How to Build a House of Wisdom
BY CATHY SCHECHTER
Imagine the first day of school. A tall, bald-headed man walks his son or daughter into the first day of kindergarten. He enters carefully, head bent so as not to bump it—he is that tall. The forty-year old father glances at the letters on the wall—A-B-C—then lowers his face, reddened with embarrassment because he cannot read the letters.
His heart aches because when his child learns to read, he will not be able to correct him or worse, reinforce the child’s learning so that he or she will excel. The thought fills his soul with shame: he simply does not know because he was never taught.
So begins the story of the great Rabbi Akiva, whom many American Jews know only through the story recited every Yom Kippur about his martyrdom under Roman occupation of the Land of Israel.
However, according to Jewish tradition he was already ninety years old at the time of his death. When Rabbi Akiva joined his son’s kindergarten class, he was forty. Obviously, he progressed rapidly and ultimately became one of the greatest scholars and teachers of his generation.
Despite his late start, Rabbi Akiva began a revolution in thinking that changed the Jewish world on the same order of magnitude as Steve Jobs did in our times. It was Rabbi Akiva who first mentally categorized his extensive knowledge of Jewish law and lore into the six orders of the Mishnah. The six orders of the Mishnah, which would not be written onto parchment for another two generations, form the basis of the Talmud.
And whether we know it or not, it is this body of rabbinic literature that forms the basis of the contemporary Judaism we all practice today.
The Romans murdered Rabbi Akiva and most of his colleagues because he refused to stop learning and teaching. In the minds of the martyrs, giving up learning would kill Judaism more surely than death itself. The survivors of the persecution were all students of Rabbi Akiva, and only the future promise of his students gave meaning to his death.
What did Rabbi Akiva and others throughout Jewish history find in the deep well of Jewish wisdom to sustain them in troubled times? And what can Jewish learning offer us today in these troubled times? If anyone had a reason to search it was Virginia Raymond, a lawyer who works in the difficult field of immigration law, where she often encounters situations that offend her Jewish sensibilities. Mother of three young adults, the busy attorney loves learning, so much that she once briefly interrupted her practice to earn a PhD from the University of Texas. After that achievement, and back in the administrative courts, she decided it was time to time to get down to the business of enhancing her Jewish learning.
“The beautiful thing about Jewish learning is that it is infinite, and I had worlds more to learn,” says Raymond.
Virginia and her husband Tom Kolker decided to form a learning circle at their Cherrywood Austin home in East Austin.
Dr. Harvey Raben, Education Director at Congregation Agudas Achim, commissioned a teacher, and eight friends gathered around her dining room table, backed by ample shelves of books, and learned Talmud together for over two years.
“It was convenient to study in our own neighborhood, and I found it delightful to have old friends and new sitting at our table, learning together,” she said.
While the Internet offers an abundance of opportunities for Jewish learning for curious adults like Virginia Raymond, sitting alone and isolated in front of a computer cannot replace traditional Jewish learning. Jewish texts are not meant to be “read”: they are meant to be “studied.”
Traditionally and ideally, learning with a “havruta” or study partner, with guidance from teachers, happens in a beit midrash, or house of study, surrounded by dictionaries, reference books and a Tanach (Bible). In absence of an official Austin beit midrash, the next best thing is a dining room table backed by ample shelves of reference books.
The interactive aspect of traditional Jewish learning appealed to Mike Hurwitz, a regular at the Raymond-Kolker house of learning. “My less than ideal religious school experiences as a child did not satisfy my curiosity,” he reflected. “Learning with friends around the table and sharing ideas through discussion enriched me and nourished my need to keep exploring my Judaism. It also deepened my friendships with my study partners.”
Austin’s Jewish community offers a variety of opportunities for communal adult learning, including course from the Florence Melton School for Adult Jewish Learning, Hebrew ulpan, lectures, and other courses offered by synagogues and area residents with expertise or passion.
However, the decentralized and increasingly widespread Jewish community in the greater Austin area, not to mention traffic headaches, make it more challenging for people to participate in offerings based solely in Central Austin or the Dell Campus. To that end, Shalom Austin is committed to finding new ways to bring Jewish learning closer to home.
Be on the lookout for more opportunities to form smaller learning communities in different areas in and around the greater Austin area. If you are interested in forming a learning community in your home or neighborhood, get in touch with Cathy Schechter, part-time Jewish educator for Shalom Austin (firstname.lastname@example.org).
The great Hillel famously posed the question: “If not now, when?” He also remarked (somewhat less famously), that a person should not say they will delay Jewish learning until they have leisure.
He noted, perhaps wryly, “It is possible that you may never have leisure.”
Which raises another question, aside from “when?” Rather, the question might be, “Why not now?” The wisdom found in your house of wisdom might just flow into the world to help settle that which is unsettled, and repair what has been broken. ■