Jewish Sources as a Guide to Curriculum and Pedagogy
It is told of the Kotzker Rebbe that he was once asked by one of his students, “Where is God?” He answered, “Wherever we let him in.” Similarly, if we ask, “Where is our Judaism expressed?” We can answer, “Wherever we let it in.”
Jewish sources contain instructions for life. When teachers connect any subject, Jewish or secular, to Jewish culture, they highlight and expand the extent to which Judaism is a “Torah for life,” even in the twenty-first century. Jewish culture is an essential part of every aspect of life; its relevance is not limited to specifically Jewish subjects.
Several years ago, I facilitated a learning group on issues related to day-to-day life. After choosing a topic I asked two questions:
1. What does Jewish culture have to say about this topic? The search process was fascinating, leading to the discovery of a variety of sources that revealed widely differing perspectives.
2. How can the texts be woven together in a way that brings to life practical insights? This question was more difficult. It accompanied me wherever I went, beyond the hours of preparation in front of books and the computer. I found myself preoccupied with it while shopping, in the doctor’s waiting room, in the playground.
And then, for the first time, I understood that the verse “Thou shalt meditate therein day and night” had an additional layer of meaning. For me, having studied as a young girl in religious schools, the familiar verse had one (rather narrow) meaning, transmitted by my teachers: one should sit and study Torah all day. We learned this from the verse in Joshua (1:8): “Let not this Book of the Teaching cease from your lips, but recite it day and night, so that you may observe faithfully all that is written in it. Only then will you prosper in your undertakings and only then will you be successful.”
We can see Jewish literature, in its manifold forms, as a source of inspiration and discussion not just for the classic Jewish studies curriculum but also in a wide range of areas. Jewish sources can inform lessons related to non-Jewish subjects, such as social studies, literature, sociology, history, science and more. They encourage learning and curiosity, inspire appreciation, supply insights about life and about the challenges that our students face in their lives in general, and with educational challenges in particular.
The difficulty that faces us in this task is that when we open the Jewish classics, the Bible, Mishnah and Talmud, we find that many of the issues that occupy us today are not systematically discussed. There is no Jewish procedure for writing a lesson plan or for classroom management. Even if stories appear in the Talmud about teachers and contexts of learning, they offer no method for relating to our diverse students.
From Judaism’s vast literature, we need to gather the texts that will guide us in our work. We will become increasingly proficient in this task to the extent that we deepen our learning and turn to Jewish sources in search of answers. For the most part, the sources we find will not deal directly with a topic. We will have to learn and understand the source as it appears in its original context, then study the ways it has been interpreted, and finally to charge it with a new interpretation relevant to our lives, one that can help us meet the many and varied challenges of teaching and learning. Here are a few examples that I have drawn up.
ENCOURAGING LEARNING AND CURIOSITY
Said Rabbi: A man can learn [well] only that part of the Torah that is in the place of his heart’s desire, for it is said (Psalms 1:2), “Rather, the teaching of the Lord is his delight” (Avoda Zara 19a).
Rashi comments, “Only that part of the Torah that is in the place of his heart’s desire—his teacher should only teach him a tractate that he [the student] asks for, because if he teaches him a different tractate he will not progress according to the stages of his desire.” Rashi explains that there is no point in teaching a student a tractate that he has not asked to learn, because his heart will attend to his own private desires.
What this means for us is that if we succeed in adopting the idea of the “place of his heart’s desire,” and in applying it wherever we can, while preparing a lesson and during the lesson itself, we will enable our students to be “in the place of their heart’s desire,” thereby encouraging their curiosity and learning.
Learning that starts from the student’s natural curiosity is good for both the student and teacher. Students who study out of curiosity will be glad to expand their knowledge and will internalize it naturally. The teacher will enjoy enthusiastic, participating and attentive students. While it is true that most of the topics of study are chosen for us, if we nonetheless create mechanisms for choice within those topics, within each lesson—choice from among the sources/exercises we learn, or in what homework to do—we will find that the students’ enthusiasm and curiosity tend to increase. When we create situations in which students can choose, and teachers respond to their choices, we preserve and strengthen the natural curiosity for learning, or as Rashi notes, the desire for learning in general.
The word “place” can also be interpreted as an actual seat in which one sits. Most classrooms in Israel have fixed seating, with the teacher sometimes changing seating arrangements in accordance with the needs of the class. It would be interesting to teach this principle to children and then allow them to choose where they want to sit for the lesson. Students can then reflect upon the relationship between the interpretation and the classroom experiment.
Of course it is possible to interpret the words “place of his heart’s desire” in additional ways: learning through songs that the children listen to, from topics that occupy them (even if they are related to passing fads), or from direct conversations with them about what interests them.
THE ADVANTAGES OF NOT KNOWING
“Rabbi Isaac also said: A blessing is found only in what is hidden from the eye, for it is written, “The Lord shall command the blessing upon thee in thy hidden things.” The School of Rabbi Ishmael taught: A blessing comes only to that over which the eye has no power… Our rabbis taught: When one goes to measure [the corn in] his granary, he should pray, ‘May it be Thy will, O Lord our God, to send a blessing upon the work of our hands.’ Having started to measure, he prays, ‘Blessed is He who sendeth a blessing on this pile.’ But if he measured and then prayed, it is a vain prayer, because a blessing is not found in that which is [already] weighed, measured or counted, but only in that which is hidden from the eye” (Bava Metzia 42b).
