Deena Cowans, Rosh Chinuch (Head of Education)
You’ve heard it before, “Jews are the People of the Book”. Our religion is transmitted through books. Our religious practices rely on books. Our ethnicity values book smarts. But how many of us spend any significant time with “our” books?
Modern Judaism is a practice of rabbinic Judaism, or the Judaism first discussed by the rabbis of the Talmud. Anyone who has ever tried to learn Talmud, whether they are a beginner or a yeshiva bocher, knows that the Talmud is hard. The reasoning is often opaque, much of the Talmud is written in a mostly dead language (Aramaic) and the subject matter is sometimes seemingly unrelated to our modern lives.
Yet those who stick with it, who allow themselves to dig into a text and consider its meanings and lessons, describe the experience as transformative. In part this is because the Talmud (and other Jewish texts) contain a wealth of wisdom. But in part this is because the effort it takes to understand the text and the intimacy that comes from engaging in consistent study are part of the reward. Just like with people, the more we invest in a relationship, the more meaning we find in it.
This summer, we will take on the challenge of becoming the People of the Book by dedicating ourselves to the sustained study of a book of Talmud (technically the Mishnah) known as Pirkei Avot. The book of Pirkei Avot– often incorrectly translated as Ethics of the Fathers, but more correctly translated as Selections of Principles– contains the transmitted moral and ethical one-liners of the early rabbinic period (around the year 0-200CE). Some of the material is timeless in its wisdom, other selections are troubling to our modern values. We’re going to study both parts, because an educated and thoughtful person does not shy away from what is hard.
At Ramah in the Rockies, we focus on developing the inner and outer selves. We take on physical challenges like rock climbing, mountain biking and backpacking; we also take on emotional and spiritual challenges like living in close quarters with others, practicing Judaism more intensely than many of us do during the year and living in close proximity to nature.
Our study of Pirkei Avot will challenge our inner and outer selves. We will explore forms of learning such as embodied learning, chevruta (partner) learning, theater, arts and discussion. We will learn to question and challenge each other respectfully, to try something we have never considered or valued.
We believe that we can learn both from the text and from the process of study. We hope that learning this entire work together over the course of 10 weeks will teach us about patience, love, community and self. We will certainly be challenged, but Ramah in the Rockies embraces challenge by choice, and we will choose to persevere when the material pushes back at us. Along the way, we will celebrate our accomplishments with a siyyum, a joyful celebration of completing a unit of text study. Judaism links Torah study with food– a siyyum usually involves a feast, and children are often given honey when they study Torah to make their learning sweet.
We hope that we will feel nourished by this endeavor, and that our learning will sweeten our lives.