If you’ve got nothing to do for the next twelve consecutive days, and don’t need any sleep, starting tonight you can turn on FXX and watch all 552 Simpsons episodes ever made.
The Simpsons has been a television institution for two and a half decades, and is showing no signs of slowing down. Yet what’s most amazing is how effective it is for studying a whole host of subjects. There are books that use the Simpsons to teach things such as philosophy, psychology, mathematics, educational theory, science and religion.
Why is that? I think it’s because the Simpsons is not simply entertaining — its humor often acts as a vehicle for learning. The show is filled with references that are often arcane and obscure. Before I watched The Simpsons, for example, I had never heard of Rory Calhoun or knew what a tontine was. It inspired me to look into the philosophy of Pablo Neruda and the difference between history, legend and myth. And I’ve used it to teach about the everything from the American Jewish immigrant experience to the story of Job.
Even the show itself has remarked about how they intentionally make viewers work in order to understand the jokes. In an episode a few years ago that focused on the declining appeal of kid-show-host Krusty the Klown, one character remarked that “[t]oday’s kids are uncomfortable with a clown whose every reference they have to look up on Wikipedia.”
Yet in fact, being challenged helps us learn. There’s some significant research that in fact, when something is harder to learn, we remember it better. As Harvard Professor James Lang wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “when students…have to put in more work in processing the material, it may sink in more deeply.”
That’s an important message for the Jewish community, because Judaism requires work. Prayers are in a different language. The Torah is complex and can be hard to understand. Some of the rituals seem antiquated and have very specific steps.
Yet the flip side is that the more Hebrew we know, the more we get out of services. The more text study we engage in, the more rewarding we find Torah. The more we observe rituals, the more meaning they give to our lives. In other words, the more we put ourselves into the learning process, the more we get out of it.
So what do we do? As Professor Lang notes, “[t]he challenge that we face…is to create what psychologists call ‘desirable difficulties’: enough [challenges] to promote deeper learning, and not so much that we reduce the motivation of our students.”
That’s a lesson The Simpsons has learned, and is the key to making Judaism engaging. We need to make sure that Judaism is fun and enjoyable. At the same time, we need to make sure that people have to invest themselves in their Judaism.
If we can do that, if we can create the right “desire difficulties,” then we’ll be creating a new generation of dedicated, engaged, and committed Jews—and will outlast even the longest-running sitcom in history.
(This post was written for My Jewish Learning’s Rabbis Without Borders blog on August 21, 2014)