Rabbi Isaac brings support for his statement from the verse “The Lord will ordain blessings for you upon your granaries and upon all your undertakings: He will bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you” (Deuteronomy 28:8; “granaries” is understood as “hidden things”). The verse relates to God’s blessing as relating specifically to produce in the barn. In other words, the produce in the barn that is hidden from the eyes of the public is the blessed produce, as Rabbi Ishmael goes on to explain: “A blessing comes only to that over which the eye has no power.” The sages explain that one who measures his produce and then prays for it is making a vain prayer because he is referring to something that has been measured, and that which is measured is visible and therefore cannot be blessed.
Our sages’ determination has significance for us. In our society today, there are quite a few situations in which we seek quick and absolute answers to issues that disturb us. In an age of smartphones, Google and fast food, we need everything we want to be here and now. Not infrequently, it is difficult for us to bear ambiguity, to wait for answers to emerge, to spend several days with an unresolved issue. Ambiguity is generally perceived as a problem that needs to be solved, and quickly.
I suggest that we see a blessing in all those ambiguous things that are “hidden from the eye,” “over which the eye has no power”—those things that cannot be measured. That which is hidden from the eye requires us to think again, to strive for an answer, to engage in a process of inquiry that can develop in new and surprising directions. This is in contrast to those things for which we already know the answer, where there is no movement, where we cast no doubt, and where in any case there can be nothing new and no blessing. There is something frozen and uncreative in knowing something, in knowing the answer, in having total clarity.
Ambiguity, in contrast, contains the potential for many directions for renewal and blessing. For example, students who think they know the material will rarely bother to open a book, whereas a student who faces ambiguity and nonetheless does not despair will open the book and learn, and will find success.
From a pedagogical perspective, when we utilize complex and sophisticated questions, puzzles, riddles or surprising challenges in processes of learning and inquiry, we are artificially creating an experience of “hidden from the eye” to motivate inquiry and learning.
The experience of learning and development as matters that are “hidden from the eye,” and understanding ambiguity as a source of blessing, can encourage and comfort those who sense despair or weakness in the face of an issue they do not understand, or an unresolved issue (and don’t we all feel this sometimes, in school or in other areas of life?).
Internalization of the understanding that there is blessing in frustrating situations, and that in the future we will have greater clarity, can be helpful in such trying times.
The fact that there is no blessing in what is measured can also be applied to student evaluation. Alternative evaluation, like a verbal-formative comment, from which a student can learn his strong points as well as the challenges that he faces, leaves room for the student’s “hidden from the eye.” In this way we can show students that they can reach their own hidden resources, from which they will see great blessing.
IMPORTANT STEPS ON THE WAY TO THE GOAL
“Akavia the son of Mahalalel would say: Reflect upon three things and you will not come to the hands of transgression. Know from where you came, where you are going, and before whom you are destined to give a judgment and accounting. From where you came—from a putrid drop; where you are going—to a place of dust, maggots and worms; and before whom you are destined to give a judgment and accounting—before the supreme King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He” (Pirkei Avot 3:1).
Professor Zev Safrai showed that Akavia’s saying included only the words in bold; the second part of the Mishnah became the accepted commentary, concluding with an accounting that will take place before the Creator of the world. Akavia’s original utterance can be applied to many situations in our lives. It can be explained in the following way:
"Reflect upon three things and you will not come to the hands of transgression": If you want to avoid missing the goal, you must pay attention to three things:
From where you came: What is your point of departure? Where do you stand now (including beliefs, thoughts, basic assumptions) in relation to the goal that you want to achieve?
"Where are you going": What exactly is the goal? Not infrequently we think the goal is clear to us, but a deeper examination can bring light to a totally different destination.
"Before whom you are destined to give a judgment and accounting": To whom will you need to give explanations about what happened between your point of departure and your destination?
We can ask students to analyze various life situations of their choice—such as studying for a test, doing homework, or fighting with a friend—while inquiring into each separate stage. In this way, the Mishnah can provide the basis for important lessons about how planning and drawing conclusions can be critical in achieving goals that we really desire.
WHERE IS OUR JUDAISM EXPRESSED? WHEREVER WE LET IT IN.
In this way, Jewish principles can be integrated into whatever subject we teach. Many more such principles can be found that can be integrated into classroom life, and all teachers can choose principles upon which they wish to focus.
In order that the principles will indeed become part of our own and our students’ Jewish life experience, it is important to pay attention to three different stages.
First, we need to learn the source and the different commentaries and teach it in its original form, from a stance of respect and appreciation for the early authors and the commentators throughout the generations.
Second, we introduce a new interpretation that applies to learning and life. We can also have a discussion with the students in which we enable them to uncover their own additional interpretations and understandings of the chosen principle. By adding a new interpretation, we become partners in the continuation of Jewish creation, an experience that can be a source of great satisfaction.
Third, we explain to the students how we will implement the principle in practice, which is also an ancient and important principle in Jewish culture. The three stages create a connection to the past, extend a principle into the present, lead to its internalization for the future.
As it says in Pirkei Avot 4:5: “Rabbi Ishmael the son of Rabbi Yossi would say: One who learns Torah in order to teach, is given the opportunity to learn and teach. One who learns in order to do, is given the opportunity to learn, teach, observe and do.”
May we merit this!