by Ziva Hassenfeld and Jonah Hassenfeld

Rose McGowan and Stephen Colbert

Stephen Colbert and guest Rose McGowan

It’s not every night that Stephen Colbert talks Tanakh. Last week, in a somewhat unusual interview, actress and activist Rose McGowan brought up the biblical story of Jonah to explain her distaste for organized religion.

“There was a dude in a whale’s stomach that talked for three days or so. Then he got spit out because of Jesus. Am I following that correctly?”

“You… are not,” replied Colbert.

“I’m not?” McGowan seemed perplexed.

Colbert fills in some details of the story, but McGowan was already moving on: “It eventually gets to Jesus, right?” “Eventually, everything goes to Jesus,” he agreed.

As hilarious as this exchange was, there’s something worth lingering on here. McGowan exemplifies one of the main ways religious education can go wrong. Teachers, sometimes with the best intentions, can come to see themselves as the last line of defense against cultural decline. As one Jewish studies teacher told us, “My students go out to the world, and I never see them again. There’s a lot of pressure being the primary conduit of Jewish tradition. I have to teach them basic Jewish knowledge.”

It’s easy to empathize with this perspective. This teacher has accepted a heavy responsibility. His feeling of duty pushes him to use his time teaching Jewish texts to transmit as much of his understanding of traditional Jewish culture as he can. The more time he spends helping students learn to make sense of the text independently, the less time he has to establish what he sees as a baseline cultural literacy.

But when teachers reduce Jewish studies to this kind of transmission, they back students into a corner. Lacking the tools to make sense of the text on their own, students must either accept what their teacher tells them or reject it wholesale. McGowan, not particularly familiar with the story of Jonah, nor the long tradition of Christian exegesis that casts Jonah as a prefigurement of Jesus, chooses the latter. She brings it up, but only to mock it. For her, biblical stories serve to illustrate the absurdity of religious life.

When we teach students to ask questions of the text, notice details, name ambiguities, compare and contrast different versions of the same story, and monitor their own reactions to a text, we offer them an escape from the binary of wholesale rejection or reaffirmation. We make clear that the tradition is not a static monolith that must be accepted blindly. Instead, we offer them a chance to join a living conversation that has lasted for millennia.

As we set priorities for Jewish education, let’s not forget the most important resource of Jewish culture: the ability to read texts closely and make sense of them, and through them, the world in which we live. We may bemoan the fact that students might graduate from years of day school without knowing certain things. If all they have is a static body of knowledge they can neither understand nor apply, they won’t have learned very much at all. But if they learn to “read” Jewish texts, then should they end up on Colbert talking Torah, they’ll feel comfortable pulling out their Tanakh and looking at the text in an impromptu hevrutah.

Ziva Hassenfeld is a post-doctoral fellow at the Mandel Center. Jonah Hassenfeld is the assistant director of teaching and learning at Gann Academy in Waltham, MA.

Photo: Scott Kowalchyk/CBS ©2018 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved.