In welcoming Me’ah students at Temple Emanuel, Rabbi Wes Gardenswartz cautioned that “reading something in translation can be like kissing through a veil.” To illustrate this point, he presented a line from Psalm 27, A Psalm for the Season of Repentance, read during the Rosh Hashanah evening service. The line is translated in one of two ways: “Yet I have faith that I shall surely see God’s goodness…” and “If only I could trust that I would see God’s goodness…” The word in question is “Lulai.” Grammatical accuracy (as per the Bible) and existential accuracy (with regard to the human soul) point to the second translation. “Lulai” is not an affirmation, but rather a prayer, a lingering question. The richness of the line eludes those who know not the true meaning of “Lulai.”
The greater our understanding, the more meaning, purpose, and consolation we can derive from texts, argues Gardenswartz. I concur. I tell prospective Me’ah students that they will acquire new lenses (that will enable them to see more deeply) through which to read print material and view films and television programs.
Adult learners enroll in Me’ah for a host of reasons. Some “seek context and structure,” some “thought they should pick up where they left off at age fourteen,” and some finally have the “‘bandwith’ and time to study.” What is more rarely articulated is the desire for ever greater insight. Me’ah answers questions that students, at the outset, are not quite able to formulate. Such as, What does it mean to develop as a human being? How can Jewish learning help me understand my role in God’s greater scheme? In what ways does this ancient tradition inform contemporary life?
The first of four Me’ah terms focuses on the Hebrew Bible. Instructor Marc Brettler affirmed that it can be disorienting for adult learners to study the Bible through historical and critical methods. But while asking what this book meant to the civilization that produced it we can at the same time ask what it means for us today. There need not be a spiritual disconnect. By understanding what words meant in their original context we are better able to explore what they mean in other contexts. His goals as a teacher: to provide scaffolding upon which his students can hang past and future knowledge, and tools that will help them engage in further study. His hope? That by the term’s end his students will have different lingering questions than those they brought to the first class.
I am excited for adult learners who study with our exemplary instructors. They are sure to have their “veils lifted.” They will experience “aha” moments, and greater understanding will enable them to derive meaning not only from that which they read and discuss in class, but also from future encounters. I echo Rabbi Gardenswartz’s prayer: “As a result of knowing more may this glorious tradition mean more.”
Bernice Lerner, Director of Adult Learning, Hebrew College