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Teaching Leviticus

 

For the next few months, I will be teaching a synagogue school class on Leviticus (Vayikra, in Hebrew), the third book of the Bible. It’s an odd book for children to study, with its focus on laws that applied in ancient temple times: laws for the Levites (the priests and their helpers) around purity and sacrifices and holiness. There’s also a section on dietary laws.

Cricket and bird

No, Cricket. You can’t eat the Canadian bird, even if she’s kosher.

But the fact is, the class will be based on a pre-set curriculum with very few actual quotes from the text, and much more focus on the ways these issues can be extrapolated into the modern lives of Jewish children. This makes a lot of sense. What’s the point of bogging down children’s minds with long passages, in Hebrew, about rules for priests who no longer exist? Judaism used to be a temple cult, with animal sacrifices, but long ago transformed into a synagogue and prayer-based religion.

Except, when I went to Jewish day school as a kid, we read everything, and we read it in both Hebrew and English, and it had an impact. We learned about “an eye for an eye” and that it should be translated to mean “money for an eye,” because the victim should be adequately compensated for the loss, rather than inflicting a similar loss on the perpetrator. We also learned about who’s responsible if someone’s ox falls into a pit on someone else’s property, and how punishments should vary based on whether a crime was intentional or accidental. It was, a little bit, like law school for ten year olds.

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“That doesn’t sound like fun to me, Mommy.”

We also read the stories of the prophets in Hebrew, like a novel, without even bothering with the commentaries most of the time. Our Hebrew was pretty great, now that I look back on it.

I can’t say whether all of that was better or worse than what we do at the synagogue school; it’s just very different. My students still struggle to sound out words in Hebrew, confusing similar looking letters for one another, and struggling to remember which sound goes with which vowel sign. And the bible classes are meant to be taught in English. But I’d still like to infuse more of the Hebrew text into the process; not because it’s part of the set curriculum, but because I want them to know that there’s a connection between the lessons we’re learning in class and the Torah that we read with such awe during services in the sanctuary. We dress the scroll in velvet and silver, and we read it with a special silver pointer, from a parchment written by hand by a single scribe. I want them to hear the ancient Hebrew, and the strange melody of the chant, and to feel the connection to the past that makes it all feel so sacred and phantasmagorical to me.

I’m a little bit anxious about the transition to something so much more clearly planned out. This will be the only year, at least in synagogue school, that they study the book of Leviticus, so I can’t hop around and choose to teach whatever interests me at the moment as if I’m picking from a vast Chinese food menu, the way I do in the Hebrew class. There are important lessons here that won’t be addressed elsewhere and that will be helpful to them in preparing for their Jewish lives. But I’ve gotten used to the creativity of the Hebrew class, where we can spend fifteen minutes trying to shape the Hebrew letters with our bodies without feeling like we’re wasting time (I have one student who can do a bridge pose that looks exactly like the Hebrew letter Chet – it’s possible she has no spine).

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“What letter am I, Mommy?”

It’s a balancing act, to bring the kids some of the magic that I feel, without overwhelming them with too much that is beyond their abilities for now. I need to make it fun, and relevant, and engaging, and useful to their daily lives, but I also don’t want it to feel so familiar that it loses its spark.

So, I need to study the lesson plans carefully, and study the book of Leviticus itself again, and try my best to teach my kids about holiness and where to find it in their lives, in their communities, and in themselves. And in dogs. There’s got to be room for the dogs in there somewhere.

IMG_0747

“There always has to be room for us.”

Wish me luck!

 

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

 

 

About rachelmankowitz

I am a fiction writer, a writing coach, and an obsessive chronicler of my dogs' lives.

86 responses »

  1. Wow. If anyone can make Leviticus understandable you can. Have fun with it.

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  2. artist and illustrator

    Rachel you are a born teacher, and plus your really cute dogs make charming assistants.
    Gook Luck, I know the kids are going to love you.

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  3. This is a really great post. I am SO ignorant about the Jewish religion, I love to hear about it. I love that you use the Hebrew language. I often wish I could have studied that instead of Arabic in the army. Additionally, I am interested in hearing about making Leviticus relatable to now. As you may know, some so-called Christians use cherry-picked versus from Leviticus to justify their anti-gay prejudices. That kind of gives the whole book a bad taste to me. Oh dear, what a long comment. I apologize for that. I love your blog.

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  4. You teach me so much about the Jewish religion, I too wish I had learned more as a kid, but I’m so grateful for the opportunity to learn something now. And……….you are an amazing teacher. These kids will look back some day and be so grateful for all you’re doing

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  5. Wishing you all the wisdom and creativity you need to make Leviticus relevant – though my impression is that you’ve probably get it covered and then some!
    As far as I’m concerned there’s holiness in all of God’s creatures – including dogs – even if it’s sometimes hard to find.

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  6. As a member of team Jesus I find those Hebrew classics to be tough. I took a quick tour of Hebrews last year in an advanced Bible Study I took last year and all those books of our “Old Testament” were really hard to get through.

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  7. Good luck to you, Rachel, but you will do well. The kids are so lucky to have you as their teacher.

