Jewish Literacy Project

Beginning in the 1980s, the concept of “Jewish literacy” began to emerge as a desired outcome for Jewish education. Charitably, “Jewish literacy” was a new name for an old idea about the importance of knowledge of Jewish texts and practices. Somewhat less charitably, the increased use of “Jewish literacy” represents an uncritical acceptance of a set of assumptions—assumptions both about what kinds of knowledge matter (knowledge of information, especially the kind that lives in books) and also about the cultural condition of American Jews (i.e., their purported ignorance or “illiteracy"). These assumptions are important because they end up influencing curricula and pedagogy in a broad range of Jewish educational institutions.

But what if these assumptions are wrong? What if there are better ways to think about “Jewish literacy,” or better ways to think about the desired outcomes of Jewish education altogether? This project, led by MCSJE Director Jon A. Levisohn, started with some early work published in 2016. He continued this work as a Fellow of Applied Research Collective for American Jewry at NYU in 2018 and 2019, and then as a Fellow of the Herbert D. Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania in 2020.

Publications from this project include the following:

Current writing for this project includes two draft articles, one that addresses what we actually know (and more importantly do not know) about the condition of American Jewish literacy and a second that argues that our contemporary discourse on American Jewish illiteracy can be understood by examining and critiquing three precedents—Leon Wieseltier in 2009, Joseph Telushkin in 1991, and Harold Himmelfarb in 1975.