Backman’s Corner: What does it mean to be an educated Jew?

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By Eli Backman
For the Mitzpeh
@Mitzpeh

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I received an email from a student, who was writing a thesis paper, with the following question:

“Who is an educated Jew?”

Before you continue reading, stop and think a moment how you would answer that question. What formula would you use to reach a conclusion?

Every Friday night at Chabad we have our free homemade Shabbat dinner. Following the dinner we have many students who stop by to hang out and sing or talk, to just enjoy a nice Shabbat atmosphere. There is always some nosh and refreshments and lots of new faces. Even later we have our ‘late night crowd’ who will hang out here till 1  a.m. and sometimes later… The discussions always get good and meaningful at that hour.

At one of our late night ‘Farbrengens,’ I posed this question for discussion and it opened up a great conversation. Some wanted more information; “Does it mean educated to do or to know?” “What age and lifestyle are we talking about?” “If I only had the time to teach a few fundamentals of Judaism what would I teach?” Perhaps what I would teach in that curriculum is the bare basic necessary to be considered an educated Jew. Many other similar and different thoughts were discussed as well.

I decided to write to an elder colleague who is well learned and has authored many books as to what his thoughts are on this question. His response went like this: “A person who has even a basic knowledge of every part of the ‘Pardes’ of Torah.” The Pardes of Torah is an abbreviation for Peshat, Remes, Derash and Sod. Peshat means the simplest meaning of what it says in the Torah. Remes means what the Torah maybe alluding to. Derash is (Like Medrash) comparing and learning from one place in torah to another by word or other formulas. And finally, Sod means secret or esoteric the deepest levels of Torah, namely Chassidus and Kabbalah.

Is any of this resonating with what you wanted to answer?

I have been putting much thought into this question lately (partially because I have to answer the e-mailer already), and I think my answer might sound like this;

“An educated Jew is one who knows that they are a Jew and that they have a Neshama –Soul. This Soul is part of and constantly connected with G-d, and through Torah and Mitzvot (commandments) we help to strengthen that connection with G-d.”

In short I think the three simple ideas of G-d, Jew, and Torah are the sum total of what you need to know.

Now take any conversation that you ever had about Judaism and life. Whether it is about morals, excitement about life, greater purpose and meaning in life, doing good, or just plain ol’ singing, eating and enjoying life in this physical world, all are touched by this education.

Without getting too carried away now, why should I be proud of who I am? Because I am a Jew and I am connected to G-d. Why should I do what is right? Because I want to strengthen and live with that connection. What helps me overcome my challenges and depressions in life? Because I am constantly connected with something greater then all of my challenges. How can my life of eating, drinking and playing have meaning? Because G-d put me as a human being in that situation to be able to learn from it, elevate it and be part of it as well.

And on and on…

I would be very interested in hearing from all of you and maybe revisiting this in the next issue of the Mitzpeh or at a late night shmooze in your (or my) place, so please let me know what is your response to the question, “Who is an educated Jew?”

Eli Backman is the rabbi at UMD Chabad and can be contacted at chabad@umd.edu. Backman’s Corner is a monthly column alternating between an opinion piece and an ‘Ask the Rabbi’ format.

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