Ziva Hassenfeld, PhD, is the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Assistant Professor of Jewish Education at Brandeis University 

The Second Conversation: Tanakh Students’ Reflections on the Rules of Interpretation

Communities rely on their education systems to induct students into their literacy practices; they want children to read texts in certain ways and hope their schools will teach them to do so. This includes decoding skills as well as stances towards texts, such as a community’s understanding of a text’s authoritative status and openness to interpretation. One challenge in Jewish day schools is that the students in any particular classroom may represent a diversity of communities outside the classroom.

This tension makes Tanakh classrooms in American Jewish schools a particularly complicated space. How do teachers in these classrooms negotiate among the literacy practices they want to teach, the practices they are expected to teach, and the ways in which their students want to read? The answer (insofar as there is “one” answer) is that every classroom is a new interpretive community that students must be enlisted into. A teacher’s responsibility is to clearly articulate the interpretive rules for the classroom (what I call the “first conversation” that is, the textual conversation a teacher is hoping happens within her boundaries of interpretive expectations) while acknowledging that those rules may differ from other spaces and classrooms—and then making room for students to reflect on different interpretive rules they use elsewhere, outside of the classroom (what I call the “second conversation”).

What is “Wickedness?”

I want to bring this answer to life with a vignette from a K-1 classroom I taught in as part of a teacher research project. I focused my teaching and research on the question of how to establish a literacy practice in a Tanakh classroom. This vignette shows what it looks like to allow the second conversation. We were studying the flood story and discussing the following biblical verse:

“God said to Noah, “ I have decided to put an end to all flesh, for the earth is full of wickedness because of them: I am about to destroy them with the earth.” (Genesis 6:13)

As we read the verse, I asked the students a question: “What does the Torah mean when it says the 'earth is full of wickedness?' What exactly was happening in the world?” Two students, Dani and Miriam, offered their ideas. Their discussion illustrates the many methods of interpretation the students used in my classroom. 

Dani: Noah was a good man and Noah walked with God, but the earth was “full of wickedness.” So basically that means that there was all these bad people and they were trying to kill each other and everything. Like a wicked witch means that the witch was mean. The earth was like that. It was full of bad people and there were armies and there was like violence and it was loud. That’s what it means.

Ziva: And what were the people doing?

Dani: They were doing bad stuff like trying to kill each other and having armies. 

Ziva: What do you think Miriam? Do you think that the world was full of violence?

Miriam: They’re fighting with each other and they are pinching.

Dani: Yeah! That’s what I mean, like all those kinds of bad stuff and hurting each other and like saying mean things.

Miriam: And then when somebody is on their chair with his bother, he pushes the chair down and then he pushes him off the bed and he’s really bad.

Dani: Miriam?

Miriam: What?

Dani: I think you are ripping something off your own life. Does that happen to you?

Miriam: Um, I sometimes do it to my sister.

Dani: Okay, I get it, you are ripping it out of your own life.

Ziva: What do you guys think? Is that a good way to make sense of a text?

Miriam: I do not know.

Dani: I do not think so. 

The question up for discussion was the meaning of the phrase, “The earth is full of wickedness.” What does it mean for the earth to be wicked and full of violence? What sort of wickedness? What sort of violence? In answering this question, Miriam and Dani became engaged in a conversation over what resources to bring to the text to make sense of it. Dani believed “wicked” in this context meant that people were “trying to kill each other and having armies.” Miriam believed they were “fighting” and “pinching” and doing other bad things like pushing their brothers “off the chair.” As Dani then points out, Miriam “ripped off” examples from her own life to define what violence might mean. Miriam admitted that she was bringing in her own life experience of an instance in which she did something “bad” to serve as an example of what wickedness is (when you pinch or push your siblings). 

At that point I stepped in to ask whether this was a good way to make sense of the text. Miriam’s reaction was to throw up her hands, at least implicitly disavowing her previous stance of leaning into her lived experience to understand the ancient text. Dani’s interpretive inclination was stronger: she outright rejected Miriam’s inclination to rely on personal experience when interpreting. Was Dani’s skepticism valid? Should Miriam have defended her position?

Philosophical Questioning 

This was a moment of negotiation for Miriam and Dani, exemplifying the kind of dialogue that regularly occurred between students in my classroom. Bringing outside models of interpretation into the classroom and using them alongside those modeled by me, my students debated and experimented with the rules for understanding the text. 

Implicit in Miriam and Dani’s conversation are major questions of knowledge and understanding: When is drawing on life experience helpful for explicating the text and when is it limiting? Is it a matter of subject matter? The text itself? Who is doing the connecting? The kind of connection made? And hovering over those questions is the very real issue of who gets to say. While I certainly had my own views on the matter, by asking the question I was implicitly granting them room to utilize different sources of authority than what I had been providing.

The pedagogical challenge in these instances for me was to avoid putting my thumb on the scale in favor of one interpretation or the other. The right move was to just help my students enter the “second conversation”—the conversation that progresses beyond the meaning of the text to a discussion of how best to evaluate one another’s interpretations.

Educating for the Second Conversation 

As teachers, we need to both clearly state the interpretive rules at work in our classroom (the first conversation) and then make space for students to place our interpretive rules in conversation with other rules they follow in other interpretive contexts (the second conversation). Miriam and Dani were having that second conversation without my help, and on this occasion I had the good instinct to allow it. I only wish I had always created that space in all of my classrooms.

I’ll conclude with three concrete suggestions for Jewish studies teachers:

  1. Spend time getting to know your students’ full literate identities: who is in their lives, whom do they read texts with, what multimodal literacies (literacies that focus on print texts but also literacies beyond the page) do they engage in outside of the classroom, etc.
  2. Prioritize your role as facilitator. Decide which interpretive rules and boundaries you want for your classroom (name them explicitly for yourself). For example, do you want students to root interpretations in the words of the page or is it okay for them to draw solely from their lived experiences? Then be consistent in clarifying and articulating them to your students in a way that all of your students will understand. Remind your students that the interpretive rules you’ve set for your classroom community may be different than how they read the same text in other spaces outside your classroom.
  3. Be ready for the second conversation as different interpretive rules emerge in classroom conversation (despite your attempt to define the rules). Invite those conversations to happen, helping students recognize that interpretation involves both articulating their reading of a passage as well as explaining how they came up with it.