Image: A class at Temple Sinai, in Oakland, CA. Photo by Linda Burnett.
For the beginner, the bookstore and the Internet offer an unlimited array of information about Judaism. I remember when I began my own Jewish journey, I was tempted by every interesting-looking book I saw. The Internet was only in its infancy, but I’d have read every website I could find.
There are several problems with this approach:
- There’s a lot of misinformation out there. Not every book is well written, and the Internet is the Wild West. Just because someone calls themself “Rabbi” doesn’t mean they have a degree from a reputable rabbinical school, or ordination from a recognized group of Jews.
- There are many valid approaches to Jewish tradition. Even good books and websites will appear to contradict each other, because there are many different ways to be Jewish.
- “Judaism” is an enormous topic. Even the greatest scholars cannot master it all. For the beginner, it’s a little like trying to drink the ocean.
- Some topics aren’t beginner topics. If you haven’t learned some basic Torah (which is different from Christian Bible,) meaningful study of Talmud or Kabbalah is only going to be frustrating.
- The upsurge of interest in Judaism has spawned a vast army of people interested in making a profit from beginners. Be sure of someone’s credentials before you part with any money.
- Even good books or websites can mislead or be misunderstood. A teacher or a community of learners can help process information and avoid misunderstandings.
So where is the right place to begin?
Here are some choices for beginners, in the order I recommend them for people who think they might be interested in conversion:
- Take a class. You can find classes by calling a synagogue. If you can’t find a synagogue, see if a local college has a class. Some beginner classes are called Taste of Judaism, some are called Introduction to Judaism, some are called Basic Judaism. My own class is called Introduction to the Jewish Experience. Almost every synagogue will have a Torah Study group, and if you attend regularly and listen, you can learn a lot not only about Torah but about Jews. You are not committing to anything by taking a class.
- Find a synagogue, and make an appointment to talk to the rabbi. Be honest about why you are interested (you want to learn about Judaism out of curiosity, or you are thinking of conversion, etc.) Random rabbis on the internet are NOT the same thing – a rabbi who serves a congregation has been vetted by someone. For tips in finding a rabbi, read 7 Tips for Finding Your Rabbi. Again, there is no commitment implied in simply making an appointment to talk.
- Read, but pick your books and websites carefully. A number of sources offer good lists of books. There’s an excellent list at Judaism 101. You can see my own list at Good Books for Basic Judaism.I also recommend websites at Learn About Judaism Online. The Reform Judaism website offers its own list of books. Rabbi Josh Yuter, a Modern Orthodox rabbi offers a great list for those interested in Orthodox Judaism. I went to the local Jewish book store (back before Amazon took over the world) and the owner of the bookstore recommended reading to me. If you have a local Jewish bookstore, you are fortunate indeed.
Ultimately, every Jew needs a rabbi or teacher, and that is true for people curious about Judaism, too. Books can’t help you refine your questions, or point you to a resource that is particularly good for the individual you are. Of the choices above, (1) and (2) are by far the best – (3) is a poor substitute for a real live teacher.
Some of our ancient sources are quite firm about the value of a teacher:
Joshua the son of Perachia would say: “Get yourself a rabbi, acquire for yourself a friend, and give every person the benefit of the doubt.” – Pirkei Avot 6:1
Whatever route you choose, I wish you a joyful Jewish journey!