by Olya Elshansky –

It is important to me that I state beforehand that, for myself at least, the questions voiced in the following article are rhetorical. I ask these questions and invite you to ponder them with me in order to better understand issues that arose as I prepared for one of my Jewish learning seminars.

Near the end of 2019, in the city of Trakai, Lithuania, Moishe House held an educational seminar named “Why was Challah offended by wine?” This topic was not chosen at random; all Moishe House seminars are carefully selected not only for their intellectual educational content, but also for their practical contributions. In other words, the main purpose of a seminar is not solely the transference of Jewish knowledge, but also to guide participants in practices that can be brought back to their communities and educational programming.

It was within this framework that we decided a conversation about the essence and importance of seudot – ritual meals – in Jewish tradition was extremely relevant to us and our participants, as every Jewish educator worldwide is faced at some point with the need to take part in or even lead various rituals related to food.  We already had no question regarding who our guest educator would be, a mashgiach, a person so knowledgeable in Jewish dietary laws and customs they could oversee kashrut with their eyes closed.

The rest of the preparation for the seminar, however, was a fascinating experience; the topic was extensive and the ideas we had for sessions were diverse. While planning, we found that several unexpected questions began to arise. For example, one day, I found myself sitting in the rabbi’s office, before him and his wife, trying to explain that our main target audience was secular and that we were seeking a “traditional rather than religious approach” for the sessions. The rabbi answered, “but do you understand that there is no difference between those two concepts?” I realized at that moment that we were looking at this issue from completely different perspectives. From the point of view of a religious person, tradition and religion are inextricably linked, but what about from the point of view of a secular person? Do they not view it similarly? With this very important question in mind, I left my meeting.

As one may expect, at the very first session of the seminar, during a conversation on what constitutes a seudah, this issue returned to the forefront. From the perspective of a religious person, G-d is present in the seudah. This can be easily confirmed by looking to the prayers that are read before and after the meal, the laws by which food is selected and dishes are prepared, and the history of the rituals of the meal. However, for the secular participants sitting in a circle at that first session, learning the religious nature of the ritual meals they partook in made them question their legitimacy, and even made them question their own right to partake in a meal without being religious!

It is clear to me that there is no right or wrong position on this issue. It is also clear that these issues raise many questions related to how we conduct dialogue with different audiences, and how we speak about Jewish traditions. Most relevant to myself, and I feel many of the participants, is the important question of whether we have an ethical right to perform such rituals as prayers of challah, wine or even lighting Chanukah candles, when we do not believe in the actual essence of those words. Is this not hypocrisy? This question expands so much further in many directions. How often do we speak about biblical figures not even fully believing that they ever existed? Many works of Jewish thinkers have tried to connect religious and scientific approaches. For example, Rabbi Abraham Issac Kook wrote about a compromise between the theory of evolution and Kabbalistic teachings;

“Today the theory of evolution is conquering the world more and more, and more than all other philosophical theories, it fits into the secrets of the Kabbalistic teachings of the world. Evolution along the path of growth provides an optimistic foundation for the world. How can we despair at a time when we see that everything is developing and rising? When we delve into the inner meaning of ascending evolution, we find in it a divine element that shines with absolute brilliance. It is Infinity that really can transform into infinity of potential. ” – Orot HaKodesh 2:537

This quote illustrates how the religious believer is able to come to terms with things that might not have originally fit their belief system. Yet, these words are written by a religious person. A secular person would not accept this explanation, and would still find themselves facing dissonance between their desire for tradition and their secular beliefs.

For me, the question that really arises from this is; what is our responsibility as educators? Do we teach to the secular student, the religious one, or do we try to reach a balance.

Thinking this over, I have to acknowledge that it is important to remember that there are several stakeholders involved in the educational process. When it comes to teaching children, there is the teacher, the student, and the student’s family. In such a situation, we aren’t preparing our lessons in a vacuum, free from influence, we are creating it with specific needs and desires in mind. Yet, when selecting our topics and designing our programs, it is essential to not only remember the students in our classroom, but also ourselves and to remain honest with ourselves. This includes introducing alternative ideas and providing the students with the opportunities to form their own opinion based on the information you provide.

In Sweden, at Paideia – The European Institute for Jewish Education, young people from across Europe spend a year studying Judaism intensively. Alongside providing continuing education programs for Jewish educators, Paideia periodically publishes new teaching materials. Among these materials, Paideai publishes the “Paradigm Cards”, materials that make it possible to touch Jewish thought from different times and cultures. When the students and teachers of Paideia design these materials, they seek to answer several questions for themselves:

  • What is closest to you in Judaism or Jewish tradition, and what would you like to preserve?
  • What do you not hold close in Judaism or Jewish tradition, and what are you prepared to refuse to do?
  • In dialogue with other cultures, what can Jewish tradition give and receive?

In my opinion, questions like these invite Jewish traditions to join a dialogue, and these questions are much more valuable and important than all the potential answers we may find to them.