A Test of Jewish Literacy

  • by: Michael Cohen


Several years ago the editors of Generation Magazine, an excellent but now-defunct journal produced by young Australian Jewish academics and writers, asked a number of Jewish educators to prepare a “mock” examination for Year 12 students completing their secondary years of Jewish day school education.  The exercise – to set 13 questions and to justify the selection, at the same time explaining what kind of responses one would expect from the students – was designed to assess the degree of Jewish literacy which a Jewish student should, ideally, have attained at the end of secondary schooling in a Jewish day school.
Responses by educators, primarily those involved in Jewish education locally, served to reflect broadly the Jewish philosophical worldview of the respondents.  Given the diversity of the contributions of Jewish educators to the Mifgashim website, and the recent discussion on pluralism in Jewish education on the forum, a task like the one set by Generation Magazine would, I believe, prove worthwhile.
To start the ball rolling, as it were, herewith my contribution, an albeit insignificant adaptation of my earlier piece published in Generation Magazine in 1995.  In this – the first of a two-part article – I present 13 questions.  In the second part I shall focus on the responses one would ideally expect to elicit from the Year 12 students.  I encourage others who frequent the Mifgashim forum to offer their contributions.

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Introductory Comments

The following examination questions reflect the areas of Jewish knowledge with which, ideally, I believe every Jewish day school graduate, regardless of personal ideological-philosophical predilection, should be familiar and comfortable.  Given the constraints of the task (to select thirteen questions), those I have posed are by no means exhaustive; they merely exemplify a personal bias shared, I believe, by many Jewish educators in our day schools.
The specific ideological character of a Jewish day school should not preclude a study of areas of Jewish knowledge which are not in consonance with the fundamental philosophy of the school if the graduates are to emerge as literate, informed Jews, aware of the richness and diversity of Jewish life, past and present.  Reform or Conservative Judaism should not, for example, be terra incognita in the curriculum of Orthodox schools; and the converse is equally applicable.  It is clearly inadmissible to condemn the results of scholarship, modern or otherwise, as trefa because they fail to reflect a preconceived ideological position – whether national, political or theological.
The school at which I teach is grounded in the principles of Zionism and is only one of a handful of Diaspora Jewish day schools which have no specific religious affiliation or religious Mission Statement; yet theology and tradition, by definition, are integral to the Jewish Studies’ curriculum.  The examination questions I have selected, however, are not designed to explore the Jewish literacy of my students but, rather, that of the Jewish graduates of all so-called mainstream Diaspora Jewish day schools – whether in Melbourne, Perth, Sydney, Johannesburg, Antwerp or Toronto.

The Thirteen Questions

  1. How odd of God to choose the Jews….Not so odd, the Jews chose God.

Explain, with close reference to Biblical and post-Biblical texts, normative Judaism’s concept of God and outline the principal elements in the covenantal relationship between God and the Jewish people.  What is the theological and historical significance of the twin notions of covenant and election for Judaism and Jewish History?
2.  Compare and contrast EITHER the Biblical accounts of creation with that of the Babylonian account as reflected in the Enuma Elish (or with any other account of the creation of the universe) OR the Biblical account of the Noahic deluge (Gen. 6-9) with that of the Babylonian flood story contained in the Akkadian tablets’ “Epic of Gilgamesh”.
How has Judaism attempted to reconcile the apparent anomalies between fundamental Jewish doctrines and contemporary scholarship – and with what consequences for the Jewish tradition?
3.      A prozbul is not cancelled.  This is one of the things which Hillel the Elder instituted; when he saw that the people refrained from giving loans to one another and transgressed what was written in the Law, ‘Take heed unto thyself lest there be a base thought in they heart……’ Hillel established the prozbul.  [Sheviit, 10:3]

  1. Explain the literal meaning of the word ‘prozbul’, give reasons for its introduction by Hillel the Elder and state the manner in which he justified use of the ‘prozbul’.
  2. Why was the introduction of the ‘prozbul’ deemed a radical reform to the body of Jewish legislation? To what extent did this set a precedent for subsequent reformulation of halachah?
  3. Tzaddik ve’ra lo; rasha ve-tov lo’ [Masechet Berachot 7a]

