Thursday, May 23, 2013

Two-Minute Torah: Learning by Doing or Seeing

There is a curiosity in this week's Torah portion, B'haalot'cha, right at the beginning. God instructs Moses concerning how the Menorah, the lampstand for the holy tabernacle, is to be lit. Then we find this statement: ”Now this is how the lampstand was made: it was hammered work of gold, hammered from base to petal. According to the pattern that the Lord had shown Moses, so was the lampstand made. ”

In other words, God did not give instructions to Moses on how to construct the Menorah; instead, in some mystical way that commentators have struggled to understand over the centuries, he showed him what the Menorah should look like.

There are some things that cannot be described, they have to be experienced. For me, the classic example is baseball; if you've ever tried to explain the infield fly rule to someone who grew up in a country where baseball isn't played, or who never watched or played baseball as a child, you know what I'm talking about.

I believe the Torah in this small vignette is talking about Jewish education as well. In some sense, God was the first Jewish educator and Moses his student. Much of what God wanted to teach Moses could be taught frontally, through words, but some things just had to be experienced.

Many things in Jewish life are this way. Most people who know how to lead services learned to do so by attending services regularly. I have never successfully explained to someone how to wrap tefillin but if you have a pair of tefillin, I can show you how to wrap them.

Throughout most of Jewish history, Judaism was transmitted mimetically -- you learned how to do Jewish things by observing your parents and other adults. For all kinds of reasons, that mimetic tradition has been disrupted, and now we rely on formal and informal Jewish education (day schools, supplementary Hebrew schools, Jewish camps and campus Hillel Foundations) to transmit Jewish knowledge and identity. But sometimes, there is simply no substitute for learning by doing.

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