Is it better to know a lot about a little or a little about a lot? Surely the answer to this question depends on the situation. In medicine, for example, I would imagine one would want their general practitioner to know a little bit about a lot of different areas (of course, my doctor knows a lot about a lot!). But when it comes to a specialist in medicine, while certainly one would hope the doctor would be well versed across the board, we prefer that a medical specialist knows a lot about his/her specific area even if it means sacrificing medical knowledge in other areas. The similar concept, I would imagine, is true for lawyers and many other careers as well. But what about when it comes to our children’s and our own Jewish knowledge: is it better to know a little bit about a lot or a lot about a little?
We read in our Torah portion this week, Parashat Noach, the very famous story about Noah and his ark. From children’s stories to blockbuster Hollywood productions, this story has been told time and again. In general, we know what happens in our parashah: humankind sins too much; God gets angry and decides to destroy the world; God spares Noah, his family and pairs of all animal species by putting them on an ark for forty days and nights; rain stops and land begins to dry; Noah sends out a dove to discover whether he and his family can exit the ark; everyone lives happily ever after. But is this all we need to know about Noah? The above summary of the story does little justice to the intricacies of the Torah. Why did God want to destroy humankind? Why did God spare Noah? Did all the animals make it onto the ark? Were there equal numbers of kosher and non-kosher animals? Who was Noah’s wife and who were his children, and why were they spared? Why did Noah first send out a raven and only then a dove–and why did he have to send out the dove more than once? What happened after Noah and his family exited the ark? What did Noah and the animals do for all those forty days? How did they all fit on the ark and what did they eat? Some of the answers to these questions are present in the Torah itself, while others are answered by rabbinic midrashim. The answers to all of these questions are central to truly understand the message of the Noah-story, and they are essential for those attempting to glean modern lessons from this very ancient legend that has parallels in others ancient Mesopotamian cultures as well. So, is it better to know a little bit about a lot–to have a general sense of the various Torah portions of Genesis, for example–or would it be better to go really deep in understanding Parashat Noach even if it meant we did not learn other aspects of our Torah?
When it comes to Jewish education, the debate about depth versus breadth of knowledge and skills is, like Noah, ages-old. The Congregation Shaarey Zedek Religious School is in the midst of its second year of a specially-selected pilot cohort of five synagogues from throughout North America participating in a project called “ReFrame.” Through ReFrame, JTS (The Jewish Theological Seminary) and its Davidson School of Jewish Education seeks to aid educational leaders in planning new learning models that draw on the best of camps, Israel trips, and other immersive experiences to excite Jewish learners and increase their learning. As such, under the leadership of our outstanding assistant director of education and youth, Allison Gutman, and our dynamic director of youth programming, David Lerner, the Congregation Shaarey Zedek Religious School is seeking to use new learning models not only to excite our children, but to allow them to go deeply into learning about particular areas of Jewish life. All learners in our Kitah Hey (5th grade) Religious School class participated in a Project-Based Learning (PBL) unit of curriculum focusing on Sukkot which ran from September 7 until October 12, 2014. Project-based learning engages students in curricular content in ways that are exciting, relevant, and meaningful. Projects present the children with choices in terms of topics, modalities, and methods of learning and exploring. It is an approach that is being used in many institutions – secular and religious – throughout the country. In September, the children were challenged to re-imagine the ancient structure known as the Sukkah; built during the Jewish harvest of Sukkot since biblical times. The children worked in chevruta (small groups) to create innovative model Sukkot based on the Jewish values, Halacha (Jewish law), and their own interests and excitement about the potential of what a Sukkahcould be. The PBL unit culminated on Sunday, October 12 with students presenting their model Sukkot.
In our own lives, we too are faced with the difficult question: Are we satisfied in knowing a little bit about lots of areas of Jewish life, or do we want to deepen some aspects of our Jewish knowledge and practice? At CSZ, we have many opportunities for adult education, and with the upcoming completion of the Berman Center for Jewish Education, our adult, family and youth learning opportunities will expand dramatically. Please consider taking advantage of all our educational programs, and please let us know if you have additional ideas of areas in which you would like to deepen your learning.
Rebecca, Caleb and Ayal join me in wishing you Shabbat shalom um’vorach, a peaceful and blessed Sabbath!
– Rabbi Aaron Starr