Pluralism in the Teaching of Tanakh

Susan Tanchel

Tanakh teachers should explicitly reflect on their own beliefs and assumptions, because the teacher’s own belief system will implicitly affect myriad choices, including curricular ones.

Students: We all teach in schools that have students with diverse learning needs, skills and interests; here I am limiting the discussion to students that come from different religious backgrounds. There are of course many places that these religious differences can play out in a school day (sharing of food, school prayer, celebrating Shabbat as a community), and the Tanakh classroom is a particularly fertile one. Through conversations about the meaning and relevance of biblical texts, students can reflect upon what they hold sacred, what they value, and their own burgeoning identities, confronting and challenging one another on topics that are more or less weighty and controversial. Discussions range from a particular verse to who wrote the Bible.

In order to maximize the benefit of these interactions, it is essential to seek and to value the presence of students who hold different religious commitments and diverse opinions and beliefs, and who can go beyond merely tolerating these distinctions. The students need to be able to engage, confront and challenge one another, lovingly and respectfully in safe, nurturing and rigorous classroom communities, firm in the conviction that it is through these types of interactions and relationships with the other that they will strengthen their individual positions, their sense of self, and over time build their Jewish identities. Moreover, these experiences offer students invaluable opportunities to learn to navigate complexities and thereby to develop certain intellectual capacities and characters traits that will continue to serve each of them long after high school. One such capacity is cognitive pluralism, that is, the ability to hold two contradictory opinions, to handle nuance and to live in a complex gray world. Said differently, it is the ability to hold onto your own belief as you deliberate issues and simultaneously make enough (emotional and intellectual) space for the beliefs of others.

Content: Indeed the study of Tanakh, the subject matter itself, is well suited for a pluralistic educational environment, for we are blessed with a tradition that embodies the value of multiple opinions. Open a page of Mikra’ot Gedolot and you will see the celebrated co-existence of interpreters each offering a distinct possible meaning of a verse. Seeing this page also provides implicit evidence for a student that the same verse of the Tanakh can yield multiple possible valid interpretations—an idea that is essential in a pluralistic Tanakh classroom. A page of commentary also conveys the message that Jews have been reading and making meaning of these texts for centuries and they are now being invited into this conversation. This fact implicitly brings to light that despite the different affiliations and beliefs of their classmates, we all share and hold the Tanakh as sacred (though the source and import of this sanctity may manifest differently in our lives). It is the master story of the Jewish People; as our communal foundational narrative it gives us our common past, which informs our collective present.

Teacher: This shared text has many points of entry, for there are a variety of methods to choose from when studying a biblical text. In a pluralistic setting, it is crucial for a teacher to know and to offer students multiple ways or approaches to make meaning of a Tanakh text, for one method will grab the interest of one student, while another will open the heart and mind of a different student. Any such choice needs to be curricularly justified and developmentally appropriate and made with the knowledge that each method concentrates on different aspects of the text and thus will affect the meaning students make of the texts.

For example, in the case of Genesis 1, a teacher could choose to concentrate on the question of why the Bible begins with a universal text rather than one that specifically commands the Jewish People, or she could teach it with an eye toward the ways in which the biblical text is similar to and different from other ancient Near Eastern creation narratives, or she could teach the text from a literary perspective or wonder about how it connects with Genesis 2-3. Having both flexible subject matter knowledge—knowledge of Tanakh and the discipline of biblical studies that they are able to use and to hold differently depending on what is called for at any given moment—and pedagogical content knowledge—the ability to express what they know in ways that build a bridge between the subject matter and the particular students who are with them in the classroom—is vital in this kind of educational setting.

In addition to these types of knowledge, a Tanakh teacher also requires the skills and capacities to create a classroom environment where students can have the kinds of experiences and opportunities outlined above. (I am not suggesting here that all responses are satisfactory, but rather that a teacher can delineate what the requirements are for an interpretation. For example, in my classroom I teach my students that our interpretations need to be supported with verses, and any that go against what a text says are not compelling.) Tanakh teachers should explicitly reflect on their own beliefs and assumptions, not only because they will be asking their students to do likewise, but also because the teacher’s own belief system will implicitly affect myriad choices, including curricular ones. If a teacher holds that texts have one “right” meaning to which she is leading her students, the students will not be encouraged to search for multiple meanings. Moreover, having one meaning in mind will affect how the teacher answers students’ questions or responds to their suggestions. What the teacher knows and cares about will profoundly impact the ways her students connect with and learn Tanakh in small and big ways.

The components of the instructional triangle have illuminated the complexities of teaching Tanakh in a pluralistic day school. Learning in these types of schools affords students opportunities to develop into confident adults who know that there are no easy answers, that life is complex and that it is filled with dilemmas. Through the process of learning biblical texts, students become young adults who have much experience in dealing with differences and handling complexities. Over time they construct their Jewish identities by hearing divergent opinions, by exploring competing values, by determining when to compromise, and by figuring out where they stand on issues of import. These Jewish adolescents are developing the knowledge, skills and capacities necessary to forge a new kind of Jewish community through reading our sacred ancient texts. ♦

Dr. Susan Tanchel is Associate Head of School at Gann Academy - The New Jewish High School of Greater Boston in Waltham, Massachussetts. She can be reached at [email protected].

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HaYidion Pluralism Winter 2009
Winter 2009