Bringing Tam to Our Table

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27 Mar 2018

I met a man a few years ago who had once been a well known student of a famed Torah scholar. I was shocked when I discovered that although he could quote much of the Torah he had once learned, he was no longer entirely observant. While the intellectual rigor of Torah still excited his mind, his heart was no longer into it. Neither were his deeds.

How did this happen, I wonder? A Jew so entrenched in learning to no longer be observant? But of course, this story is only unique because of the degree. We know many Jews who were raised frum but have drifted off. It’s hardly a unique phenomenon.

At our seder, we speak of four sons: the wise son, the wicked, the simple and the one who does know how to ask. The wise son, the one who can quote sources and asks intricate questions about the minutiae of the Afikoman is the prized son, to be sure. The others, an afterthought, the ones we need to think about how to include at the seder, how to answer, how to engage. But in Rabbi Norman’s Lamm haggadah, entitled, “The Royal Table”, he quotes the Akeidas Yitzchak as suggesting that perhaps it is the “tam”, who is the ideal personality; after all, one of the greatest yeshiva students of all time, Yaakov Avinu, was called, “tam”. The word tam, he says, need not be translated as simple but as wholesome. Unlike the chacham (the wise son), he does not wear his wisdom and knowledge and brilliance on his sleeve but takes in the full picture; he is inspired by our heritage, not just focused on minutiae. His questions are not about the specific details of each mitzvah but of the majesty of the night as a whole. And with his simplistic view, it is his love and connection that is perhaps most enduring.

Rabbi Lamm continues, quoting the Or HaChayyim that, “when Jews [in Spain] were put to the test of choosing between kissing the cross or enduring exile and even death, the sophisticated philosophizers embraced Christianity under pressure, while the masses of men, women and children, usually unsophisticated and unlearned, but who loved God and lived Judaism simply, dared to risk death and exile.”

It makes me think about the Sefardi taxi drivers I sometimes meet in Israel, who are unlearned and not religious but who have a hamsa hanging from their mirror, beside their copy of Tefillat HaDerech (the Traveller’s Prayer) and say b’ezrat Hashem (with G-‘s help) when I ask if we will get somewhere on time. Their minds may not be filled with Torah but they have a Jewish heart.

There’s a lot to be said about the simple Jew with a simple faith.

And this concept about the Tam really resonates with me as it’s shed light on a lesson I’ve learned over the past few years:

Like many of my peers, I fell in love with learning during my year in Israel and the following three years at Stern College. The core of these institutions was the beis medrash, with its focus on learning from the original sources and I loved the intellectual rush of learning a nuanced point, a sharp analysis, an answer by a commentary that tied everything together with a bow.

Over the next eight years following graduation, I taught halachic topics at schools in New York, Jerusalem and Houston. I loved compiling the sources, anticipating what my students’ questions might be so I could explore every angle before teaching, and the challenge of teaching in a way to make a topic clear but at the same time, thought-provoking.

When we arrived in Charleston, I found myself in a new world. All of a sudden, I was working at a community school, where halacha was not taught by policy, as a way to maintain balance between the different affiliations at the school. I loved working in administration, but I missed teaching halacha. While I did give shiurim to congregants at my shul with translated source sheets and some seemed to enjoy the learning, it wasn’t the same as it had been. Something inside made me wonder why I was teaching these kinds of topics to people who were looking for growth. Was I teaching what I knew and what I enjoyed, I wondered, or what they needed? And yet, I didn’t know how to construct a different kind of class. And even if I did, there was a kind of intellectual elitism coming from the YU world; we don’t teach fluff, we teach from the real sources. Edgy titles, contemporary halachic issues, source sheets: this is the way a YU graduate gives a class.

Almost by accident, I found myself one summer leading a group of Charleston women on the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project, an organization that takes non-observant Jewish women to Israel on an inspiring trip. I was there to guide my group, but instead, I learned. I listened to the words of speakers who taught in a different way than I had ever seen. There were no handouts. No halachic debates. Few sources quoted. What there was, was a phrase I had never heard before in all of my years of Jewish education, “Jewish wisdom”. Lori Palatnik, the JWRP founder and trip leader, took concepts, advice and ideas learned from various Jewish stories in Tanach, Midrashim and the Gemara and applied them to marriage, to parenting, to living a meaningful life. The women were riveted, inspired. They were nodding along. This made sense. This was relevant. And all of this wisdom comes from Judaism, who knew?

Indeed, who knew?

In my years at school, there had always been an emphasis on understanding commentaries in Tanach, of comparing styles of parshanut (exegesis), of memorizing halachic details and exploring the process of halacha as it journeyed from a verse in the Torah, through Talmudic debate, to analysis in the Rishonim and Achronim. There were some classes that were fascinating, some that were a little dry, and yes, the a few inspirational ones but overall, the educational goals were usually the same: knowledge and skills. Which are really important.

But now I ask myself, as a teacher, did I inspire the heart, or did I spend most of my days trying to engage the mind?

How many Jews are now searching for meaning in yoga, meditation and Far East religions having decided that the religion they were raised with has little meaning? How many frum women have told me how much they wish JWRP had an inexpensive recharge trip for them as they need the inspiration too in their lives and aren’t finding it? People are hungry for meaning.

In kiruv (outreach) style, teaching Torah is to enlighten. Everything in Judaism is a lesson. Every dry halacha is also there to teach a greater purpose. By observing the masses of numbers of returnees to Judaism, it is clear people are seeing the relevance and power in this approach to teaching Torah. Perhaps we could take use the same approach and try to “mekarev” our frum students and congregants, truly focusing on showing the “Jewish wisdom” in the Torah. (This is obviously a balance, as there are some who focus on the overall beauty and abandon the halacha, leaving a watered-down and meaningless Judaism. And without teaching skills and content, we become a people who know very little, which isn’t good, either).

On Pesach, we are charged with telling the story of the Exodus to our children. To impassion the next generation with the story of how we were slaves and became free. How when life seemed hopeless and meaningless, we were freed and given laws to give our lives meaning. We are meant to see ourselves as if we too, we were taken out of Egypt.

But with our cleaning frenzies as we search for the tiniest crumb, with our stress of ridding, buying, kashering and cooking, with our attention to detail about every halacha on Pesach, it sometimes seems this holiday with the greatest potential of inspiring our children carries the greatest risk of turning them off. As we sit around our Pesach seder, with our emphasis on shiyurim (measurements)- the size of the matza, the size of the maror, the zmanim (times) in which we eat the matza without speaking, the academic rigor of the divrei Torah; are we focusing on the greater picture of the Seder like the Tam, or are we wearing our intellectualism on our sleeves like the chacham (the wise son)?

And which approach, I wonder, will inspire our children, our students and our hearts?

Ariela Davis is the Director of Judaics at Addlestone Hebrew Academy and the Rebbetzin of Brith Sholom Beth Congregation, the historic Orthodox shul of downtown Charleston, SC. She is a writer of Jewish topics and a proud wife and mother.


The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.