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A Plea for Purposes
Jon A. Levisohn      Email This Article

Jon A. Levisohn, Ph.D., is Assistant Academic Director of the Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education at Brandeis University, where he is also Assistant Professor of Jewish Education in the Department of Near Eastern & Judaic Studies. At the Center, he directs the Initiative on Bridging Scholarship and Pedagogy in Jewish Studies (www.brandeis.edu/go/bridging). An abbreviated version of this essay appeared in Jewish Educational Leadership in print.

Birkat Kohanim (the Priestly Blessing, Numbers 6:22-27) is a remarkable text, and a delightful text to teach. The possibilities are seemingly endless! One can focus on the astonishing literary features packed into its short verses: the patterns in the number of words and the number of letters, the repeating and rhyming sounds, the evocative language. One can survey the role of the text in Jewish ritual over time, as it migrated from a cultic role to a more popular one. One can introduce the archeological evidence for its antiquity. One can pursue its meaning in the context of Sefer Bemidbar (Numbers) or the context of the ancient Near East, or pursue its meaning in splendid isolation.

As a beginning teacher in a day school, I loved encountering the text with my middle-schoolers. I brought background knowledge, of course, but I also made it a focus of my own enthusiastic research each year, probing classical commentators and modern scholars, looking for every possible angle. What began as a lesson on the three exquisite verses of the blessing, together with the surrounding three verses, quickly turned into a few lessons, and then a unit. Eventually, as I recall, we would spend up to three weeks on it. What I never did, however, was ask myself about my purposes: why teach this material, and to what end, and whether my goals in teaching this material in this way (or these ways) fit into a defensible framework and whether they cohered with anyone else’s, and whether I was responsible to anyone or anything for what I chose to teach.

I strongly suspect that this deficiency is not an exception but rather the norm in Jewish Studies, outside of particular extraordinary institutions. I suspect that many, perhaps most teachers of Jewish Studies simply feel compelled to teach whatever comes next – the next verse or the next chapter – and thus find themselves searching for anything that might make that verse or that chapter interesting or meaningful, unable to see the forest for the trees. Perhaps I am wrong about this, and the arguments that I shall present here are misplaced; I would be delighted to discover that this is the case. But numerous conversations and anecdotal evidence suggest otherwise.

For example, I recently read a transcript of “Rabbi Kaufman,” a senior rebbe in an Orthodox day school, reflecting on a class in which he taught the interpretation of the S’fas Emes (Yehudah Aryeh Leib of Ger, 19th Poland) on a passage in Leviticus. As it turns out, Rabbi Kaufman chose the particular interpretation of the particular verse, at least in part, because he happened to encounter the S’fas Emes the previous night, while preparing, and thought it might be interesting.

That’s not the entire story, of course; this same teacher certainly has a sense of what he wants students to learn. He surely has ideas about where his students are, as readers of text, and ideas about the central concepts of Leviticus. But those ideas are mostly unarticulated and privately held. And in this case, the choice of the S’fas Emes was made without reference to any of those ideas. Rather it came about in an idiosyncratic way, as a result of Rabbi Kaufman’s own learning the night before.

I certainly applaud teachers who are interested enough in their subjects to ask questions, to do research, to “prepare”. Such teachers treat their subjects as areas of inquiry, rather than topics already mastered; they know that the subject (Torah or Talmud or any other subject) is more than simply a collection of facts to be memorized. Nor is it the case that Rabbi Kaufman was simply staying one chapter ahead of his students, in that desperate mode familiar to us from the practice of novices. Rabbi Kaufman’s knowledge of his subject is broad and deep, and his desire to re-engage with it, every time he prepares to teach, is worthy of commendation.

However, such preparation is all too often a kind of browsing, an unfocused exploration with no clear conception of or stance towards the purposes of studying Jewish texts in general or this text specifically. And preparing to teach, then, means preparing to tell, preparing to transmit information that the teacher has discovered. So, while Rabbi Kaufman’s commitment to the preparation of the text demonstrates that the subject is more, to him, than a pre-determined collection of facts, on the other hand his approach suggests that he remains constrained by a model of teaching as transmission. As Rabbi Kaufman candidly admitted about his own pedagogic choice, “I knew I wanted to tell them the new interpretation.” How ironic! Rabbi Kaufman apparently lived his entire life without knowing this information – but suddenly, literally overnight, the interpretation of the S’fas Emes has become so important that the primary goal of the lesson was that the information should now reside, at least temporarily, in the students’ heads.

Another anecdote, from a very different point on the ideological spectrum. I recently observed “Carol,” a young but already experienced Reform supplementary school teacher, as she encountered a source-critical analysis of the interwoven strands of the Korach narrative (Numbers chs. 16-18). She found the study session intriguing, stimulating, even compelling, yet she opined that she would never teach this material to the pre-teens in her classes. A principled pedagogic position! But consider that Carol does not, herself, believe in the Sinaitic origin of the text. Her students’ parents do not, their rabbi does not, and it is almost certain that the students’ themselves will not as they grow into adolescence. Why, then, does she reject the teaching of human authorship – or more precisely, the exploration of the text through a critical lens – to her students? What purpose does the temporary preservation of a relic of traditionalism serve? What does Carol think about why she is teaching Torah in the first place? What principles, in other words, ground her pedagogic position?