What attempts are made in classical Jewish sacred literature to explain the suffering of the righteous and the innocent, and the prosperity of the wicked?  What primary themes are evident with respect to the problem of theodicy in the writings of post-Holocaust philosophers and theologians in light of the Shoah?
5.   Why was the Second Temple destroyed?  What were the consequences of the Temple’s destruction for Jewish life?  What factors enabled Judaism to survive the cataclysm?
6.     What were the principal features of medieval anti-Semitism?  How far were these characteristics of Jew-hatred central to the works of nineteenth century intellectual French and German Judeophobes?  Evaluate the impact of the writings of these intellectuals on Jewish life in Europe during the early decades of the present century.
7.   Write an exposition on the radical changes which have occurred in Jewish life in the wake of the eighteenth century western and central European Enlightenment (Aufklärung) and the subsequent emancipation of European Jewry west of the Vistula River.
8.     Select ONE of the mainstream Jewish communities (USA, USSR/CIS, Canada, South Africa, Australia, France…) you have studied and show how the complexion of that community has been transformed over the last century as a consequence of demographic change (e.g. population shifts, immigration, emigration.)  What were the principal factors which facilitated change?
9.     What impact did events in Eastern Europe during the latter decades of the nineteenth century have on the emergent Jewish national movement?  What was the state of the Zionist Movement by 1914?

  2. What were the factors which brought Hitler to power in 1933? What were the consequences of Hitler’s accession to power for German and Austrian Jewry during the years preceding the Second World War?

b.  Arthur D. Morse, in While Six Million Died, argues that the world stood by, ‘all silent and all damned’, as it were, while European Jewry perished.  Write a brief exposition of the ‘Final Solution’ and then evaluate critically the Allies’ responses to Hitler’s war against the Jews in light of Morse’s assertion.

  1. Trace the development of the Arab-Israeli conflict between 1956 and 1967. To what extent do you believe that the conflict was a function of the Cold War?
  2. With reference to Australia and the Australian Jewish community, write detailed notes on X of the following:

                    i.                         The structure and functions of the major Jewish communal bodies.

  1.  Australia’s relations with Israel from 1948 to the present.

                iii.                         The contribution of Jews to Australia’s social, economic, cultural and political life.

  1.  Anti-Jewish proclivities in Australia.
  2.  Racial Vilification and Nazi War Crimes’ legislation:  Jewish responses vis á vis the responses of the wider community.
  3.  Jews and multiculturalism:  results of recent research into assimilation and intermarriage patterns in Jewish life.

              vii.                         The changing character of Australian Jewry, 1946-2002.
            viii.                         Jewish education, welfare and philanthropy in Australia.

  1.  A pen-picture of the growth of the community from early times to the present.
  2. How is the theme of ‘faith and rebirth’ reflected in the Jewish writings of at least two authors you have studied? Compare and contrast, as appropriate, the approaches to this theme adopted by the writers you have selected. [Note:  You must select writers from at least two of the four categories listed below].
  • Nineteenth Century Haskalah authors.
  • Writers (poets, novelists) of Holocaust literature.
  • Israeli authors.
  • Contemporary US, Australian, South African, Canadian and UK writers.

