Interview: Rabbi Yaakov Menken talks internet and Orthodox Jewish Education
by Peter Menkin 5/14/2012 / Education
by Peter Menkin
This is the second interview in three that constitute the final article-interview on Religious Education. The unique aspect of this interview has to do with the success of internet education and its use in the teaching of Torah and Jewish learning purposes, as well, of Orthodox Jewish adult education. In this interview with Religion Writer Peter Menkin, Director of www.torah.org spoke with the writer over a period of a few months, from December, 2011, through the 20th of March, 2012. Rabbi Yaakov Menken (no relation to the Religion Writer), speaks with an authority born of education, training, and experience. He shows a love of learning, and like the other three Rabbis who are part of this interview series of three about the internet learning site, with its 78,000 subscribers, Rabbi Yaakov has a warmth for the reality of the work and their experience in reaching out to both Jews and non-Jews in many parts of the worldin fact, worldwide as well as the United States. The phone conversations held from Peter Menkin's home office in Mill Valley, California to Rabbi Yaakov's office at www. Torah.org and his own home in Baltimore, went well.
1. Peter Menkin: There is little doubt in my mind that your work as Director, www.Torah.org is an internet success with 78,000 subscribers. In a conversation by phone, you talked some about advantages and such of internet learningcalling Torah.org a place for ongoing education (lifelong learning). To paraphrase your remark regarding continuing educationas this writer knows it as once known in California, USA and your school purpose, continuing education ismuch closer to our model, not because (the student is) going to get a credit. Lifelong education known to us as religious studya more fundamental obligation. It is one of the things we are expected to do. Tell us about this lifelong, fundamental obligation. Give us some about the, "Why," and "What for"
In our view, of course, the Torah as the word of God was not only given to us in a written law, but given to us as an Oral Lawwhich was only written down so that it wasn't forgotten. For us every piece of that Law is God's Commandment. "And you will teach it to your children, and you will speak of it when you are sitting in your house, and when you are walking on the way, and when you lie down and when you arise." [Deuteronomy 6:7].
In any case, it is one of our most fundamental teachings that we should be involved in learning and studying God's lawit's God's teaching, the Torah. Whether its ethics, philosophy, we are fulfilling God's Commandment to study, which helps us to perform all the other Commandments. It's not merely intellectual study. You learn how to speak properly, and then you have a conversation. (We have a class in the ethics of speech. It is one of our oldest classes, and the archive is still active on our website.)
When we are talking about philosophy and ethics and how a person should think about things, it is not simply cut and dry. You have to have the spirit along with it. There are certain things you can get away with in rote mechanics, but ethics you cannot. It is not to say you are supposed toyou don't get up and check a box. When it comes to something like interpersonal conduct, if you don't understand the principals you can't understand what you are doing.
Even in a more positive direction, thiswhen you are studying the word of God you are becoming a more Godly person. You are coming to God and making the world a better place. It's very small. You start much closer to home. When you learn to generally care about other people, and make others happierone person at a timethat generosity is reflected in a lot of ways: in spirit, in generous giving, generosity of volunteerism. Generosity of time is also generosity.
It's a rationale for our existence, to become a more Godly people and bring the world along with us. That is our highest expression in the world.
A large part of our audience is composed of people who haveeven people who have been born into Jewish familieswho have never been exposed to this. They have never experienced the beauty of what Jewish learning really is. Part of our work is to have people have an experience of Jewish learning and grow from there.
When it comes to Jewish learning, the objective is not to be the greatest scholar on the planet. There is only one person who will be the greatest scholar on the planet. It is to be the greatest scholar you can be.
2. Peter Menkin: This writer notes there are opportunities the technical side of internet systems offers the student that your school offers: http://torahmedia.com/ . The site says,
TorahMedia has thousands of FREE Jewish mp3 audio downloads and a lending library of world class Jewish speakers. Find your favorite speakers, discover new ones and search for your topic on the world's most comprehensive Torah audio lending library available online.
Featuring such speakers as Rabbi Yissocher Frand, Rabbi Jonathan Rietti, Rabbi Paysach Krohn, Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis, Rabbi Dr. Akiva Tatz, Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski and many more!
You told me in a phone conversation, We have a very substantial mp3 library of our own. It is one of the most diverse sources on the internet. There are six pages of teachers who are involved with us. Torahmedia.com (is) where one can find collateral materialTorah audio. (Availability allows) use mp3 players and the iPod will play it, podcast compatible. Torahmedia has podcasts available. I call this cutting edge, and even, "cool." I am sure young people say it is, "cool."
