Rav Bar Oz* (From Strength to Strength)
A Conversation with Our Confirmation Class
by Rabbi Jeremy Barras
At the end of October, my wife Jodi and I hosted the Confirmation class for a Shabbat Dinner in our home after services. We do it every year. We love it. Our kids love it. Our dog loves it. And it brings great spirit into our home as we celebrate Shabbat together. At the dinner I like to go around the table and hear from each of the students take a few moments to discuss what Confirmation means to them, why Judaism is important to them, and how continuing their Jewish education enriches their lives. I do not have a fixed set of questions that I ask every year. Rather, I usually discuss what happens to be on my mind, and this year it led to a fascinating conversation.
Recently I saw a video online of a lecture delivered by one of my former Bible professors at the Hebrew Union College. He was lamenting in his talk how he still inherits rabbinic students who were raised “properly” in the Reform Movement, but who still believe that the Torah is authentic and was given to Moses at Mt. Sinai. In the world of Reform academia, this is usually considered primitive thinking and devoid of real scientific understanding of history, archaeology, and literary construction of the Torah.
Watching the lecture prompted me to ask the students what their thoughts were on the authenticity of the Torah, and whether or not they believed that G-d actually gave the Torah to the Jewish people. Some of them did and some of them didn’t, but almost all of them were not firm in their belief. Though they each stated that Judaism was very important in their lives, that their faith played an important role in who they are, they all were forced to admit that not only were they unsure of their views on Torah, none of them had ever even read the Torah much beyond their B’nai Mitzvah portions. When I pointed out that making judgments about Torah when you had not ever read the Torah seemed ill conceived, I think they agreed; and we all realized we had a lot more to talk about.
This commentary is not limited just to our Confirmation class. When I entered rabbinic school I was not a Torah scholar. In many ways I was at the mercy of my professors who gave lectures that today go against some of my concepts of how Torah works. However, at the time, I did not have the background or the education to challenge some of the views I was hearing. Many Jews today are in the same position. They have not invested time in studying Torah, but often make judgments about what they believe without the requisite information needed to make such claims.
Judaism is not just another discipline. It is the moral code by which we base our lives. And the Torah is the guidebook that teaches us how our moral compass works. It is very complicated and deep, but contains within it treasure upon treasure of material aimed at improving lives and endowing our days with meaning. It was a powerful moment when our Confirmation students recognized that in order to truly understand their faith they needed to better understand where its wisdom and history come from. I am excited to go on this journey with them, but it is a journey open and waiting for each one of us to accept.
* The Barras family name was created during the Ellis Island Experience. Originally it was Bar Oz, meaning strength in Hebrew.