The Thirteen Answers

Herewith, as noted in Part 1, are the kind of responses I would expect from graduating secondary students, with comment where appropriate.  The reader is referred to Part 1 for the questions so that the text which follows can be read in context.  I have merely alluded to the principal theme of each question in the expected responses which follows.
Question 1:  The question related to the doctrines of covenant and election.
Reference to the early chapters of the Chumash – especially Gen. 1 and 2 – are essential here, reflecting the Jewish notion of God as Creator and the classical Jewish belief in a transcendent, sovereign, immanent, omniscient and omnipotent Lord of History Who created the cosmos ex nihilo.  God as Redeemer, notions of divine providence, mercy, righteousness, loving-kindness, justice and vengeance are all reflected in the Tanach.  Post-biblical texts should include the writings of Maimondes (Thirteen Principles…) and more recent works such as those of Hermann Cohen and Joseph Soloveitchick.  On covenant, students should be familiar both with the early Genesis promises and covenants – especially the Covenant of the Pieces (Gen. 15) and of Circumcision (Gen. 17) – and should demonstrate understanding of the centrality of the idea of covenant and election in Jewish history. The truly  ‘literate’ student may make some reference to the ‘death of the covenant’ and the ‘renewed covenant’ in contemporary literature on the Holocaust or even to the Christian notion of supersession.  There is also extensive literature on interpretations of the term ‘Chosen People’ to which students should refer in their responses.  In general, students matriculating from a Jewish school should be able to define and trace the development of other major Jewish core doctrines such as Messianism, revelation, Israel and redemption.
Question 2:  The question related to the Biblical and Babylonian accounts of creation and the great flood.
Answers to this question should demonstrate not only a sound knowledge of the similarities and differences – factually and conceptually – between the Biblical and Babylonian (or other) texts, but also a clear understanding of the notions of myth and the process of demythologisation.  Students should show knowledge of the nature of Biblical Criticism and Wellhausen’s ‘Documentary Hypothesis’ (which rejected the divine origin of the Torah, arguing that the Pentateuch comprises several literary strands and was redacted in the fifth or sixth century BCE) and of the subsequent ongoing theological ructions in Jewish life to the present.  Some reference to the nineteenth century writings of Krochmal, Geiger and Frankel, and to the more recent works of Louis Jacobs would be pertinent.
Question 3:  This question related to the prozbul
This question was chosen to reflect my belief that some knowledge of rabbinic sources and an ability to feel ‘comfortable’ with sections of the Talmud – or at least selected Mishnayot and parts of Pirkei Avot (the Ethics of the Fathers) – is essential.  Terms such as midrash, Haggadah, halachah, Targum, Midrash Rabba, Onkelos, Shulchan Aruch (and its divisions), amoraim, saboraim, mefarshim, the distinction between Mishnah and Gemara etc. should be part of the scholastic baggage of the ‘literate’ day school graduate.  Ideally, students should be familiar with the original Hebraic or Aramaic texts, even if they opt to engage with the texts in the vernacular.  Further, true literacy, I believe, demands competence with Rashi’s commentaries and hence Rashi’s script.
With reference to the extract selected, students should be able to demonstrate that ‘prozbul’ is of Greek derivation, implying a document of claim to a court for debt recovery, although there are other etymologies for the word suggested by the Talmud.  They should also show clear understanding of the elements (financial and agricultural) of the sabbatical year which prompted its introduction, and the meaning and context of the Deuteronomic verse, ‘take heed ….’quoted in the extract – a commandment warning against reluctance to lend for charitable purposes because of the impending Sabbatical (Shemita) Year.  Hillel justified the reform (i.e. finding legal ways to prevent the remission of debts in the Sabbatical Year) on the grounds that the aim of lending is charity and the intention of the Shemita Year was to assist the indigent.  Furthermore, most commentators hold that the Shemita Year during Hillel’s period was of rabbinic and not biblical origin.
By Year 12, students should understand the import for Jewish law of ‘d’oraita’ and ‘d’rabbanan’.  They should also demonstrate a good understanding of the dynamic inherent in the halachah and the process by which halachah has undergone reformulation.  They would be expected to understand halachic and non-halachic change with respect to other areas of Judaism.
Question 4:  The question focussed on theodicy
Theodicy – the attempt to vindicate God in light of the evil prevalent in the world He created – is a theological conundrum with which all our students will contend, either at an academic or personal level.  Incidentally, given the nature of Melbourne’s local community, with its preponderance of Holocaust survivors, the conundrum is particularly relevant to our pupils.  I would expect students to demonstrate knowledge of Biblical texts which reflect classical notions of suffering (divine retributive / corrective / disciplinary / vicarious / revelational / eschatological / Messianic / probationary etc.).  Post-biblical or rabbinic literature draws upon and develops this ‘list’.  Students should demonstrate understanding of the notions of ‘hester panim’ – God’s ‘withdrawal of His face’ at specific times in history – ‘tzimtzum’, ‘umipnei chata’einu’ and yissurei ahavah, inter alia.
The ‘literate’ graduate should ideally have read the works of several major post-Holocaust writers such as Wiesel, Rubenstein, Greenberg, Berkovits and Fackenheim and should be familiar with some of the sectarian theologians who viewed the Shoah as divine retribution for the so-called sin of Zionism or who perceive God as the Professor-Surgeon extirpating a cancer from the Jewish nation.  (Our students should also have some general knowledge about Christian and, perhaps, Buddhist approaches to human suffering and the degree to which these approaches differ from those of the Jewish tradition.)
Question 5:  The question centred on the destruction of the Second Temple and Jewish survival.
I hold that, for most Jewish day school students, Jewish history is the critical school-based factor in strengthening both the Jewish identity and the Jewish knowledge of students.  I include Zionist history in this category.  A sound grasp of Jewish history is thus essential to Jewish literacy.  This history must not, however, be confused – as is frequently the case – with Jewish theology.  (As an examiner I would, for instance, reject any midrashic-based postulates as an answer to the first part of the question – arguments that the Second Temple fell because of sinat chinam – wanton hatred – or that Jewish survival in the post-70 CE era was contingent solely on Providence or emunah – total faith in God.)
In their responses to the question set, students should demonstrate familiarity with events leading to the Temple’s destruction and to both the immediate (i.e. events between 70 CE – 73 CE which brought the Roman-Jewish War to its conclusion) and long-term consequences – loss of independence, Roman hegemony, anti-Jewish decrees, exile, displacement, alienation, failed attempts to oust the Romans from Judea etc.  The effects of these developments on Judaism (the Yavneh Sanhedrin, responsa literature, Messianism etc.) are also part of the aftermath.
The final part of the answer should demonstrate knowledge of the inbuilt mechanisms which enabled Jews and Judaism to survive almost two millennia of homelessness and displacement.
