By Jemima Schoen
Published in the December 22, 2022 Issue
At the very start of our daily morning prayers, we bless God, who commanded us to study the Torah. We ask that the words of the Torah be made sweet in our mouths so that we and every forthcoming generation should know God’s name and study the Torah for its own sake (V’haarev). We then go on to list important acts, ones that have no prescribed limit, such as, leaving a portion of one’s field for the poor, the first fruit and pilgrimage offerings, acts of kindness, and the study of Torah (Mishnah Pe’ah 1:1). Then, we list the things that will benefit us in this world but so much more so in the world to come— honoring one’s parents, practicing kindness, early attendance to learning in the morning and evening, welcoming strangers, visiting the sick, preparing a bride for her wedding, attending the dead to burial, devotion in prayer, bringing peace among humankind— and the study of Torah exceeds them all (Masechet Shabbat 127a).
The study of Torah, its importance, and our appreciation and desire to learn and grow in our Torah study is a basic tenet of our faith. It is what prompted earlier generations to develop Jewish day schools so that we could maintain our daily Torah learning as well as the important studies of math, science, history, literature, art, languages, and whatever else we might desire. The fundamental purpose of a Jewish day school is to give a strong Judaic foundation, developing Torah-educated Jews with skills and knowledge to embrace their heritage and to live as Jews in the modern world with their secular knowledge, as well.
It would be an unfortunate state of affairs for Judaic classes to be reduced to credits and minutes to fit into a schedule that prioritizes General Studies because Judaic classes appear— to some— to be less pressing and more flexible than secular classes’ more official or external requirements. Understandably, a properly accredited school has a responsibility to provide the required seat time for General Studies classes, but these should always be scheduled with the recognition that Judaic studies are the core of our school’s existence, our identity, and our philosophy.
As the reason for the Jewish day school’s being, Judaic classes should be the anchor of every day. As we pray three times a day in the Shema prayer, we want God’s commandments to be in our hearts, to teach them diligently to our children, and to speak of them all day long, wherever we go (Devarim 6:4-6).
To cover the most important categories/modes of Jewish learning, our Judaic classes have been reduced to two regular subjects— Chumash and Gemara— already an imbalance with five secular classes. We need those two classes to matter. Rabbi Yishmael might say, just as there are General Studies classes every day, how much more so do we need to have time for Jewish learning every day. These classes should not be scattered throughout the week wherever they fit into a schedule, balancing the weight of many more General Studies slots. Their placing in our schedule should be, as the school has done, intentionally placed so that we can learn Torah at least twice every day. The study of Torah exceeds them all.
We need to improve and expand our general Jewish and Torah learning so that we can step out of high school as well-educated Jews who can go on to lead lives founded on Torah knowledge and be active and productive members of our Jewish communities. For us, Judaic classes are not about hours and minutes, they are not about passing some tests and learning about ancient agrarian customs— they are about accepting our destiny, learning who we are, our history, and what we will be for ourselves, for our communities, and what we will be able to leave for future generations. This needs to be a part of our every day, not scattered across a block schedule. There is no limit to Torah study, and we want to have its sweetness in our mouths and in our hearts every day.
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