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February 21, 2016 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Ki Tissa

I was reading Arama’s commentary on Ki Tissa and found something that startled me: “Nowadays, our sages prevent readings in the vernacular, when they believe that the uneducated masses would form negative opinions about people in the story who are really free from blame.  [Although much of the golden calf episode is read in the vernacular] chapter 32.21 is not to be read in the vernacular, since it deals with Aaron’s specific involvement, and would give the uneducated listener the impression that Aaron’s error was far greater than it actually was.”

This certainly conflicts with the common idea of a universally literate Jewish populace.  In 15th.c Spain, some fraction of Jews knew Hebrew- and even they were probably less knowledgeable than many modern Jews because printing was pretty new and books were still hard to come by.   The rest were pretty much kept in the dark- they had no translations of the Torah so they knew what the rabbis told them.  Arama’s comment suggests that rabbis weren’t eager to tell them the actual text of the Torah, just the stew of warmed-over midrash that your average day-school second-grader gets today.

How’d this work out for Jews?  Well, there were lots and lots of conversions from Judaism to Christianity in Arama’s time.  Religious persecution was certainly one reason for this.  However, I can’t help suspecting that attitudes like Arama’s were partially responsible.  If all you know about Judaism is the folk tales your rabbi feeds you, and the sacred text is in a indecipherable language with a wacky alphabet, why should the folk tales of Christianity seem any less persuasive?

Today, Jewish ignorance is widespread- but its not because people have no access to learning.  Rather, many people aren’t curious enough to want to learn, or suffer from the happy problem of too many other things to learn.


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