How were you able to create all these integrated sites, technically, and who worked on the project that as www.torah.org began in 2005? Talk to our readers about your own background, both as Rabbi and as computer programmer? Do you have a degree in computer programming?
Rabbi Yaakov: Project Genesis has been around since 1993, and the domain name Torah.org came two years later. I do have a background in computer science. I went to Princeton, and one of my classmates was Jeff Bezos of Amazon.com. He was Princeton computer science student and had an idea for an online bookstore. Part way through Princeton, I made the decision to be observant of traditional Judaism and went to study that ofter college. After studying for several years, I wanted to do something to encourage Jewish learning on college campuses. The truth is I thought we were going to do live events on campus. I thought we would do things outside of Hillel to capturing students' attention. But then the Internet became the best way to reach large numbers of people. It was a confluence of circumstances, and people that encouraged me to use the Internet for Jewish learning, and lo and behold it took off.
Because my degree was in computers, I was the first programmer for our organization. We ran web servers, mailing list servers. I am less and less involved with that today. We have a team of people who work with us today, and the truth is today there is not as much programming.
There is a big project afoot to unify our websites. When we began in 1995, we did this all by hand, there was no software platform to work from. There was not as much user access. You couldn't rely on the average user to have a broadband Internet connection. Today all that has changed. Even news sites feature video on the home page. We do not divide as text from audio from video as we did ten years ago. We have to link to audio and video as we do with other web topics [today]. If there is web audio content about a holiday coming up, doesn't it make sense to link to that content?
We regard it as a tremendous opportunity. Anything that comes along in this way can be used to expand educational offerings. And here we're talking about a type of immediate outreach to people around the world that was never offered before. Obviously there are upsides and downsides to every technical advance. Here we are leveraging it to its best advantage.
3. Peter Menkin: In questions asked of one of your teachers, Rabbi Yitzchoch Adlerstein. One question asked of him I will now ask of you: Speak some to us about the goals of Jewish Religious Education, especially in light of the reach and effectiveness of internet education. Can you tell us what limitations you find in this system? and more, some of the general rules of purpose of your internet teaching?
Rabbi Yaakov: To address the limitations, the biggest limitation is the lack of personal contact. There is always an advantage to having a personal connection, and it is very difficult to make that happen over an internet connection. We are doing something in our unique way, to help people learn and grow and all the things we said earlier. We are enabling that because we use the internet. We inspire and help people to learn about Jewish learning wherever they might be. Even at McMurdo Air Force Base, in Antarctica. This was of course back in the early days, when scientific research stations did not have to have all the firewalls and protections that they do now. There was a Jewish researcher there who did a little Jewish learning by visiting our website.
We've had subscribers in Montana, in Kenya, Western Australia (the most educated Jew on campus. He was downloading material from our website for weekly study). We obviously have subscribers in New York, Baltimore and Los Angeles, Chicagoin Jewish communities where there is substantial Orthodox community and educated community.
Using the Internet provides exposure to this traditional Jewish teaching in this way. We don't know specific percentages of which age groups, but there definitely are a large number of college age subscribers. In general terms I would say, yes, we are succeeding in reaching college studints this way.
We try not to limit how people use the site it's very much user, student driven. It is always what people want to sign up for, what is of interest. We don't say, here's how to use it, here's how you ought not to use it. The material we are sending out, and the lectures, are all packaged by the teacher. We don't provide a rule set on how to read it or when to read it. When it's convenient for you, we want you to do a little Jewish learning.
4. Peter Menkin: This writer often wonders what the reason is that a religious man or woman engages in a given vocation. In a serious way, this question asks of clergy (you), what was and is your call, and why did you take on the work you took. In your case, religious educator?
Rabbi Yaakov: When I became religious in college, I realized there was not enough access for Jewish students in college. The large organizations like Hillel with their buildings and draw to local activities called for a certain level of identity before Jewish students would even go into the building. I realized there was a need for more. Given that Jewish outreach and education are imperatives for everyone, it seemed like I felt a new and unique contribution could be made.
I don't think that there was any moment of inspiration; it's more that I perceived a void and saw that I could make a contribution that could help. I felt that someone who had experience on college campus could perceive this. That said, a lot of my original perceptions and thoughts did not come to pass. The success came in an adjunct to our primary activities, and yet we became phenomenally successful in that area.
In the Jewish understanding of God and his laws, you have the Torah and detailed laws for most every act in life. You know what you are trying to do is glorifying the Torah and God's name. That is the guideline you need. You talk to outstanding rabbinic teachers and ask if this is a good thing to be doing.
My conception of what is on the right course is all well and good, but you have to consult with the leading rabbis, and learn what they think is true. Tremendously successfully endeavors are not always in God's path, but you see things that are not obvious success. The divine presence is not seen all the time. We may not see what we wish to see or don't.