Question 6:  This question focussed on the nature and impact of anti-Semitism.
A detailed study and understanding of the history and nature of anti-Semitism is an essential requirement for any Jewish day school graduate, given the overriding prominence of the theme of prejudice and discrimination against Jews by which so much of Jewish history is characterised.  I would expect, therefore, students to have some understanding of both classical religious-based anti-Semitism – the odium theologicum – and contemporary manifestations of Judeophobia, based primarily but not solely on racial, political and economic considerations.  An informed graduate should also be familiar with anti-Semitism in recent times – whether in the USSR/CIS, USA, France, South Africa, Poland or Australia.
The question I have set seeks knowledge of the Crusades, host desecration and ritual murder accusations, the anti-Jewish decrees of the Fourth Lateran Council (1215), the Black Death, economic anti-Semitism, exclusion of the Jews from the feudal system, the Inquisition, Talmud burnings, public disputations, expulsions and the early beginnings of segregation, inter alia.  Responses to the latter part of the question should demonstrate knowledge of the anti-Jewish writings of H.S. Chamberlain, Drumont, de Gobineau, Wagner, Treitschke, even Nietzsche, the degree to which their ‘race thinking’ reflected earlier anti-Jewish canons, and how they surpassed their early masters by employing tools of the ‘new’ Cartesian and social science philosophies to justify their assertions.  Knowledge of the politico-philosophical background against which these intellectuals wrote is essential – the post-French Revolutionary era of industrialism, liberalism, Darwinism, Hegelian philosophy and, most importantly, the virulent nationalism which characterised nineteenth century Europe. (I would add, in parenthesis, that knowledge of general history is absolutely mandatory if students are to have any real understanding of Jewish history.  Jewish history cannot be studied in isolation.  Tragically there are teachers of Jewish history world-wide who, for example, teach the Hasmonean period without any knowledge whatsoever of Greco-Roman civilisation or those, say, who teach the period of Enlightenment and Emancipation in European Jewish life but who have never heard of Rousseau, have no idea of what the French Revolution was, and have never heard of the Congress of Vienna, Metternich, Bismarck nor the German and Italian unification movements.)
The final part of the students’ answers should focus on the rapid growth of anti-Semitic movements, Dreyfus, the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, Kishinev, Beiliss, anti-Semitism between the wars and, principally, on the intellectual roots of the Third Reich and the growth of Nazi anti-Semitism.
Question 7:  A question on the impact of the Enlightenment and Emancipation of European Jewry west of the Vistula River.
A Jewish writer has called the Modern Age the sixth and most significant challenge to which Jewish history has been called to respond – a veritable ‘Second Exodus’ in terms of its importance.  The multifarious responses of Judaism to the onset of modernity in the tradition’s attempts to adjust to the desegregation which characterised the end of autonomous Jewish ghetto life have served, to an inordinate degree, to shape the complexion of contemporary Jewish life.  Assimilation, marginalisation, loss of identity, the secularisation of Jewish life, religious denominalisation (the emergence of Historical – later Conservative – Judaism, Neo-Orthodoxy, classical and post-classical Reform Judaism, the establishment, albeit later, of the Reconstructionist Movement), the involvement of Jews in Socialism and non-Jewish national causes, the rise of Jewish nationalism as a response to the modern era, the technological society and its challenges to Jewish tradition – the issues here are endless.  In this respect, Commonwealth Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has stated that, “for the first time in perhaps two thousand years Jews were being invited to jettison their particular identity as a ‘people that dwells alone’, and enter open, secular, and universalistic societies.  It was a shock to the traditional system from which Jews have still not recovered.”
Question 8:  A question focussing on diaspora communities.
The thrust of this question is obvious.  It reflects the importance of history, politics, economics and demography in shaping the nature of a community and, in large measure, determining its fortunes.
Question 9:  This question focused on a period in the history of Zionism.
A sound knowledge of the development of Zionism is a sine qua non for the ideal Jewish day school graduate.  This specific question is designed to elicit knowledge of the Jewish Enlightenment – the Haskalah – as well as knowledge of events in Russia after May 1882 and their impact on the rise of Zionism.  (The question does not demand detailed knowledge of the cultural efflorescence occasioned by the Haskalah or the general demographic consequences of the pogroms on Jewish life.)  The second part of the question seeks knowledge of the first and second aliyot, the early Zionist Congresses, ideological fragmentation in the Zionist Movement and an evaluation of the efficacy of the movement by 1914.
Question 10:  This question related to the Holocaust.
No Jewish student, ‘literate’ or ‘not-so-literate’, should leave school without a firm grounding in Holocaust Studies.  It is essential, however, that the students’ knowledge should not be confined to Jewish areas only but should include a reasonably sound understanding of contemporary world events.
Question 11:  A question on Arab-Jewish relations.
Students should ideally have a sound grasp of Arab-Jewish relations in the Middle East from early times to the present, including the territorial complexities surrounding the McMahon correspondence (1914), the Sykes-Picot Agreement (1916) and the Balfour Declaration (1917), and should be familiar with both Jewish and Arab parochial literature on the topic.  I would also expect students to have some insight into the contemporary debate on the ‘New Zionism’.
The question set requires some knowledge of pre-1956 developments by way of introduction, a detailed understanding of the 1956 – 1967 period and, most importantly, the ability to evaluate causation:  were the tensions between Jewish Israelis and Arabs part of the ongoing Arab-Jewish saga or was Israel merely a bit-player in the struggles between East and West for control of the Middle East and hence but another feature of the Cold War?  Again, sound knowledge of world events is mandatory.
Question 12:  A question relating to the Jewish community in which the students live.
I have selected nine areas (see the questions) from which I would require Australian Jewish students to choose a number of topics to which to respond.  One could add considerably to the list of topics, of course, especially with respect to the history of the community.  Needless to say, Jewish graduates should have a sound knowledge of and insight into the community in which they live.  This applies to Jewish graduates in every country.
Question 13:  A Jewish literature – based question
The informed graduate should demonstrate a wide knowledge of Jewish literature – preferably, where relevant, in the original rather than translated form – whether it be the writings of the early Maskilim such as Peretz, Seforim or Sholem Aleichem, the work of those who have written about the Holocaust, contemporary Israeli writings like Rachel’s poetry or Amos Oz’s stories and novels, the works of Yehuda Amichai, or the works of Potok, Dan Jacobson, Serge Liberman, Modecai Richler, Bernard Malamud and others.


