Living Torah and the New Jewish Learning

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Nearly a century ago, the German-Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig called for a “new Jewish learning,” one that “no longer starts from the Torah and leads into life, but the other way round, from life, from a world that knows nothing of the Law, or pretends to know nothing, back to the Torah…. [I]n being Jews we must not give up anything, not renounce anything, but lead everything back to Judaism. From the periphery back to the center; from the outside, in.”

This remains a bold prescription – and certainly not the only way to study Torah and do Jewish education. But, the reality to which Rosenzweig was responding then is still with us today: For many Jews, starting with the text, with traditional teaching, begs an important question – why and how is this relevant to my life?

At Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah we believe that Jewish teaching and practice – what we call Jewish wisdom and sensibilities – have much to contribute to help us live better lives and shape a better world. Too often today, Judaism is taught as something to be practiced only at specifically “Jewish” times and places – holidays, the synagogue, summer camp.   Such an approach dramatically underestimates what the wisdom of our tradition can bring to our whole lives – personal, familial, professional, and social. Compartmentalizing Jewish teaching and practice undercuts their essential purpose: to make us more whole, to give us a framework for approaching all our choices and challenges – the large and the small, the daily and the pivotal, at work, at home, in the interstitials of our routines.

A number of the projects we support seek to make that connection between learning and life via text-focused programs, using creative curricula and a variety of methodologies from small group and hevruta study to rap music, all of which we think are important.

But we also believe that new ways to engage people with the wisdom of Jewish tradition are vital, ways that start not with text, but, as Rosenzweig suggested, with life itself – with the learners, their concerns, the life challenges and opportunities they face, and the passions and commitments they have embraced.

As we build our grantmaking portfolio, we’re pleased to have the opportunity to support a number of organizations that champion their own forms of “new Jewish learning.” Some examples:

Research and experience have demonstrated that many Jews today share a deep concern for the environment and sustainable living and an appreciation for the spiritual power to be found in nature and its cycles. Organizations like Hazon and Wilderness Torah, two of our recent grantees, are enabling growing numbers of these individuals to connect their passion for the natural world and desire to be responsible stewards of it with Jewish thought and practice – and to be creators of new practices and new ways of articulating Judaism’s message for the contemporary world.

Not just the cycles of nature, but the cycles of our lives represent opportunities to “lead back to Judaism.” Three more of our grantees, Moishe House, G-dcast, and Mayyim Hayyim, are working to help individuals planning for or undergoing life experiences like marriage and parenting seek, and hopefully find, ideas and approaches in Jewish teaching and practice – both traditional and contemporary — that can inform and enrich these experiences.

The diversity of forms and foci for Jewish learning today go beyond what I suspect even Franz Rosenzweig could have imagined. We’re excited by the many ways our grantee partners are reframing Jewish learning and building the connections between Jewish wisdom and the multidimensional lives of Jews (and others) today that we call “Living Torah.”

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