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Bible Interrupted

Amichai Lau-LavieFilmed at Limmud Conference 2011

Stories are the most important human resource. The stories we tell ourselves about who we are and the ways we transmit these stories to each other guide our values and shape our identity. I am a Jewish storyteller and this is my story – an ancient tale about a simple method for saving the world through the better telling the greatest story ever told.

Amichai Lau-Lavie is the founding director of Storahtelling Inc. An Israeli-born educator, writer and performer, Amichai is currently pursuing Rabbinical studies at JTS in New York City, USA.

Good Evening. Chag Sameach. I did not get the memo about the ten minutes, I was going off the notion that it takes 18 minutes to make a matzah, so that’s going to be my spiel, I’m going to try and condense it as much as possible. I’m also very daunted coming after Maureen because really you spoke so powerfully to the prophetic voice what we’re supposed to do, I’ll do my best to do this much.

So the transmission of our sacred legacy in 5 simple steps. There’s a problem and I’m coming from the United States and from Israel, I believe I am talking about something that is universal. The majority of Jews on the planet do not know how to Jew and that’s putting it mildly, there’s this gigantic gap we’re talking about a gap Maureen about illiteracy, most Jews on the planet are illiterate when it comes to their Judaism. I realise I’m mostly speaking to the, preaching to the choir here, because if you’re here, you’re either Jewishly literate, or you’re interested in Jewish literacy. But I urge you to think about the people in your life who not only do not know the Aleph – Bet, do not know the meaning of why light a candle on Hannukkah or what a Matzah really is about. And what is the spiritual, intellectual, human value proposition of Jewish life? In an age of so much communication, technology, printing, digital, you name it, with – true – still huge gender issues to be surmounted, more people being educated than ever before in our history, the fact that Jewish illiteracy is such a huge obstacle to Jewish happiness and Jewish identity and fighting fundamentalism with knowledge and power is a huge issue.

What I want to address tonight very briefly is a recipe that I’ve developed over the last decade or so of what might be five simple but not easy steps, for combating illiteracy and making Jewish legacy’s literacy content alive and exciting for all of us. I’m going to try and do this on a PowerPoint and I’m sort of a technophobe but let’s see if I can do this, yeah all right. Here are the five principles I’ll explain in a moment. The first one is location, the second is transmission, the third is translation, the fourth is emotion, and the fifth is activation. I’m going to take us back in time to the very first moment in Jewish history when Jewish education publicly and officially happened. And I will do so by….you know about that, hopefully cut and paste some stuff, because it’s going to… out of the way, thank you. So since I am indeed in the Jewish Theological Seminary, I will start with a quote from Rabbi Ismar Schorsch the former chancellor that talks about this moment in time. So I’m sure you are familiar with the Torah service, right raise your hand if you’ve been to one recently. Keep your hand up if you had a fascinating, scintillating, dramatic time. Would you all please do, it does not offer the most exciting of Jewish events but it once was, Rabbi Schorsch says the following, “the Torah became the bedrock of Judaism not so much by assertion as by ritual, the progressive chanting of Torah from the beginning to end every Shabbat in the synagogue transformed the Jews into a people imprinted by a book. Its narrative function has a unifying meta-history of the nation and the building blocks of public discourse. The synagogue developed into the national theatre in which scripture and liturgy converged to re-enact weekly the awesome transmission of the Torah at Sinai.” I’ll skip the rest for now, we’re going back to the very first Torah service in history and the five principles that were alive then that I want to suggest ought to be alive today. Not just in the synagogue or in a, whatever this is, classroom, when Torah is being transmitted, but every single time we convey Jewish life to somebody else. So the first one, thank you Shoshana. This lovely illustration of Ezra and let’s go back two, one more, one more, one more and one more, cheers, alright.