There are so many areas of knowledge, other than those reflected in the ‘mock’ examination questions, which I consider to be vital:  a sound grasp of classical and contemporary Hebrew; an understanding of Christianity, the differences between Judaism and Christianity and Judaism’s contribution to western (Judeo-Christian) civilisation; the nature of contemporary Israeli society; Jewish values/ethics (to which I have alluded in my comments to one of the examination questions and a knowledge of which is mandatory, provided that it is firmly based on traditional Jewish sources); the status of women in Judaism – past and present; issues of ‘Who is a Jew?’, and ‘What is Judaism?’
I would, however, add a compulsory oral (viva) examination to the three or four written examination papers set, to test familiarity with the following:

  1. The geography of the siddur and familiarity with the Hebrew text (including fluency in reading) together with some understanding of the central prayers. A literate student must be able to recite kiddush, havdalah, birkat hamazon, aleinu, the shema, ashrei, the amidah etc. and be at home with the structure of a synagogue service – shacharit, musaf, minchah and ar’vit (ma’ariv).  One of the strengths of the maskilim, early Bundists and others, many of whom professed agnosticism or atheism, was that they were not ignoramuses:  they knew the sources; they knew what it meant for a Jew to daven; they understood the power of kaddish at the graveside or on a yahrtzeit; they were informed, literate Jews, theology notwithstanding.

Similarly, I would expect some knowledge of other shul-based texts, such as the festival machzorim, the five megillot and the like.

  1. The laws and customs of Shabbat, kashrut and the major festivals and fast days.
  2. Jewish symbols, rituals and motifs: mezuzah, bar- and bat-mitzvah, synagogue-based symbols and artefacts, pidyon haben, brit milah, se’udat bat, rituals of death and mourning, notions of tzedakah, gemillut chassadim, taharat hamishpachah…these are but disparate examples yet essential parts of the students’ baggage of literacy to which earlier reference was made, irrespective of ideological considerations.