Redesigning Tanakh Curriculum to Meet Our Students Today

Batia Dragovetsky-Nemirovsky

“Ze hashir she-saba shar etmol le-aba, / Vehayom, ani...?” (“This is the song that my grandfather sang yesterday to my father. And myself, today?”) From “Chai” by Ehud Manor

Until recently, the importance of Tanakh in Jewish education was a given. During lessons and conversations with young students, I used to say, with complete certainty, holding on to the sefer Tanakh with my hand: “With the writings in this book my forefathers have conversed. It has spoken to my great-grandparents and grandparents, my parents, it speaks to me and I trust that it will speak to my grandchildren.”

And just as it is inferred from everything I learned while conversing with the text, I did not hesitate to take the verses of “Chai” (quoted above) in order to highlight the unbreakable bond between the Tanakh and each and every member of our people, no matter their religious convictions. At the time, those of us who worked in Jewish education insisted on recreating what we had experienced as students.

This possibility to dialogue, converse, disagree with the text and continue to interrogate it was, in my personal experience, always mediated by teachers who conveyed passion and love and opened the doors to insight and questions.

Where do we stand today?

In the dawn of the new century, we find ourselves in a different scenario. Nowadays, the debate regarding values is not univocal as it was in the past, and every person who cares about Jewish education as a key to continuity should feel concern about Manor’s question.

In my experience, there are few elementary schools that devote sufficient hours to Hebrew language instruction in order to enable students, as they grow up, to read the Tanakh in its original language, without excessive idiomatic difficulty.

In some educational settings, the study of the Tanakh transpires chapter after chapter, verse after verse, in the middle of a swarm of bi’urei milim (explanation of words); the content loses relevance and authenticity for the student, speaking in a different language, foreign, incomprehensible and strange. Some of the messages and stories are perceived by the students—and probably by the teachers as well—as fictions distant from the interests and questions that move them.

In regards to the educators, it is sad to say but many Tanakh teachers have never received formal training in the field of Tanakh pedagogy. They face challenges and difficulties in the classroom for which they have never been properly prepared.

The teacher is not a mere transmitter. He or she has to act as a mediator between the learners and the culture and symbolic language of our people, so that the students can perceive their own closeness to and familiarity with our sources and be convinced that they belong to the world of Jewish tradition. This is not an easy undertaking. It requires not only a deep knowledge of the field but also the development of teaching-learning strategies enabling teachers to select appropriate materials to be used in class and an approach that is relevant to the student.

The appreciation of the Biblical text in its multiple interpretations should constitute to each of us teachers an unavoidable commitment. We have to be able to feel “this matters to me, its message belongs to me, it enriches me, I wish to display it, transmit it and teach it. It is enjoyable and important to do so because I choose it for myself first.”

We should encourage teachers to approach the study of the Tanakh from this perspective of dialogue with the text. A dialogue nurtured by questions related to the themes and issues that are relevant today and that allows us to rediscover, in the troubled times we face, the source of spirituality contained in the Tanakh.

When preparing to share the wonderful experience of reading the Tanakh with the young, we’d have to ask ourselves about them and their traits and interests: Who are the students? What are they searching for (and not only what we want them to know)? How can we help them shape their own learning journey? How can we help them be aware of the resources and opportunities they can discover in this unending source of wisdom? How can we enable them to access and manage these possibilities?

Recently we celebrated Passover. If in our Tanakh classes Passover is reduced to the enumeration of customs and laws, the tale of the birth of Moshe and the exodus from Egypt, we would have just been good transmitters of “knowledge.” If we can manage to work with our students (starting from their own personal experiences and their interests, using multiple resources) on the value that the concept of freedom has in our tradition and to our people; if we can explore the meaning of the formula zeicher litziyat mitzraim (a reminder of the exodus from Egypt) in our daily prayers; if we spend valuable time analyzing the role given to women in Exodus, we can probably add meaningfulness, relevance and authenticity to the experience of studying Shmot.

The teaching of the Tanakh and the adequate selection of what and how to teach continues to be an important matter to our Jewish education system. We know some of the issues that children and young adults care about: ecology, injustice, the horrors of war, hunger, the rights of the weakest, among other topics. Each and every one of these issues lends itself to discussion based on Biblical sources that are put in conversation with material from different sources, such as newspapers, magazines, prose and poetry, etc.

