Starting with Art: An Approach to Revitalize Jewish Study

Ilana Benson, Gabriel Goldstein

Someone has covered a wooden gallery floor at the Yeshiva University Museum (YUM) with plastic sheeting and a long roll of canvas. A group of Jewish day school teachers, dressed in aprons and shoe covers, fidget on the side before grabbing brushes and paint cans. They are instructed to do whatever they feel with the paint and the canvas—pour, splatter, drizzle—to create a final product that reflects their movements. The allusion to Jackson Pollock is not subtle, nor is it intended to be. The teachers will, in fact, take a trip to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art to view Pollock’s Autumn Rhythm. What is less predictable, however, is the connection between painting and the teachers’ next activity—text study of 2 Samuel chapter 6: David’s dancing with the Ark and Michal’s rebuke.

For the past four years, YUM has incubated a new initiative, entitled “Re-Imagining Jewish Education through Art,” to deepen and enhance the learning of traditional Hebrew texts. The objective is to create sustainable teams of teachers committed to fostering students’ imaginative capacities to appreciate the aesthetic value of these texts. The program is modeled on the work of Lincoln Center Education (LCE).

A group of ninth-grade students from SAR High School in the Bronx begins by creating original two- and three-dimensional artwork from small wooden shapes. They share their work in a classroom gallery and reflect on their own creations and the creations of their peers. After engaging in the creative process, coupled with experiencing the freedom to express original insights about their own art in a student gallery, the students then respond to a painting by Tobi Kahn and to a sculpture by David Palumbo. The workshop culminates in a “Text as Art” session that approached the Ashrei prayer as artwork. Students select five English words from a pile on a classroom table and incorporate them into a poem about coming home. After sharing their original poems, the students learn that all the words had been translated from the original Ashrei prayer. The final lesson of the day is a consideration of the Jewish prayer as an art form, much like the museum paintings and sculptures.

LCE utilizes ten “capacities for imaginative thinking,” which include noticing deeply, embodying, posing questions, and living with ambiguity. Re-Imagining uses these same capacities to enrich learning of traditional Jewish texts, encouraging appreciation of their beauty and aesthetic character. At the same time, it encourages the use of textual approaches—careful reading and analysis, reverence and spiritual value, historical context and awareness—to develop and deepen an appreciation of art.


The approach “begins with each individual’s innate ability to respond to works of art—processes that can heighten perception, ignite out-of-the-box thinking, and challenge preconceived notions” (LCE). This methodology is based on the writings of the educational philosopher Maxine Greene, who stated, “People who know the joy and strain of working with a medium are in a position to respond to the work of a professional artist in that medium.” For this reason, participants in the teachers’ activity enacted Pollock’s method before entering a museum to engage with his completed work of art.

The second, and arguably more challenging, part of the Re-Imagining process is translating these same experiential lessons to the realm of text study. The teacher must be creative in devising an activity that allows the students to enter into the “medium” of the text topic. In a tenth grade classroom, a Re-Imagining lead educator instructs students to each assume a pose that one might observe during tefillah in a synagogue. It’s easy to imagine the scene—the person who likes to lean against the wall, the one who sways back and forth, the one who rests head on hand. This activity was an introduction to the study of a Talmud text about how to attain the proper kavvanah (concentration) during prayer. As in the Pollock lesson described above, the experience was enacted before engaging with the “work of art”—in this case, Jewish text.

Another lead educator in the program devised an introductory lesson for the study of a biblical Psalm using a ubiquitous medium of the 21st century—the cellphone. Students were asked to compose an urgent text message in response to being suddenly “unfriended” by their closest friend. The students’ terse words expressed every emotion from anger to love, frustration to resignation. Only then did they study the opening words of Psalm 13: “How long, O Lord, will You ignore me forever? How long will You hide Your face from me?” The teacher explains: “In this technique, we learn about the art piece by initially working with the medium itself. By deeply noticing our own responses to this process, we begin to enter the mind of both the artist and the art itself, always through our own prism. This allows for what I term a ‘back door entry’ into each work, one that deepens and broadens our understanding of both ourselves and others around us, developing, deepening and sharpening so many of our skills in the process.”

Unlike other art/text programs where students turn to artistic expression as an outcome or response to reflective text study, in this program they engage with art first and the art experience is then intertwined with the careful appreciation and intensive experience of traditional in-depth text study. Teachers have discovered that their students’ capacities for creating and observing art transfer exquisitely to the study of biblical and rabbinic texts.

This method has enabled elementary school students at Beit Rabban Day School in Manhattan to understand and verbalize complex and abstract notions. In a second-grade Chumash class, students are tasked with creating a portfolio of works around the days of creation. The Re-Imagining methodology has raised the level of discourse in the classroom by giving students tools to understand how ideas and abstract concepts are shown in static pieces of art. For instance, in teaching the symbolism of light and darkness, works by Gentileschi and Rembrandt have shown students how the abstract is made concrete. Among preadolescent students, for whom the level of cognitive abstraction is limited, and for whom the vocabulary and wherewithal to speak about these topics is still at a nascent phase, this form of pedagogy offers critical developmental support.


The students’ engagement with art opens up their capacity for textual interpretation. In a course on English literature at Torah Academy of Bergen County, students examined the use of color and the repetition of motifs in art, with an emphasis on what is seen and what remains unseen, as a lead-up to the study of the theme of blindness in Sophocles’ Oedipus the King. Then they explored this theme in the biblical stories of Jacob and of Balaam with Judaic studies teachers. Students created independent projects combining text and image, including a digital animation comparing hubris and blindness to threats and weakness, as seen in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and the Balak-Balaam narrative. In a class studying the book of Jeremiah at Ramaz High School, the examination of an artwork from various angles trains the students to do the same with text. They remember the actual text better when the lesson is accompanied by an immersive creative activity.

When participating in lessons inspired by the Re-Imagining teaching and learning approach, students of all ages and skill levels feel energized and intrigued by visual art, Bible and rabbinic texts. They are open to new ways of thinking and feel validated as they look at things differently. They experience beauty in their own creative process and in the works of art they experience and consider, both visual artworks in museums and the rich heritage of traditional text study. They remember the texts and content better because they are engaged in creative work and thought. All students can be given a role to play. Re-Imagining trains teachers to inspire students to experience beauty and to think creatively and carefully. Students are then inspired by a process of careful consideration, experimentation, and discovery of aesthetic power.

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HaYidion Art and Aesthetics Summer 2016
Art and Aesthetics
Summer 2016