The book of Nehemiah chapter 8 describes the moment in time roughly 2,500 years ago when the Jews are back in Zion for the Babylonian exile. They have two leaders Ezra and Nehemiah, Ezra and Nehemiah created Judaism as we know it today and one of their first and biggest achievements is Jewish literacy. They try to give people Jewish identity by demanding the divorce of Jews from non-Jews, that failed. They therefore did the following, chapter 8: “all the people gather themselves together as one to the open place that was before the water gate and they told Ezra the scribe to bring the book of the Torah of Moses, which God had commanded to Israel. And Ezra the priest brought the Torah before the congregation, both men and women and all that could hear with understanding on the first day of the seventh month.”

The water gate of Jerusalem, Shaar Hamayim, is a public square, think of a public space in your own lives, where do you go as a public place to engage in conversation? Public places? Cafés, a mall, one more… a pub, perhaps, or a park. Online where do you go? Facebook, perhaps. You too? TED, alright. So Ezra does the following, he’s already built a temple in Jerusalem, it’s up, it’s the religious headquarters, but the first time the Torah comes out publicly as an educational transmission ritual it doesn’t happen in the temple, it happens in the mall. It happens in the place where water happens, where the people already are, men and women and all who could understand. So the first rule in making literacy happen, in reaching your public audience is go to where they are – location, location, location – number one rule in New York real estate, the number one rule in Jewish literacy. Figure out where your audiences are, who they are, the 100% and find that location. Limmud is one great example, but when synagogues are empty as they are throughout the world we have to ask ourselves, where do we go to make Torah and Jewish literacy alive? Ezra got the answer, the water gate, public square. So that’s our first rule here, location, reach all your audience.

The second rule is transmission, look what’s happening here the book of the Torah of Moses, Sefer Torat Moshe. This is the first time in Jewish history we have the object known as the Torah scroll, prior to this Torah was Be’al Peh – oral. There’s a few mentions of fragments of writings or books used by the king or the priests, but this is a public spectacle. Remember the first time you used a computer? or an iPad, or a PowerPoint? Think of the Jews standing, the Judeans rather, in this public water gate on that first day of the seventh month and he whips out a scroll, probably made out of papyrus. In the 5th Century BCE the written word is an innovation, it’s the newest technology of the day. Ezra imports it from the Babylonians, he brings it to the Judeans and he says, look, old idea in a new transmission. How you will transmit your complicated ideas, certainly Jewish ones, requires transmission, the second principle. Use a PowerPoint, use a movie, use theatre, use whatever it takes to take these old, 5,000 year old concepts and transmit them in new ways. Ezra understood technology and he wows them with a book which is really a scroll and he uses technology to convey and broadcast the story. One and two.

What happens next is that the people…. “he meets them in front of the open place that was before the water gate from early morning until midday, that’s a long time, six or seven hours, in the presence of men and women and all those who could understand and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the Torah.” Attention, learning, education. Next please.
Of course, the thing about technology is that it’s sometimes tricky. OK, here comes principle number 3, Ezra stands on a pillar of wood, a pulpit, this is the first Bimah in history, crowds of people can see him as you can see me now. Which they had made for the purpose and beside him stood, here goes “Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, Uriah, Hilkiah and Mamaseiah, on his right hand. On his left hand, Pedaiah, Misheael, Malkijah, Hashum, Hashbadanah, Zecharaih, Meshullam”. We don’t know who these people are, we assume they are the board of directors, or the founders who had to be on stage, have his back and say, look people this is a big deal we’re all here. The question of course is how much money did they have to give Ezra for his his campaign, to get into the Bible?! That’s a big endowment. Thank you for that. We care about the next group of people really. “Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people for he was about all the people when he opened it all the people stood up and Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, all the people and said Amen, Amen and lifted up their hands and bowed their heads and fell down before God with their faces to the ground”. This is ancient Jewish yoga. More importantly this is participatory ritual, he transmits the idea in a spiritual, religious context for all to learn and be involved and here’s what happens next. “Joshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Masseaiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, and the Levites enabled the people to understand the Torah; and the people stood in their place and they read in the book, in the Torah of God distinctly and gave the sense to cause them to understand the reading.” Up there in the Hebrew… Whoa, what’s happening here? Our third principle – translation.