The point of these anecdotes is that these teachers of Jewish Studies lack a sense that curricular choices ought to be responsible to some larger framework of purposes. In Rabbi Kaufman’s case, as in the case of my own exuberant teaching of Birkat Kohanim, there seems to be nothing other than the instinctive inclusion of something that feels right. In Carol’s case, there is nothing other than an instinctive exclusion of something that feels wrong. In all of these cases, the teachers in question seem to lack a conceptual framework within which to construct an argument one way or the other.

In general, we pay far too little systematic attention to the purposes of Jewish Studies, and in particular, to the purposes of the serious study of classical Jewish texts, and to the way that our educational practices serve those purposes or detract from them. If the anecdotes about Rabbi Kaufman and Carol (and me) are symptoms, the diagnosis is that the teaching and learning of Jewish Studies in our schools is beset by idiosyncrasy and incoherence. And if the diagnosis is correct, the remedy is that the sub-fields of Jewish Studies must operate with a far more explicit and deliberative conception of their purposes. To be more precise, teachers should possess and employ a stance towards their subject that is developed through reflection, articulation, and collaboration, and subject to public examination and critique. And our schools must establish the open and collegial environments that promote this kind of intellectual exploration.

My plea for purposes, in other words, is a call for bridging pedagogy and scholarship, a call for a stronger connection between the everyday world of pedagogic practices and the larger structures of meaning and significance that should guide those practices. Those larger structures constitute a conception of the scholarly enterprise into which we are introducing our students when we teach our subjects. No one who cares about History would be satisfied with the teaching of a random assortment of historical facts. No one who cares about Mathematics would accept the performance of the lowest level of computational tasks as a substitute for serious engagement with mathematical ideas. No one who cares about Chemistry would allow teachers to focus on the Periodic Table at the expense of chemical experimentation. So too, those of us who care about Jewish Studies in its various sub-fields should not be satisfied with rote knowledge of a collection of facts, temporarily mastered.

Instead, we must construct meaningful educational goals that reflect scholarly purposes. As in Mathematics or History or Chemistry, in Jewish Studies too there must be a conception that is richer and deeper, a conception that allows us to establish and prioritize the goals of teaching and learning this particular subject and to hold ourselves accountable for achieving them. What is Tanakh or Talmud, for example, as a subject, beyond a book or set of books? What constitutes an intriguing question or a compelling answer within these subjects? What are the particular skills or intellectual habits that are associated with these subjects? What are the multiple orientations to the subject itself, and how are they importantly different from each other? What, in the end, do we want students to know and be able to do in the study of these subjects – and why? And what kinds of educational experiences will promote those goals?

One familiar response to questions such as these is to turn to curricula to solve the problem, and especially to call for the active involvement of Jewish Studies scholars to be involved in the development of such curricula. But the history of school reform is littered with the remains of ambitious, sweeping curriculum projects that attempted to capture the “structure of the discipline” once and for all, often in a way that ignored the realities of schools and demeaned the wisdom of practitioners. These projects achieve a false coherence, a counterfeit comprehensiveness purchased at the price of any real usability at the hands of capable and thoughtful teachers. Indeed, in many cases, curriculum projects strive to be “teacher-proof,” even though we know that teachers must possess deep and flexible subject matter knowledge if they are to be successful.

On the other hand, one way to bridge pedagogy and scholarship is to bring a variety of different people, from diverse educational arenas, into a common discussion about curriculum and pedagogy, a dialogue about purposes and practices where each can learn from each other. Part of the problem that I am describing lies in the limited range of experience of any individual educator; in the absence of multiple models and a culture of curiosity about alternatives, that limited experience becomes ossified as the way things have always been done (even if they have not actually always been done that way). Confronting different models would help us to see, perhaps for the first time, the pedagogic choices that we make, and to evaluate them. Jewish educators and educational leaders have nothing to fear from this kind of open dialogue, and much to gain. Thus, my plea is not a call for the imposition of curricular mandates, but rather for the promotion of a culture of inquiry and deliberation about the teaching of Jewish Studies.

Moreover, my plea is not a call for consensus, neither across Jewish educational institutions of different denominations nor even within one denomination. There is no particular reason to think that there is only one good way to develop a coherent set of purposes to guide the teaching of a subject, or that there is only one coherent set to be developed. And since there is no best way and no single ideal model, there is no particular value in multiple institutions reaching a rigid consensus. Instead, the point is that each denomination, indeed every institution, ought to be engaged in a more systematic and persistent examination of its pedagogic purposes. Even a set of curricular standards, such as those currently being developed by the Avi Chai Standards Project at JTS, should serve as the focus for deliberation and reflection by any particular faculty, rather than mere adoption and implementation.