5. Peter Menkin: The Jewish man or woman is engaged in education from a perspective of a religious and particularly Jewish kind, especially the Orthodox. Will you speak to us about this perspective, and take us to the matter of attitude in viewpoint. Further, I refer the reader to your interesting remark in a conversation we had, to wit, Sunday school is a different game. What we're doing is more adult oriented. Sunday school has a component that is obligatory. Parents want you to because you have to be Bar Mitzvah. It's all about the person's individual discovery. There may be a transformation of a person, inspired by the education they get online. Although some of (our) classes are focusing on inspiration, though some are dry recitations of facts.
Rabbi Yaakov: When one is involved with childhood education, parents, teachers and others decide what the students must [learn]. We make choices in our later years, like collegewe take electives. Of course we choose a major and areas of study. The same is true in religious education. Hebrew school is not mandated by the children, it is mandated by the parents. Individual discovery is for [adults]; people say I want to go to a Jewish website and choose such and such topic. One thing about the website: that we offer such a diverse array of topics of study, but we don't provide individual guidance, the way a leader of a congregation is expected to do. There are few individual relationships here, and it's not any sort of formal relationship.
You spoke about being a religious leader I didn't set myself up that way, or see myself that way. On the contrary, I am trying to enable others to teach. That is why you have such a large array of teachers on our site. The larger schools can set up their own websites, but we created a structure where someone who is a teacher, educated Jewishly, is enabled to teach via the Internet. I have leveraged my knowledge of computer science to aid the area of Jewish education. As I said before, I have a classmate who created Amazon.com. I use the same knowledge of computers to do something very different.
6. Peter Menkin: Let's talk some more about formation, which is in the religious sense a kind of spiritual and religious growth phenomenon, one that Christians say is a result of the Holy Spirit and Grace itself. What is the source of such formation and growth for the Jewish student? Is it Ruah?
Rabbi Yaakov: We do believe that every Jewish soul is born with that desire to grow towards God. We are all created in the image of God. Abraham was set apart as a seeker of God and divinity. We are just helping someone uncover that which is there. Even though people make all sorts of different contributions, and there are 70 faces of Torah. We would not say people are inspired to be that waywas it their nature to be drawn to things in a certain way and a certain nature? There may be a person who has a natural affinity for the shedding of blood. That person can be a murderer, or the kosher slaughterer of animals, or circumciser of baby boys in that ritual of Jewish faith.
The particular direction a person goes is often a part of that natural affinity, and using it in the right way.
7. Peter Menkin: Thank you for your generosity and long, complete answers in this interview. I am glad for the opportunity to talk with you and continue our acquaintance. Is there anything this writer failed to ask or omitted in this series of questions that you'd like to make at this time? Thank you.
Rabbi Yaakov: The Orthodox Jewish world has much to offer other Jews, and the world, and this is an opportunity to hear from them directly people can look in and see what we say. It is like hearing the lectures the rabbinic students are hearing from the rabbis. Everyone is finding out what is said, and some people find it very informative to see it firsthand.
It provides information for particular areas of ethics. The websites gives guides for holidays and things like that which are practical. Some is theoretical Jewish learning can be theoretical, but it can be very practical as well, with direct applicability to our lives. It may inspire people to do more and enrich their lives, but not all of it is practical or guidance of how to live. A lot of it is learning for learning's own sake.
Torah Lessons by Rabbi Yaakov Menken
by Rabbi Yaakov Menken
G-d's Message for All Humanity
"But flesh, when its soul is with its blood, you shall not eat it He who spills the blood of man, by man shall his blood be spilled, for in the Image of G-d did He create man." [Genesis 8:4,6]
As an Internet program, Project Genesis reaches out to Jews all over the world this week, we received a wonderful and heartfelt letter of thanks from a Jewish woman in Zimbabwe. Also, of course, a significant number of interested non-Jews join our program, curious about the Jewish religion, customs, and/or practices. We've even had a subscriber from the Vatican!
Most of the time, our messages about honesty, ethics, and kindness are appropriate to everyone. At other times, however, we talk about distinctly Jewish practices Shabbos, holiday observances (the Sukkah, Chanukah candles, the Pesach Seder), etc.
Parshas Noach is the best time to turn the tables. Most every non-Jew curious about Judaism will inquire what Judaism has to say about non-Jews it's only logical, and it's only appropriate that we address this question.
