Teaching the Seventy Faces of Torah

While engaged in a lesson in a Shemot unit focused on parshanim (commentators), my students seemed visibly frustrated. We had spent the morning looking at two parshanim’s very different resolutions of a single textual ambiguity. Although the commentators arrived at incompatible explanations of the text, the focus of the class was not on deciding between them. The ambiguity we were studying centered on an apparent repetition in the text and had no obvious resolution. There was no clear criterion by which to decide between the competing interpretations. For many of the students this was unsettling, and as we continued to study the two competing interpretations, some students seemed to become increasingly uncomfortable.

At the end of the class I followed up with the student I felt most concerned about. This student, who always contributes thoughtful and sophisticated insights to our class discussions, had spent the class in complete silence. I asked her if everything was alright. “Yes,” she said calmly, “I didn’t speak today because I don’t understand how I am supposed to learn Rashi and Rashbam’s commentaries on this verse if I don’t know which one is right.”

I felt a sense of relief. The struggle of facing a text with multiple compelling interpretations without knowing how to choose between them was precisely the struggle I had intended for my students to experience. The dilemma was fitting for her age and developmental stage. My student felt that Rashi and Rashbam could not both be correct—one had to be right and one had to be wrong. She wanted to know which was which so that she could remember the right one and forget the wrong one. I could not give her an answer. Nor was I willing at that moment to give her a strategy for figuring it out. I wanted her to experience the struggle.

It is not unusual in a Tanakh class to encounter two conflicting interpretations. If we teach even two parshanim, we will inevitably present two conflicting readings. Each teacher has a choice about how to approach conflicting interpretations. Rather than seeking resolution, I choose to suspend my students between both readings. I actively encourage my students to refrain from siding with a particular commentary in my classroom and to consider what is compelling about each. I do not give my students steps to figure out which reading is right. I do not give them criteria for determining which interpretation of the textual ambiguity is better, be it textual criteria, moral criteria, or theological criteria.

I have a different teaching strategy with a different goal. I understand and appreciate my students’ need to have one, uniquely right and true answer for any question—one right and true reading of any text. My goal is to push back against this desire. When a student is confronted with two readings, she responds with anxiety. She feels destabilized by not knowing which reading is right. The student then rushes into firmly supporting one of the readings. My strategy is to develop the students’ comfort with a liminal space. My goal is to teach the students how to be able to consider each reading before prematurely concluding that one reading is better than another. This pedagogical approach promotes the development of what I call cognitive pluralism.

I strongly believe that the development of cognitive pluralism lies at the heart of Jewish learning. The classic rabbinic expression of this is shiv‘im panim laTorah, there are seventy faces to the Torah. Our job as talmidei Torah is to uncover those seventy faces. When Ben Bag Bag says in Pirkei Avot 5:22, “Hafoch ba vehafoch ba dekula ba,” “Turn it over and over, for all is within it,” he’s reflecting on the inherently multivocal nature of Torah.

We know this and experience this regularly in our Torah study. When we study the story of Moshe striking the Egyptian (Shemot 2:10-2:13) we are confronted with ambiguities in the text that invite many interpretive possibilities. Whether Moshe knows he is a Hebrew, whether Moshe intended to kill, whether the Egyptian was striking the Hebrew in an unusual manner, all of these questions are left unanswered in the text. When we turn to our canon of commentary we are confronted with both condemnation of Moshe and defense. One midrash says that for this crime Moshe was not allowed to enter Israel, while another midrash fills in the ambiguities of the text to build a clear defense of Moshe’s actions.

As we see, our tradition demands multiple readings. Yet how can we uncover all seventy faces if we can only tolerate a single reading at a time? The true richness of Torah study is the ability to appreciate the unique insight of each of the seventy faces. Through teaching my students the skill of cognitive pluralism, we grant them access to the full depth of Torah study.

Having made the case for teaching in this style, let me illustrate what facility with cognitive pluralism looks like. Here is a story of two students who, over the course of a year in my class, developed their skill of cognitive pluralism. One can see how they are able to use this skill to get at important identity questions. Last year, in a 9th grade class, I had two difficult students who both struggled in my class. One was a smart, angry, atheist student who refused to engage because he had decided that he did not belong. The other was a smart, angry, Orthodox student who was reticent to engage because he was unsure whether Tanakh in a pluralistic high school qualified as “real Tanakh.” Because of my belief in the power of text study I decided to make them a chevruta, a learning-pair.

Studying I Samuel chapter three, the two students quickly fell into a debate about whether Eli was gay. My atheist student eagerly expounded his theory that Samuel and Eli were in a homosexual relationship. His chevruta listened intently as he pointed out the various words in the text that supported his theory. Soon, his chevruta responded with equal eagerness. The problem with this reading, according to the Orthodox student, was the misunderstanding of the meaning of the Hebrew root of “lie down.” He explained to his chevruta that they need only do an intertextual Tanakh search to find its real meaning. The two students agreed to do the search together. In watching this process, I saw two students begin to explain their identities to each other in a way that the other could hear. The medium through which they could express themselves was the study of Tanakh, the skill that allowed them to hear each other’s experience was cognitive pluralism.

Through their comfort with generating multiple interpretations around the meaning of the text, my students were able to consider readings that might not toe their ideological line. My students could try on ideas through interpretations. Most significantly, they could begin to dialogue with one another about the issues that matter most.

In a Jewish and global world that has become increasingly divided and polarized, a good Tanakh education focused around cultivating the skill of cognitive pluralism serves as a strong defense against intolerance. Textual ambiguities in Tanakh can and should serve to develop the skill of hearing and considering other opinions—a skill that lies at the heart of Jewish learning and Jewish living. &daims;

Ziva T. Reimer teaches in the Biblical Literature Department at Gann Academy in Waltham, Massachusetts. She can be reached at zreimer@gannacademy.org.

Ziva T. Reimer
Teaching Tanakh
Knowledge Topics
Teaching and Learning
Published: Summer 2012