I propose the following text by singer/songwriter Ehud Banai as an example:

יום כדור הארץ

מדברים עכשיו לא מעט על מצבו העגום של כדור הארץ ואני שומע, כולם אומרים,חייבים בדחיפות לעשות משהו כמו: יום ללא מכוניות, יום ללא רכבות, יום ללא מטוסים, יום ללא אוטובוסים ואופנועים, יום ללא עישון, יום ללא עשן, יום ללא מכונות כביסה, יום ללא מיבשי כביסה ,יום ללא מדיחי כלים, יום ללא טלפונים, יום חיסכון באנרגיה, יום ללא בישול, יום ירוק, יום כחול, יום סגול, יום ללא תאונות, יום ללא עבודה, יום ללא לחץ, יום עגול.

ואני אומר:

יש לנו יום כזה מאז שאנחנו זוכרים את עצמנו כעם.
יש לנו יום כזה מאז ומתמיד. מאז שנברא העולם.

יש לנו את השבת, כן, שבת, רבותי, שבת!
שבת זה הרי היום הטוטאלי למען כדור הארץ.
זה טוב לאויר, זה טוב לאדמה, זה טוב לכביש, לים, למים,ולרוח לנשימה ולנשמה,זה זמן איכות לסביבה, זמן איכות למשפחה, זמן איכות למנוחה...

“ויברך אלוקים את היום השביעי ויקדש אותו
כי בו שבת מכל מלאכתו אשר ברא אלוקים לעשות”

Earth Day

These days we speak a lot about the sad state of the Earth and I hear everyone saying, We need to do something fast like: a day without cars, a day without trains, a day without planes, a day without buses and motorcycles, a day without smoking, a day without smoke, a day without washers or dryers, a day without washing machines, a day without telephones, a day to save energy, a day without cooking, a green day, a blue day, a violet day, a day without accidents, a day without work, a day without pressure, a round day.

And I say:

We have such a day from the time that we remember being a people.

We have such a day from that time and forever. From the time the world was created.

We have the Shabbat, yes my friends, Shabbat!

Shabbat is the perfect Earth Day. It’s good for the air, good for the earth, good for the highway, for the sea, for the water, for the wind and breathing and the soul; it’s the time for environmental quality, family quality, rest quality…

“And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy

For on it He rested from all His work that God had done.”

We’ll promote a dialogue about this situation and search, within Banai’s text, the references taken from the Tanakh.

We begin our path though the tale of the initial harmony of the creation, the seventh day of Shabbath, and highlight the verb לעשות, la’asot, to do or make (Bereishit 2:3). We include the dimension of human responsibility toward the earth: leovda uleshomra, to work and protect it (Bereishit 2:15). We continue by highlighting precepts from Tanakh such as shemittah (sabbatical year) and yovel (jubilee year), and by guiding students to study this verse in chavruta: “For the land must not be sold in perpetuity, for Mine is all the land” (Vayyikra 25:23).

Let’s share our thoughts with the entire group and listen to the multiple views and interpretations of our students, influenced by their own experiences. When we close the activity, we can summarize the voices of the texts:

First and foremost, our tradition proposes that the earth and everything it houses it a creation of God. The existence of this world has not been decided by human efforts, nor does it exist only for our benefit. God created this world and the life in it and we are the temporary inhabitants of this planet.

We, as creatures with free will, are the only ones responsible for the order established in creation, and our duty is to care and work for it.

During a great part of the 20th century the purpose, manifest or latent, of Jewish education was to make Jews more Jewish. A great part of the Jewish learning, including the selection of Biblical texts by schools, had been designed to motivate and make all Jews equals regarding the practice of Judaism. These objectives did not always respond to the fundamental questions that many Jews ask themselves today: Why does this matter to me? How can I add meaning and purpose to my Jewish identity?

Today we need to generate an approach to Judaism not as an endangered possession that must be protected. Judaism is a rich, multidimensional system that favors living a good life. It must be explored from many angles, enriched with new concepts and perspectives.

To set forth a new way of teaching Tanakh, based essentially on meaning rather than only in knowledge, routine and skills, will be one of the keys to reach the general objectives of Jewish education in the Diaspora, so that we can go from question to affirmation:

Ze hashir shesaba, shar etmol le-aba, vehayom, ani: Ani od chai! (I’m still alive!)

For us as educators today, the biggest and most substantial challenge we have to face is transforming each and every one of our students into true partners and co-creators of their educational experiences, so that they can question the text, question us, share their comprehension of some answers locked in it, open the door to new questions so that the poetry—shirah—of the Torah can be enriched by multiple voices and interpretations, that allow each generation to find places of inspiration between its lines.&daims;

Batia Dragovetsky-Nemirovsky is the general director of the Vaad Hachinuch Hakehilatí in Argentina. She can be reached at

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HaYidion Teaching Tanakh Summer 2012
Teaching Tanakh
Summer 2012