On Thursday, March 11, 2021, Rabbi Dr. Stu Halpern, Senior Adviser to the Provost and Straus Center Senior Program Officer, participated in a panel discussion with Dr. Barbara Morgan Gardner, associate professor of religious education at Brigham Young University, at the Jewish & Latter-day Saint Academic Dialogue Conference. Dr. Halpern’s presentation was titled “Jewish Education: Celebration, Conversation and Repetition.” The panel was moderated by Dr. Shon Hopkin, associate professor of religious education at BYU, and featured a response by Dr. David Holland, the acting dean of Harvard Divinity School.
Dr. Halpern’s talk focused on three pillars of Jewish education: celebration, conversation and repetition.
Celebration of learning is encapsulated in the many holidays that incorporate Jewish learning into its rituals. On Shavuot, Jews stay up all night to learn topics ranging from Bible to history, mysticism to messianism. Simchat Torah marks the completion of the full-year cycle of reading the weekly portion of the Torah with dancing and festive meals.
The unique style of Jewish “conversation” differs from many modern educational systems. While Jews are no stranger to seminar-style lectures, the heart of Jewish learning lies in the chavruta system, where two learning partners—usually of equal experience and knowledge—explore, discuss and argue about Jewish texts in great detail.
The educational value of repetition comes directly from God. Deuteronomy chapter 6 tells us, “thou shalt teach them diligently [In Hebrew, ve-shinantam] unto thy children.” The Hebrew word ve-shinantam stems from the root “to sharpen,” meaning Jews are commanded to repetitively study God’s words to keep knowledge of them sharp.
Dr. Halpern concluded by noting that recent developments like cryptocurrency, smart homes and self-driving cars provide new and exciting avenues to be examined through the prism of Jewish learning. However, he noted, the deepest Jewish education often comes down to the little moments, sitting around the Shabbat table with one’s family, celebrating, discussing and repeating conversations about biblical teachings that were first given in the Sinai desert 3,000 years ago.