Our theology affects our approach to Jewish education

Students at the Conservative Yeshivah in Jerusalem

Thesis: Our religious beliefs strongly affect our actions and choices. This creates real-world consequences. This explains why many Orthodox and Reform groups are thriving, while as a movement Conservative Judaism is somewhat of a decline. Here we look at this through the lens of how the Jewish denominations value

Talmud Torah תלמוד תורה – making time on a regular basis for the study of Torah

Torah Lishmah – תורה לשמה – studying Torah for its own sake

Talmud Torah in Orthodox Judaism

Orthodox Judaism put great emphasis on developing Emunah אֱמוּנָה – faith in God; Yirat Shamayim יִּרְאַת שָׁמַיִם – having awe/reverence of God, and Avodat Hashem עבודת השם – living a life of spirituality in which one serves God. These beliefs emphasize daily Talmud Torah.

We see this role-modeled not only by rabbis but also by laypeople. They love learning the weekly Parasha, Mishnah Yomit, Daf Yomi, Kabbalah, Mussar, and more. To help facilitate this many Orthodox synagogues link to the Orthodox Union (OU) website which has a beautiful daily learning panel (images below.)

Chabad Lubavitch similar has an amazing, in-depth, array of information and free classes, available at all levels. As is well-known, a zeal for daily Talmud Torah is the heartbeat of their lives. The thirst and appreciation for Torah study is apparent to any person at a Chabad house.

There are so many other wonderful Orthodox places providing serious, in-depth opportunities for Talmud Torah. Over in Israel the Virtual Beit Midrash of Yeshiva Har Etzion has been growing for almost 30 years. One can find individual essays, but also entire classes on any Jewish topic one can think of – Torah, Tanakh, Mishnah and Talmud, Halakha, philosophy, ethics. They offer material with the same breadth and depth as Chabad, but from a Dati Leumi/Modern Orthodox perspective.

Talmud Torah in Conservative Judaism

In principle, Conservative Judaism has always had the same Jewish religious values as Orthodoxy; they just were sometimes interpreted differently. The importance of Talmud Torah had a special, great emphasis. Over the years, however, significant differences in theology developed between Conservative and Orthodox Jews.

Even a cursory glance of articles from rabbinic journals, and commentaries from Conservative and Orthodox rabbis, began showing a noticeable divergence. Orthodox Jews focused more on theology, faith, and observance while most Conservative Jews focused more on scholarship and academia. As far as it goes that could be okay, but a century of this trend continuing has had real world consequences. When one walks into most Conservative synagogues today (or for that matter, over the last 30 years) one immediately sees a difference in how community members view theology and Torah study. There are few adult educational opportunities for serious Torah study, and many Conservative Jews report that they feel socially excluded if they show passion about such things.

We see the results of this by comparing how Conservative Judaism has failed to match anything like the study materials available from Orthodoxy, even though for the entire 20th century Conservative Judaism was by far the largest Jewish denomination in north America.

At one point the Conservative movement had the “Learn@JTS” website, with resources, classes, and discussions with authors. The website design was crude, the content was limited, and the movement leadership showed almost zero interest in doing fundraising to improve their efforts. But the material that they did offer was good, and for a few years this site was growing.

The USCJ also had an email Listserv with thousands of active members, doing daily or weekly Torah, Mishnah, and other kinds of study. I recall studying, for example, The Responsa of Professor Louis Ginzberg with many other Conservative Jews.

But over the years poor choices were made by the leaders of the movement. All religious Torah education of Learn@JTS was removed by the end of 2006; the URL was turned into a mere news bulletin, and then eventually deleted all together. Around the same time, Torah learning through Conservative Jewish email lists ended as well.

There was still some religious educational material on the USCJ website, but most that was also removed when they revamped their website to refocus on social/political issues. There seems to have been a deliberate effort to remove serious educational study, and almost everything about halakhah. A smaller amount of such material still exists there today, but it is just a shadow of what formerly was available. Shockingly, today the USCJ doesn’t even have Talmud Torah or education featured on its main website at all, as we see here

Fortunately, there’s a growing body of religious educational material from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. Clearly, there are passionate educators who remember when JTS was the educational and spiritual center of Conservative Judaism. They are working to restore the crown to its glory. However, for reasons unknown, the JTS educational material still do not bring back all that previous material that deleted a few years ago.

JTS Online Torah does offer great parashah commentaries, holiday resources, podcasts, and online classes. Most are offered at a beginner to intermediate level; very little is available for those who want to study in-depth. For that one has to leave the Conservative movement, and go to Orthodox resources.

JTS Online Torah does have much to offer – I just wish that more Conservative Jewish congregations actually linked their websites to this. They need to prominently feature this on their own website homepage. After all, unless someone knows that this exists they won’t access it.

Creating content is less than half the battle – what matters more is the ruach, passion, and theology of Jewish leaders on the ground, in Conservative and Trad-Egal communities across the nation. What matters most is if lay leaders and local rabbis insist on placing links to great educational website on their own websites; if they role-model Yirat Shamaying and a love of Talmud Torah, if they passionately bring a love of learning to their Hebrew schools, adult ed classes, and conversion to Judaism classes.

Some of the Conservative movement’s online education has since been transferred over to the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem. This is located in the Fuchsberg Center, the home of in-person Conservative Jewish education and outreach in Israel. Under the Study tab we see several offerings:

They offer some fantastic Jewish educational material here, including Torah Sparks, Mishnah Yomit, Daf Shevui, one page of Talmud per week, and virtual courses.

The issue is that – again – most Conservative movement websites and synagogues don’t link to this material. The movement leadership needs to listen more to the laypeople on the ground, and to professional educators – they both have been saying the same thing for years. If people don’t know that this is available, it might as well not exist. The movement needs to do fundraising and advertising, and it needs to speak to one person at a time, in each synagogue: the idea is to get each USCJ synagogue to feature links to the wonderful Torah already available from the movement.

Talmud Torah in Reform Judaism

The Reform Jewish movement has understood the importance of kiruv, outreach, and the use of the internet; they have invested time, passion, and money for this far more than their peers in the Conservative movement.

True, Reform Judaism does have a very different point of view on spiritual, observance, and Talmud Torah than does traditional rabbinical Judaism. The traditional Reform view was that one didn’t need to study much the Mishnah, Talmud, or Meforshim (classical Jewish Bible commentators,) and subjects such as Kabbalah were considered inappropriate. But in the last generation the Reform movement has become more open and appreciative of all kinds of Torah study, and they are clearly putting their money where their mouth is. They’re doing the work. They spend a great deal of time connecting Torah to their interpretation of Tikkun Olam.

More non-Orthodox Jews are looking into Reform Judaism than Conservative because they see that Reform teachers take outreach and education seriously.

All this shows us that when we role-model a love of Talmud Torah, then more Jews will engage in this. Conversely, if we reduce Talmud Torah, then people go elsewhere to learn or fill their spiritual voids.

Our theology makes things which do not exist, come into existence. That’s a major reason why I am pushing for Conservative Jewish, Trad-Egal, and similar communities to delve more deeply into Jewish theology, spirituality, and Talmud Torah. Belief always matters.


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