Teaching the Biblical Period and Building a Foundation for Jewish Identity

By David Alon, Jewish History teacher

Most of us remember the bible stories we learned in Hebrew school and file them away in our memory, bringing them out once a year on a particular holiday to remind us why we are feasting or fasting.  We often learned the G-rated versions of the actual text, but they became ingrained in us, nonetheless.  In our early years, our Jewish identity developed as a conglomeration of all these bible stories, and for the multitude of Jews who don’t live strictly according to halacha – Jewish Law – this is what came to define us.  That is until we reach the age when we are old enough to learn in graphic detail about the horrors of the Shoah (Holocaust).

When I was in 7th grade and attending Bar/Bat Mitzvot every weekend, I had an impactful experience when my synagogue required us to take a year-long class studying the Shoah.  For the next few years, I came to define Jewish identity as our duty to remember the six million, causing me to push aside all the lessons from the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible. Later, in high school, especially in NFTY, I got a healthy dose of tikun olam, learning about the Jewish responsibility to repair our broken world and fight for social justice.

Now, years later as a Jewish history teacher at Heller High, I see firsthand when our students arrive that they are already well versed in tikun olam and Holocaust education.  I’m grateful that the Reform Movement is excelling in these areas, and they are certainly essential to modern Jewish life.  However, it brings me back to the question of Jewish literacy.  Are we doing enough to engage on a daily basis with our ancient sources?

The Heller High Jewish history curriculum is designed to teach Judaism as a civilization over a four month semester in Israel.  On the first day of class I ask my students to nominate different moments that we might define as the beginning of Jewish history:  Creation, Abraham, 12 tribes, slavery, Mt. Sinai, King David, etc.  Some even suggest jumping ahead all the way to 1948.  There’s enough material for four months that comes from the modern period, so let’s just focus on the State of Israel.

Well, I explain to them, the Tanakh is our owner’s manual.  If we want to operate this complex thing we call Jewish identity, it’s probably worth reading the instruction book.  When we open the Tanakh and read it class, we’re seeing and discussing these words for the first time as adults.  It’s not just a bunch of kids’ stories!  In Genesis 29, Jacob doesn’t lift up Leah’s veil to see he’s been tricked, he finds out when he sees her in bed the next morning!  For the first time our students read the stories of Judah and Tamar, and David and Bat-Sheva.  In the first two weeks of the curriculum, we endeavor to make the Bible come to life, and understand it as the foundation of the Jewish People.

One of the more meaningful discussions we have, especially this time of year, is the meaning of teshuva, repentance or return.  We challenge our students to look at the behavior of Jacob, Moshe, Devorah, David, and Solomon and understand the essence of this concept, and why we demand it from our leaders both in ancient times and today.

Perhaps the most complex topic we teach when studying this time period is the idea of avoda zara, idolatry.  We see it at Tel Gezer where the Canaanites erected monoliths and an altar to make sacrifices to their gods.  We encounter it in the biblical Book of Judges when the Israelites continually reject the God of Israel to worship the foreign deities Baal and Astarte.  We see it in artifacts uncovered in excavations at Ir David (the City of David) in Jerusalem, figurines of a fertility goddess that our ancestors prayed to.  Yes we teach what avoda zara means in the biblical context, but equally important is defining what that means today.  Is the one-dimensional pursuit of money and status avoda zara?  Is being on your iPhone at the family dinner table avoda zara?  Is cyber-bullying a form of avoda zara?  Is a smoking addiction?  We don’t always come up with definitive answers, but it seems in a way that asking the question is more important.

There’s no question that studying the Tanakh gives us a far better understanding of the modern State of Israel in which we see ourselves as the continuation of an ancient people in our homeland, speaking our ancient language.  A group of our students once summarized this is a letter they wrote at the end of the semester:

Every day in class we learned an immeasurable amount of history which we internalized as part of our identities.  Through the lessons, the history became a part of us as we began to see ourselves as part of the Jewish people.  Our tiyulim [field trips] tied us to the land even more, and we were able to connect the class lessons to the Land of Israel.  Before coming on this program we were distantly connected to Jewish texts, and felt uncomfortable with the connection between the Tanakh and the modern world.  However, we now see the relationship between our lives and this literature.  The Jewish people, faith, territory, and language have all greatly influenced our identities, creating an unbreakable chain between us and the Jewish literature of antiquity.  We are now able to understand how these texts have influenced Israel in today’s world, and created a resurgence of Jewish culture in Eretz Yisrael.  This new awareness of our Judaism wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the Jewish history class.

I am so grateful for the incredible opportunity to share with the students a love for Israel that is deeply rooted in the Hebrew Bible.  I learn as much from them as they do from me!

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