Editor’s Note: For one month this past summer, Kulanu sent five highly talented rabbinical students to five isolated and emerging Jewish communities around the world which have been seeking to deepen their Jewish literacy. These communities have few educational resources and were thrilled to host and learn from their volunteer rabbinical students. In this issue of Kulanu, we bring you stories from Ghana and Guatemala by two of those rabbinical students.
I received many questions pertaining to Jewish law during my time in Ghana—about birth, death, and everything in between. I could have answered these questions with a “yes” or a “no,” or a “well, it depends who you ask.” But I did not see that deciding what would be best for their community or what was or wasn’t in accordance with Jewish law as my role in working with the Ghanaian community. I went to Ghana with one goal in mind: to bring a new side of the Torah to life by exposing the community to rabbinic literature.
When I got to Sefwi Wiawso, I noticed that everyone knew the Hebrew Bible better than most, but none had ever studied its accompanying rabbinic commentary. Thousands of years of rabbinic tradition were missing, and to be connected to the wider Jewish world, learning about this heritage would be critical. However, I was afraid that introducing the Talmud and Midrash would be seen as just another New Testament, something they rejected years ago.
So, I had to do some research and personal soul-searching to understand why one might be more compelling for this community than the other.
After reviewing some of the very real gaps that exist in the Torah, which the rabbis try to fill in with interpretation and imagination, and the importance of commentary rooted in the original Hebrew language, the community and I agreed that an additional voice of harmony was needed to complement the Torah’s baseline. For the next 5 weeks, we studied in chevruta (partner study) and as a wider group some of the fundamental Talmudic texts that outline the rabbinic project and which underlie many Jewish values. They were excited to notice, for example, that the opening words of the Torah are actually quite difficult to translate—and that understanding the Midrash on this very point has profound theological implications. Or what to make of the different language used in the Ten Commandments throughout the Torah, which may ultimately affect their priorities in observing Shabbat. Or on what basis Jews have lit Shabbat candles for generations, which may add more meaning to this weekly practice.
Looking back on my time in Ghana, I admit that the community may not have gotten the Jewish legal advice they sought from me (okay, I indulged at times) but they did learn previously inaccessible texts and new perspectives through which to view Jewish tradition and their own place in the global Jewish community. Ultimately, I hope they come to see themselves not just as readers and followers of the Written Word, but as partners with, and unique creators of, Torah as well.