But even with these clarifications, there are at least three reasons why some might react negatively to this plea for purposes. First, some might worry about whether real teachers, in real schools, are up to the challenge. Second, some might object to the implication that the study of Torah is just another academic subject, a purely intellectual or scholarly matter, devoid of affective and indeed spiritual aspects. And third, some might point to the concept of Torah Lishma (“Torah for its own sake”) as the pedagogic trump card: the study of Torah is held to have inherent and ultimate value, regardless of any other pedagogic goals. Doesn’t this plea – and the desire to make the study of classical Jewish texts responsible to some larger set of purposes which generates it – undermine the inherent value of Torah study?

In response to the first objection, it is certainly true that we need to raise the bar for the teaching of Jewish Studies. But I do not believe that teachers should be engaged in this project on their own. On the contrary: the pursuit of purposes should be a collaborative endeavor, among faculty, with the participation of educational leadership, and where appropriate, with the involvement of others, too: laypeople, scholars, individuals from other fields who will ask the kinds of critical questions that insiders never imagine. In school settings characterized by teacher isolation – where teachers never admit to a dilemma, intellectual or otherwise – asking fundamental questions like “What’s my purpose in teaching this subject?” suggests utter incompetence and is to be avoided at all costs. In settings where intellectual collaboration is encouraged, on the other hand, asking those questions is prized as an indication of scholarly curiosity and a commitment to the critical examination of one’s practice.

In response to the second objection, the argument that I am presenting here need not focus exclusively on the intellectual at the expense of the emotional or spiritual. It is true, of course, that attention to the sub-fields of Jewish Studies as fields of study comparable to other fields like Mathematics or History tends to lead towards a conception of the enterprise as a purely “academic” one, and this may be troublesome. But the remedy is to provide a compelling alternative conception, a conception that makes sense of the way in which the study of Torah, for example, is both a serious academic subject – an arena for the development of exegetical skills, the exploration of textual ideas, and the pursuit of interpretive virtues – and an undertaking that is or can be existentially meaningful. Indeed, the question is not so very different from what is necessary in other fields as well, even if the answers may be different. In the case of Mathematics, for example, we might ask: If Math in the schools is not to be a simulacrum of Mathematics in the university, well then, what should it be? So too, if Torah in Jewish schools is not to be a simulacrum of Bible in the university, what should it be?

Finally, in response to the third objection, we should all agree that the concept of Torah Lishma ought to be fundamentally important to any vision of Jewish education. It seems particularly important to preserve and proclaim the inherent value of study in an age, such as ours, that is obsessed with instrumentality. For example, we ought to examine our educational arrangements to ensure, to the degree possible, that nothing that our students’ experience undermines their appreciation of Torah Lishma. However, Torah Lishmah is certainly not intended to serve as an excuse for irresponsibility. We cannot avoid careful deliberation about our purposes in the erroneous conviction that any study of Torah is as educative as any other. And we cannot avoid making educational decisions in the misguided belief that any pedagogic approach is as productive as any other.

This plea for purposes is motivated by the knowledge that the conceptual discourse about the pedagogy of the sub-fields of Jewish Studies is underdeveloped, relative to other fields like Mathematics and History, where the last two decades has witnessed a flourishing deliberation among scholars and practitioners. In comparison, we suffer from a poverty of language. At the level of ideology, we have little to offer Rabbi Kaufman or Carol beyond the tired dichotomies of religious versus academic, pious versus critical, the hermeneutics of trust versus the hermeneutics of suspicion. At the level of practice, we have very little systematic documentation of the myriad habits of study that comprise the variegated world of Jewish Studies, and what kinds of educational encounters promote them. And our schools tend to reproduce the isolationism of teachers found in so many educational institutions, promoting the idiosyncrasy and incoherence that I have been lamenting.

Far too often, our guidance to novice teachers about their teaching assignments is little more than the name of a book – Vayikra (Leviticus) or Yeshayahu (Isaiah) or Tractate Sukkah – with no systematic exploration of the goals of teaching this particular volume, let alone such larger questions as whether the study of this particular field ought to be structured around books. And so, far too often, we hear or read in LookJed of teachers casting about for a curriculum, any curriculum. Far too often, even good and experienced teachers like Rabbi Kaufman and Carol have no basis on which to make curricular decisions other than their unexamined intuitions about what feels right or wrong. This plea for purposes is an argument on behalf of systematic deliberation about subject-matter as a necessary feature of good pedagogical practice. What are our ultimate and proximate goals, when we teach classical Jewish texts? To what do we want to hold ourselves accountable, and to what should others hold us accountable? These questions demand thoughtful deliberation about the purposes of study, not only the purposes of study in general but the purposes of the study of any particular text or genre of texts.

Recently, the issue of what Daniel Pekarsky calls an “existential vision” has re-emerged as a significant question in Jewish education: what Jewish education is ultimately for, and what constitutes an ideal educated Jew. The argument has been made that educational institutions require such a vision to guide policies and practices, and to assess them appropriately, and that without a compelling existential vision, educational institutions are both overly conservative and susceptible to fads and fashions. I certainly concur. But I have argued here that in addition to a vision of the educated Jew and the ideal Jewish community, our teaching must operate with a vision of what the fields of Jewish Studies are about, a vision of our subject which shapes our choices just as an existential vision does and to which we feel responsible just as we are responsible to our existential vision. The study of Torah deserves no less.


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