Of Rabbis and Rebbes Studying Torah Texts for Meaning and Jewish Identity

Imagine that you are at the Shabbat table with friends. The hosts are lovely people who send their children to one of the local Jewish day schools. “So, tell us something about the week’s parashah, Jacob,” the father asks his sixth grader. Jacob recounts the details of the week’s Torah narrative with verve. “The Jewish people became frightened when Moshe didn’t come down from Mt. Sinai after forty days and demanded that Aharon, Moshe’s stand in, make them a Golden Calf to lead them.” He can also name the specific gold items that were melted to make the calf, and whom they were gotten from. Then he tells you how the commentator Rashi explains the absence of Chur, the son of Miriam, who was also deputized by Moshe at the time. Father and mother beam with pride at their child’s accomplishments. You are most impressed at the little Einstein demonstration you’ve just witnessed.

Next week you are driving a mix of neighborhood kids, including Jacob, to Little League, when you overhear Michael, a student at a different Jewish day school, leading a conversation about having personal integrity in the face of peer pressure, as it relates to the latest Little League team crisis. Jacob is silent. You turn around at the next stop light and ask Michael where he learned about those things. “In Torah classes” is his reply. “Moshe left Aharon in charge of the Jewish people while he was up on Mount Sinai and he had to stand up to everyone when they wanted to make a Golden Calf.” “I felt that Aaron did the right thing in trying to accommodate them slightly, given the circumstances. I think that there are times when you have to move your moral boundaries and give in a little bit, in order to prevent something worse from happening.” The light is about to change and you turn around. You ask yourself in disbelief, “Was that just a conversation with a sixth grader?”

The difference in what these two boys can do lies in the goals and objectives that the two schools have set as their desired outcomes. Jacob is being taught to know the book. His Jewish identity is being shaped in the mold of a classic talmid chacham—a rabbinic scholar, inward looking, encyclopedic in the Torah’s content and dedicated to the study of text for its own sake. Parents and teachers measure success by his ability to master the content sequentially and to recall it in detail, as well as master the language skills to access the text. Often, this group can assume that Judaism is already relevant for the identity of the student and that each experience of Torah study fortifies that; and if a child’s commitment to a Jewish identity is lacking, it can be increased through more text study.

Michael’s school aims to use the text to create a connection to other areas of life and intellectual pursuits through the book. His Jewish learning experience is preparing him in the manner of a classic chassidic leader—a rebbe, outward looking and creatively engaged in all aspects of the human condition. In order to reach this goal, parents and educators are willing to negotiate the amount of material to be covered and the extent of Hebrew to be mastered. The student’s ability to make personal meaning of the text now is the criterion that drives unit planning. To this group of educators and the community they work for, the knowledge of content serves the goal of relevance and is not an end in itself.

So, which one is better? Since one could quote the words of our tradition to support either side, ultimately, the answer lies in the school’s goals for teaching Tanakh. In other words, Tanakh educators must constantly ask, “Why do we want the students to learn this material?” “What is the impact the study of Tanakh will have on the choices the student will make in the future?” Generally, the answers to these questions lie deep in the hearts and minds of the teachers and administrators and are a well kept secret. Jewish day schools know it’s important to teach the Bible but rarely articulate why. Most faculties spend a lot of time discussing the question “How can we get the students to learn this material?” and rarely drill down deep to ask “What are the multiple motivations for why we should we teach this material?”

Of great help to our school in clarifying our goals were the Tanakh Standards and Benchmarks Project of the Melton Center at the Jewish Theological Seminary. After studying the standards, we decided that our school mission demanded that our students, first and foremost, experience the Tanakh as the “formative narrative of the Jewish people, past, present and future,” and that they consider it “an inspiring resource, informing (their) values, moral commitments and way of experiencing the world,” and to a lesser extent, those standards that address biblical Hebrew, theology, rabbinic interpretation and the land of Israel.

Our Tanakh curriculum spans the narrative of the Torah and early Nevi’im sequentially, highlighting those characters and events with themes that offer the most relevance to the students. In our curriculum, only the access skills, details and minutiae that align with the standards are included in a unit. This objective material is usually assessed in the formative stage with pen and paper. Application skills are assessed at the final stage through problem-solving activities that demand higher order thinking skills and require knowledge of the text and real world application. This is not to be confused with an abridged sequential curriculum, in which you exclude this Rashi or that Ramban because they are difficult, or certain Biblical texts because they are not age appropriate. Rather, it means choosing the right text and the right Rashi or Ramban with the big ideas that can be explored and applied.

This emphasis on personal meaning raises the question, couldn’t the students learn the same values from a well-crafted novel studied in English class? Aren’t the lessons universal? You could argue that the Tanakh’s values are uniquely nuanced or that it is the cultural identification with a Jacob or David that makes studying the Tanakh different. The answer I give is that while they are studying the Tanakh’s universal lessons, they are simultaneously building a relationship with Judaism by studying our fundamental text in a formal way. Although they do not have to agree with every point of view found in Tanakh, as they shlep it to class each day, hold it, read it sequentially and pore over it for years, they come to realize that this is their source of wisdom. Talmud Torah is what their ancestors did and what Jews all over the world do today. It is our hope that they will feel that the book is a part of the person that they are and will become.

It’s been several years now that we’ve had this focus, and we continue to look for new themes in the texts. We have also found that over this time the student body’s knowledge of content has also grown, perhaps because it is now learned in a meaningful context. Recently, we interviewed a group of students about their academic experience in our school. When they described Judaic studies they commented that it was unique among the disciplines in that “it teaches you about yourself.” For us, the rabbinic expression לא המדרש העיקר אלא המעשה, “It is not the study but the deed which is essential” rings truest. In the end, it is important for Klal Yisrael to be made up of Jacobs and Michaels, inward and outward lookers, encyclopedic and creative minds, rabbis and rebbes.&daims;

Rabbi Tzvi Berkson is the principal for Judaic studies (5-12) at the Donna Klein Jewish Academy in Boca Raton, Florida. He can be reached at BerksonT@dkja.org.

Rabbi Tzvi Berkson
Teaching Tanakh
Knowledge Topics
Teaching and Learning
Published: Summer 2012