Shutim and Student Engagement

High School

In our limmudei kodesh curriculum, we know that our time is limited and we have so much to do. We endeavor to teach our students the basics of Tanakh, Halakhah and Hashkafah, Talmud skills, not to mention the joy of being Jewish and the serene purity of sincere prayer. It’s no wonder that the robust literature of she’eilot uteshuvot (abbreviated as shutim, also called responsa), the question-and-answer format of halakhic decisions handed down for centuries, just doesn’t fit on our overstuffed buffet plate of a curriculum. Nevertheless, in the past few years, I have come to realize that including this type of literature is a key ingredient in increasing student engagement and making Torah come alive.

How do you teach a love of Torah study? What I have seen is that when we demonstrate a love and enthusiasm for learning, when we’re excited about a vort or a chiddush, or a fascinating nafka mina or a great chakira, then that enthusiasm spread out to our talmidim. That’s why I haven’t shied away from teaching halakhic applications even in our community school—because I think it’s geshmak (enjoyable)! I love being able to teach the talmidim the different ways our great scholars looked at issues. I love having them see that their thinking is lust like what Rav Moshe said or that their question is just what Chacham Ovadia Yosef asked. It feels alive and real.

In our 12th grade Talmud class, I created a “Halakhic Life on Campus” curriculum that would help the students prepare, at least intellectually, for the next stage in education. The course was crafted to be a series of she’eilot, halakhic questions, on topics such as interfaith dialogue, yichud, keeping kosher in non-kosher restaurants, and Amira l’akum. Each unit has a story I crafted to raise halakhic issues. We then study relevant gemarras, Rishonim, and finally shutim, halakhic discussions of this issue at hand. The students write their own teshuvot as the assessment.

This system has produced greater levels of student engagement and a sense of urgency than any other class I have taught. Students feel like they have to learn this material as preparation for college. And they become masters of trying to see where Rav Moshe Shternbach is really just applying the Tosafot and where the sociological realities of today might have pushed Rav Moshe to answer differently. They become creators of Torah, not just observers.

What I love about this style of learning is that it ensures that we push the class all the way to the top to Bloom’s Taxonomy. Once you’re dealing with response, you are necessarily in the domain of analysis, synthesis and application. The attention placed on vocabulary and the syntax often dulls our students’ enthusiasm for Talmud. That’s not the exciting part of learning; that’s the stuff you have to know to get to learning. But if we don’t make time for higher-level talmudic engagement, then we have failed to even give our proto-scholars a glimpse of the mountain top.

Ritual law is not the only place where this style of learning can have an impact. Rav Moshe Feinstein (Igros Moshe, Yoreh Deah, vol. 2, essay 103) and Rav Moshe Shternbach (Teshuvos V’Hanhagos, vol. 1, essay 839) both deal with the parameters of “telling” on a friend. Certainly the issue is a halakhic one, but the students don’t experience the question as theoretical. Both these scholars are discussing when it’s ok for a teacher to force his student to snitch on a friend. Give students a true to life (if fictional) scenario to grapple with first; then they will be especially invested in seeing how our scholarship has struggled with this and what considerations are most important to consider in the Halakhah.

It feels important to note that I am not a bibliophile, deeply knowledgeable in 1000 years of responsa from all across the globe. When I need a teshuvah, I crowdsource for it. I ask a pool of scholars I know. I Google the halakhos and look for footnotes that can lead me to great teshuvot. I use modern halakhic compendiums and check the teshuvot that they reference. Believe me, this is the type of material any Talmud teacher in a day school has access too.

I have become a believer in the idea that knowledge does not make people change their behavior, only feelings do that. If we want our talmidim to choose to study Torah, then we can’t just give them knowledge of Torah, we have to give them the feeling of Torah. We have to make it both relevant and pleasurable. Using shutim to help frame our learning has been a great help in moving forward in that domain.

Written by Rabbi Mordechai Soskil, Director of Judaic Studies at Beth Tfiloh Dahan High School in Baltimore, MD.