I’m not going to ask you to raise your hand if you speak Hebrew fluently; the fact of the matter is most Jews on the planet – today and always – do not. And the very first time in Jewish history the Torah comes to the public square, it comes out in split screen, Hebrew and Aramaic, the written language, the spoken language. Torah Shebichtav and Torah Shebe’al Peh. Ezra is an educator, he understands transmission and so translation happens here. The Levites and all these people with the funny names translate the Torah into Aramaic, we don’t know how, were that standing in a row and broadcasting? Were they walking in little groups and whispering? Were they scripted? We have no idea, but we know this, to make our ancient legacy alive today it requires translation, not just the vernacular – Hebrew into English – but ancient into new, the concepts, the contexts have to be conveyed in new ways that speak to the heart and mind of every living Jew. Translation is key.

My work with Storahtelling over the last 13 years has been about translating the Torah service, bringing the Mevinim the mavens back into circulation. But it goes way beyond the Torah service, the translation of ancient into modern is key to making the Torah alive. And those of you are … understand what I’m talking about, we’ve got two more principles left and five minutes, perfect.
OK, here comes next, “Nehemiah who was the Governor and Ezra the priest the scribe and all the Levites that taught the people, said to the people, this is holy to the Lord your God, don’t mourn, don’t weep for all the people wept when they heard the words of the Torah.” Great question not for now, why do the Jews weep in the very first moment of the Torah publicly chanted in the public space? Great, think about that, teaching about it later tonight, you can come to the talk. But basically we think that they’re weeping because they’re very moved or because they’re very scared, because something momentous is happening. Here’s the fourth principle – emotion, you want to make the education reach home? Don’t just be intellectual, don’t just talk about statistics, move us, speak to our heart, make us weep. For whatever reason Ezra and Nehemiah did what they did they made the people weep and those tears made it into the bible. It’s part of how we transmit our legacy, emotional intelligence, the full package. So the people weep, for whatever reason, and here’s come the fifth, and in my opinion, the most important principle, “then he said to them go your way, eat the fat, yes, and drink the sweet, better, and send portions unto him for whom nothing is prepared; for this day is holy to our God. Neither do you grieve, for the joy of God is your strength. And the Levites stilled all the people, ‘Shh hold your peace for the day is holy neither be you grieved.’ And the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions and to make great mirth because they had understood the words that were declared unto them.” What is the fifth principle? Activation. Ezra and Nehemiah tell them, you’ve got Torah, now go home, feed each other, feed the poor, build community, eat together. Community is the bottom line, it is the end goal of Torah. Jewish education is there that we are better people and take care of the people in our midst and take care of each other, 100% of who we are. So the fifth principle here for every single time we transmit our sacred legacy, the bottom line is not Jewish, the bottom line is human, the bottom line is community. Torah in the service of the better world. And Ezra and Nehemiah understood that, they created the first Torah service in history with the intention of waking up the human soul to its full potential, giving Jews the book, the story, the legacy, translated, emotive, activated into what it really should be in the world. That is the meaning of light unto to the nation and at the water gate of Jerusalem 2,500 years ago, Ezra and Nehemiah understood that, created the form, the central form of Torah that is still alive all those years later, today.

Let me end with one quote, this is the five principles, this is from a book that I’m hoping to finish one of these days, “where and when we choose to gather and tell our stories matters just as much as what stories we choose to tell and how we choose to transmit them. Whether or not we translate our histories into relevant currency will impact our levels of literacy, engagement and care for our traditions and for each other. If moved and inspired we will cultivate responsibility, activating words into acts of justice and compassion, helping to transform our world into a better place.” Amen.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License