A Jewish Common Core: A Jewish Common Corps

In more ways than one we have a common core. Now before make any assumptions, I am not taking a political position on the States Standards Initiative that 46 states have approved.  But I hope that the words “common core” piqued your interest, because I believe they pertain to the Jewish people, not only in the United States and not only in the twenty-first century. Jews have had a common core since before we were called Jews. Our common core has consisted of a collective memory, a shared calendar, a holy purpose and a sacred text.

We have a common core called Torah. There has never been a Jewish community that survived without Torah study, without living exemplars who not only could recite the words of Torah, but also committed to live a life of Torah, people who were not only lovers of Torah, but livers of Torah. To have a common core does not mean that we agree on what Torah means. We are a people that loves to argue passionately. The Rabbis elevated conflict to a holy art in the phrase machloket l’shem shamayim, an argument for the sake of heaven, which is worthy of enduring because as much as we believe are right, we are humble enough to realize that we may also be wrong. That is what it means to share a common core—to speak truth knowing that it is not the whole truth, to know that your Torah is not the whole Torah, to leave room for growth, to be committed to the proposition that the holy is greater than the sum of the parts.

The Jewish common core extends beyond learning into practice. Imagine if the only time you played the piano was during a lesson, or played baseball only during a game, or performed in theater without rehearsals. I doubt sincerely that you would ever become proficient. Actually, under such circumstances, you would be more likely to give up the instrument or the sport or the theater. Now imagine that the only time you recite a blessing over bread or wine or anything else is in the sanctuary or the only time you study Hebrew is in school. What then? Then we are jeopardizing the Jewish common core. The best baseball players need spring training. The best orchestras need to rehearse. The best teachers love their subject, and they love their students even more. There is no vicarious atonement in Judaism, and there is no vicarious fulfillment in Judaism. I cannot “Jew” for you any more than you can “Jew” for me.  Each one of us has the power to strengthen the common core of the Jewish people.

Unlike the common core in American education, the Jewish common core is not reducible to a written examination, and it does not have any impact on teacher salaries or tenure. However, there are profound consequences if we fail to transmit the common core of Jewish life from one generation to the next. If the Passover Haggadah were to be distilled to a single sentence it would be “In every generation, it is an obligation for every person (notice that it does not say “Jew”) to see him or herself as though he or she made the Exodus from Egypt.” The Passover Haggadah does tell not a history lesson; it tells a memory lesson, because memory begins when history becomes personal. Every Passover is a reenactment, an opportunity to come out from our personal, private Egypt, places where we feel dark, in straits, and perhaps even enslaved. Passover celebrates an opportunity to get rid of the leaven in our homes and the yeast that inflates our egos. Passover is so core to the Jewish experience that we recall the Exodus from Egypt whenever we drink wine and recite Kiddush on any other holiday.

The Sabbath immediately preceding Passover is called Shabbat HaGadol, the Great Sabbath. It takes its name from the end of the special haftara reading, taken from Malachi, the last of the prophets.  “I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of God.” The next verse tells us what is supposed to happen that makes the day so great. “The hearts of parents will turn to their children and the hearts of children will turn to their parents.” (Malachi 3:23–24) The generation gap will close. That would indeed be a great day. That great day was brought nearer to us by parents who wrote the following letter to their son:

Dear Matt,

On the night before you receive your first college response, we wanted to let you know that we could not be any prouder of you than we are today. Whether or not you get accepted does not determine how proud we are of everything you have accomplished and the wonderful person you have become. That will not change based on what admissions officers decide about your future. We will celebrate with joy wherever you get accepted—and the happier you are with those responses, the happier we will be. But your worth as a person, a student and our son is not diminished or influenced in the least by what these colleges have decided.

If it does not go your way, you’ll take a different route to get where you want. There is not a single college in this country that would not be lucky to have you, and you are capable of succeeding at any of them.

We love you as deep as the ocean, as high as the sky, all the way around the world and back again—and to wherever you are headed.

Mom and Dad

The love letter quoted by Frank Bruni a couple of weeks ago in a New York Times editorial entitled “How to survive the college admissions madness” serves as a reminder and a warning about the culture in which we live. Obsessed by metrics in which an 800 on an SAT or a credit score may seem to determine our fate, we need to remember that there is a profound difference between our net worth and our self worth. Mom and Dad reminded Matt that their love was unconditional and that his worth as a person was infinite. Every child should be blessed with such parents, and when that day comes we will all have reason to celebrate. My hope and my prayer is that the next generation of Jewish leaders will exceed my generation’s and that our common coreour memory, our Torah, our practice and our hope for a great day when the hearts of parents and children will turn to each otherwill no longer be a prayer or a hope, but rather a fact.

Rabbi Jan Katzew, Ph.D. is the director of the Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati fellows program, an advanced sacred service-learning curriculum hosted at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s Cincinnati campus of which this journal is a product.

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