Unlike the other religions of the world, Judaism does not believe that everyone must become a Jew in order to approach G-d or earn a place in the World to Come. When King Solomon built the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, he asked of G-d that He hear the prayers of all who pray towards that Temple: "Also a gentile who is not of your people Israel, but will come from a distant land for Your Name's sake and will come and pray toward this Temple, may You hear in Heaven Your dwelling-place, and do according to all that that gentile calls out to You" [I Kings 8:41-43]
Judaism neither solicits converts, nor suggests that non-Jews must follow all the Jewish practices and laws. Quite to the contrary! Maimonides writes in the Laws of Kings 8:10:
"Moshe Rabbeinu (Rabbi Moses) did not give the Torah and the Commandments to anyone but Israel, as the verse says, 'The Inheritance of the Congregation of Jacob.' [It was also given] to anyone from the other nations who desires to convert but we do not force anyone who does not want [to accept them] to accept the Torah and the Commandments."
But even so, Jewish prayers call for the day when "all humanity will call upon Your Name they will all accept upon themselves the yoke of your Kingship." How is a non-Jew to come close to G-d, to do His will? What does it mean to "accept the yoke of His Kingship" if the Jewish Commandments do not apply?
The answer is found in G-d's statement to Noach, father of all humanity. As Noach leaves the Ark, G-d tells him that he may eat meat but not while the nefesh [soul] of the animal remains in its blood, meaning that a limb or blood taken from a living animal is prohibited. Murder is also forbidden, and Noach is told to set up courts to judge murder and other crimes.
All told, Judaism teaches that G-d gave seven laws (or more accurately, seven categories of legal obligations) which are incumbent upon all humanity:
1) Not to eat a limb or meat that was severed from a live animal
2) Not to curse the name of G-d
3) Not to steal or rob
4) Not to worship idols
5) Not to commit adultery or have other forbidden sexual relationships
6) Not to murder a fellow man
7) To establish courts of justice, to pronounce and mete out decisions for all mankind, and to ensure observance of the previous laws.
And with this, concludes Maimonides (8:11): Anyone who accepts these Seven Commandments, and is careful to do them, this person is one of the 'Pious of the Nations of the World' and has a share in the World to Come. This is provided that s/he accepts them and performs them because they are G-d's Command, part of His Torah, which our Rabbi Moses informed us were Commanded previously to the sons of Noach.
In our day, there are scattered non-Jewish congregations that have accepted upon themselves these "Seven Noachide Laws." There are organizations and web sites devoted to them, their needs and their studies. The best I've seen is www.hamayim.org [HaMayim is Hebrew for "The Water," explained on the "About Us" page.] For those interested, there is much to learn!
Good Shabbos, [and for those not called upon to celebrate the Shabbos, Have a Great Weekend!]
Shavuos was the occasion, over 3300 years ago, when our ancestors stood at Mt. Sinai to receive the Torah. Ever since then, Jews have used this holiday to reaffirm our commitment to receive and learn our Torah, the spiritual lifeblood of our faith.
Shavuos was also the occasion when I and my religious school classmates, not nearly so long ago, stood at the Bimah to be Confirmed a modern ceremony found in many congregations (although, let's be honest, this ceremony, the age group involved, and the name, are all borrowed from the surrounding culture). Our studies at an end, we graduated. Passover may be the holiday of liberation, but on Shavuos, we were free!
What gave us this message tragic, for the People of the Book that we were done learning? I believe the answer is straightforward: none of our parents were attending classes. There were no classes for us in our later high school years, either. Jewish learning was obviously an activity for children.
The ceremony itself gave that message. We Confirmands and our families constituted the majority of attendees, on the holiday celebrating our communal attachment to Torah. We celebrated receiving the Torah, and few cared enough to appear.
Even today, parents often send their children off to Hebrew school with no interest in the subjects. Why, then, do their children go? In many synagogues, children cannot enjoy a Bar or Bat Mitzvah without mandatory family membership and Hebrew school attendance for two, three, or even four years. And children, as we all know, have to have a Bar or Bat Mitzvah (if the parents don't think so, the grandparents' strong opinion must also be considered). So to many parents and children Hebrew school is a long ordeal, a necessary prerequisite for the party at the end.
The Bar Mitzvah has been turned on its head: instead of a rite of entry into a life of Jewish learning and the assumption of Jewish responsibility, it has become a rite of exit. How did the Rabbi get rid of the mice in the synagogue? He gave them Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, and they never came back!
We obviously need to reverse this trend. First and foremost, Jewish learning for adults must be as common as Hebrew school meaning, every concerned Jewish adult should participate on at least a weekly basis. [Obviously, I am preaching to the choir to some extent, because you are reading this. But do you go to live classes? Did you know that the LEAP engine on our web site now gives you an easy search engine for Torah classes near you?]