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  8. Indeed, I do wish you good luck. The book of Leviticus has followed me around for much of my adult life. I trust you with sifting the wheat from the chaff in your teachings.
    I don’t envy you this one.

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    • Interestingly, the part of the book that worries you doesn’t show up anywhere in my curriculum. We’re going to learn how to love our neighbors and ourselves, how to Stand up to people who hurt others, without embarrassing them, and how to actively avoid putting stumbling blocks in front of others. Fingers crossed that the next generation will learn from the mistakes of their elders.

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  9. Those kids are so lucky to have you as a teacher – you are so passionate about what you do, and what you’re trying to give them.

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  10. After expelling myself from my religion, what it curious me, the oldest religion.

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  11. The love and dedication you bring to your lessons is a wonderful gift. Bless you.

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  12. Fascinating post. Look forward to hearing how the class goes.

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  13. All the best with teaching the class.

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  14. Good luck. The students are already lucky with you for their teacher.

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  15. Rachel, Loved this piece. If the Bible is a ‘book full of wisdom and nonsense,’ how is it determined—or who determines—which parts are wisdom and which are nonsense? Another thought I have is this: Wouldn’t describing the Bible this way lead one to believe that it’s possible that everything in its pages is nonsense?

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    • I think it’s up to each one of us to determine what we believe. The ancients deserve respect for their attempts to make sense of the world, but we shouldn’t assume they got everything right.

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      • Of course, and goes without saying (‘I think it’s up to each one of us to determine what we believe.’). But why wouldn’t “the ancients” understand fully? Especially if some things are eternal.

  16. I think you will bring your appreciation and enthusiasm to this class with no problem!

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  17. I do wish you luck, but it sounds as if you have a good grasp on how to do this. You will be wonderful!

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  18. I haven’t looked at a Bible since I was 15 years old, at school. I only remember the ‘headlines’, but I am in no doubt that you will inspire your class, and manage your task well.
    Best wishes, Pete.

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  19. Very interesting, didn’t know about an eye for an eye interpretation

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  20. The dogs. Hmmm. Maybe their unconditional love, like the love that God has for us. Hmmm.

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  21. “It’s a balancing act, to bring the kids some of the magic that I feel, without overwhelming them with too much that is beyond their abilities for now.” I love the intention you bring to your teaching. I’m sure it makes a difference!

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  22. It’s hard to teach that sense of awe. Children do find it in their lives but we have to translate that to the holy.

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  23. The Holy Bible is the Word of God, which should not be read like an ordinary book.
    The Holy Scriptures teach the LORD’s Thought, Will and Work.
    It is a reading aimed at everyone, including children, and it is not necessary to study theology to read it.

    “Thou camest down also upon mount Sinai, and spakest with them from heaven, and gavest them right judgments, and true laws, good statutes and commandments:”
    Nehemiah 9:13 (KJV)

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  24. Your post made me think about a scripture in Isaiah 28 about “precept upon precept; line upon line.” We never feel like we can do enough, but the Holy Spirit takes God’s Word and somehow builds it into the foundation we need. Monday blessings!

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  25. Ha, ha, the “spineless” girl sounds like quite the flexible one! What a fun way to teach Hebrew. And…I actually follow a diet based on Jewish dietary laws in the OT. I learned about it in the book the Makers Diet. I feel like since God designed me He knows best what’s good for my body!! Lots of good stuff to be learned in the OT. 🙂

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  26. I gave this post a lot of thought, hence my delay in responding. Years ago I read the entire Bible through and was fascinated by Leviticus. It really helped me understand the way that people try to adhere to so many of its teachings that seem alien to me, particularly the Ultra Orthodox. A dear friend went from non observant to Orthodox and I was able to get a glimpse into her life. As a Christian I could better understand Paul’s beliefs that people were burdened by The Law. Certainly trying to be scrupulous about it would be burdensome to me. I am sure you will enjoy the kids’ reactions to the lessons.

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  27. It’s good to infuse more Hebrew if only to increase their multilingualism! (As my Translingualism lecturer would say)

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  28. It sounds like your class will enjoy your teachings. Your doggies are cute too!

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  29. I didn’t know that “eye to eye” means “money for an eye”. I think your students are going to learn a lot from you and have fun at the same time!

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  30. There is a lot of common sense in the dietary laws of that time, laws that might be useful today.

    I can imagine that in the days when the laws, both criminal and dietary, were made, there wasn’t the luxury of allowing a criminal mind to live, nor for good people to die from food-borne illnesses.

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  31. Your passion for teaching and for the kids leaps through your words, Rachel. Best of luck with the new endeavours. Cricket is adorable. Is he a Bichon? I’ve got a Maltese. Have a great weekend. Smiles xx

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  32. Dogs are the holiest of creatures!

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  33. Thank you that was an extremely interesting piece. I think it is the hardest book to appreciate but it is the one which shows us grappling with the major moral issues; right and wrong, how to advance the common good, etc. It is good to know that it is still being introduced to the young as we all need to know how to know and use a moral compass

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  34. That’s a good interesting book. I’ll be praying for you.

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  35. It takes a brave soul to completely read Leviticus much less “teach” it. You are very brave indeed.
    God Bless 🙂

    Reply

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