform just those and no others."
Our first class was a success. We had learned some of the basics of Judaism, including one novel one which is practically unknown even by most well-informed Jews. Not every righteous act, not every mitzvah, earns favor in God's eyes. There are a few selected mitzvot, although we can never be certain precisely which ones, that are potent enough to earn Divine favor.
But then Leon, very characteristically as we will see, had something to add:
"I think that it is not a matter of God favoring only selected acts. Rather, those acts which we do with passion, devotion, and self-sacrifice, and not merely because they are a part of our religious routine, are the ones that find favor in His eyes."
I concluded that first session with these words: "Richard, Simon, and Leon, you're all definitely onto some of the basics of Judaism. You have helped convince me that I chose the right text for our course. Let's return next week and find the basic Jewish teachings that we can discover in Parshat Noach."
Readers, join me in this process of discovery.