Second: parents must study with their children, if we want children to enjoy the experience of Jewish learning. Hebrew schools cannot (and do not) succeed when parental investment stops at the wallet. In many schools, parents already participate, and the impact is obvious. "I endured this, and now you must, too," is replaced with, "I do this, I enjoy this, and I hope you will too." How many surveys are needed to prove that this is vastly more productive?
Finally, I hesitate to say it, but Hebrew school should be reserved for families who actually want their children to attend. A Bar or Bat Mitzvah celebration is not Hebrew school graduation, but a Jewish birthright. At age 13 or 12 a young boy or girl must take responsibility ready or not. If the parents and children are both not interested in Hebrew school, then the experience often does more harm than good. I would rather meet the teenager who went into the ceremony with little preparation, and now wonders what it was that he or she did and wants to learn more, over the one who thinks he or she has "been there, done that."
Shavuos, of course, is an ideal time for adults to start or resume learning. It is the time when the spiritual forces of the original receipt of the Torah come down to us. And, on a much more pragmatic level, it is the time when children are leaving Hebrew schools for the summer, or for good. For their sake and our own, we, as adults, must demonstrate that we value Jewish learning. For 3300 years, the Jewish people survived by learning Torah in kingdom and in exile, in wealth and in poverty, in times of freedom and times of oppression. And whenever Jews abandoned Torah study, assimilation followed.
To those proud young men and women now celebrating their own Confirmations, I would say: please remember that this is not a graduation, an end, but a beginning. Until now, your synagogue and your parents have made decisions regarding your Jewish education, but now it's up to you. And it is your choice to attach yourself to Torah, to go to learn because you want to learn, which will truly confirm your place in the Jewish community, now and for generations to come.
A happy and meaningful Shavuos, and a Good Shabbos!
We find ourselves this week in the midst of the Ten Days of Repentance, the days from Rosh HaShana to Yom Kippur. An interesting idea ten days for self-examination, reflection, and (we hope) self-improvement. But do we understand "repentance?"
The world today almost laughs at "sin" and "repentance." Almost? Let me rephrase that: the world does laugh at the whole idea of "sin." Part of that is denial if I laugh at something, I don't have to take it seriously. Another part, however, comes from the non-Jewish conception of sin and repentance which, because of the society we live in, has become quite pervasive in Jewish minds.
Many who no longer go to church describe confession as "going on Sunday to confess what we did Friday, and plan to do again on Tuesday." I don't know if that's accurate; I'm Jewish. I only know that this could not be further from the Jewish idea of repentance.
So instead of these terms, let us use "transgression" and "return," words which correspond more closely to a Jewish understanding of these concepts. Indeed, while we may translate "Teshuva" as repentance, it comes from the infinitive LaShuv: to return.
We know certain things to be right, and others to be wrong, and we cross the line. We go where we should not have gone and in doing so, we move away from G-d. But in His great kindness, He leaves the door open for us to come back to Him, and restore our connection. That is the purpose of return to come back to G-d.
If so, is it not obvious that Teshuva must happen in our hearts, and not in our mouths? Maimonides, in his codification of Jewish Law, says this explicitely (Hil. Tshuva 2:3): "One who confesses with words, but has not decided in his heart to abandon [his transgressions], is like a person who goes to a ritual bath while holding something unclean in his hand: immersion in the bath will not help him until he throws the item away!"
Repentance is an activity of the heart a decision to change our behavior, and to abandon a path that has led us away from G-d instead of towards Him. And to make it easier for us, G-d gave us a certain time of year when He comes close to us, and invites us to go in the right direction. The Talmud in tractate Rosh HaShana says that the verse, "Seek out HaShem when He can be found, call upon Him when He is close" (Isaiah 55:6) refers to these Ten Days. Maimonides also says (2:6) that "Even though return and crying [over our errors] is always beautiful, during the ten days between Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur it is exceptionally so, and is accepted immediately" and he refers us again to that same verse.
It is as if G-d is right here in the neighborhood, and all we need to do is drop in! It is that easy for us to use this time for a rebirth, for making new beginnings in the right direction. Should we wake up in two weeks, feeling as if He left without us? Let's take advantage of this time of year, and come away from the season feeling closer to G-d.
Text Copyright 1995 Rabbi Yaakov Menken and Project Genesis, Inc.
The author is the Director of Project Genesis.
About the Author
Peter Menkin, an aspiring poet, lives in Mill Valley, CA USA where he writes poetry. He is an Oblate of Immaculate Heart Hermitage, Big Sur, CA and that means he is a Camaldoli Benedictine. He is 64 years of age as of 2010.