Pulling Back from the Trees and Looking at the Forest: Making Torah Meaningful to Students’ Lived Lives

by | Sep 11, 2023 | Exploring Jewish Spirituality | 6 comments

After 12+ years of Jewish education, graduating Jewish day school students get to decide for the first time what their Jewish lives will look like as adults. As much as we might not like to think about this, one of the choices that they may make is that they are done seriously engaging with Judaism. Many years ago, I heard from someone who worked on a college campus that was and is still attended by many students from our community, that 50% of Modern Orthodox graduates at this university did not engage in any Jewish activities—not Orthodox Jewish activities, but all Jewish activities—including Yom Hashoah and Yom Haatzmaut. While many years have passed and new programs have been introduced to address these issues, I wonder how much that percentage of students opting out has changed.

Why might a student who has attended our community’s schools for so many years, schools into which the community pours so many resources, decide that, at least temporarily, they are not interested in being part of our community? I won’t pretend that I know the answer, but I do believe that part of the answer revolves around how the Torah that we are teaching focuses a lot on the what, and very little on the why. We teach a lot of Tanakh, but rarely do we try to pull back from the trees to look at the forest. Why should students care about these biblical figures who lived thousands of years ago? We teach Hilkhot Shabbat, without talking about why our students, for whom their phones are a major part of their social world, should be willing to lose that social engagement for 25 hours each week. The Torah that we teach is rarely shown to be meaningful to their lived lives, right now.

I would suggest that Hazal gave us a key way to address this problem. In the Sifrei on Parashat Devarim, we are told that one who wants to know Hashem (literally, the one who created the world through speech) should learn aggadeta. Aggadeta, the non-halakhic parts of the Gemara, shows a different side of Hazal. As opposed to halakhic texts, like the Mishna and Gemara, aggadeta moves away from legal discussions, rules, and obligations, and asks the big questions about Hashem, life, belief, and more. These are often the very same things that our students are thinking about and discussing—what they sometimes refer to as DMCs, deep meaningful conversations. I would suggest that by taking this Sifrei seriously, we can help our students find meaning in the Jewish texts that they are learning, as well as in halakhic observance. Rather than avoiding the aggadic parts of the Gemara that we teach, as many schools do, we should be learning them with our students, and mining them for meaning.

By way of example, I’ll make use of one of the first pieces of aggadeta that I learn with my 8th-grade once-a-week hashkafa class each year. The midrash asks what seems like a strange question. How old was Avraham when he came to recognize his creator? How should we possibly know? We don’t even meet Avraham in the Humash until he is 70. Perhaps even stranger is that there are two, or possibly three answers (depending on the girsa or version that you use), to this question. One answer is that he was 40, although it may be, according to a different version of the text 48, while another Amora answers that he was three. As somewhat of a parenthetical note, this may be the first non-halakhic mahloket that my students encounter. 

Through some introductory questions, we come up with the idea that what the rabbis in this discussion are really asking about is what it means to encounter God. The one who says 40 is suggesting that finding Hashem is a challenging intellectual endeavor that a person must undertake. When I ask my students what this Amora would say to a young teenager who says they are struggling with their faith, the answer is usually some version of, “Of course, you are! Keep working on it.” The other answer that says that Avraham was only three when he encountered Hashem seems to suggest that finding God is not some intellectual endeavor that can only be done by sophisticated adults, but rather that even a very young child can discover Hashem, due to the fact that he doesn’t need to be found out there, but rather within ourselves. Finally, according to the version that says that Avraham was 48, an answer that seems strangely random, a third approach to encountering the Divine exists. It’s not obvious from learning Bereishit, but the story of migdal Bavel happened in Avraham’s lifetime. In fact, if you do the math, you discover that Avraham was 48 at that time! Here’s a third approach to where someone may meet Hashem, that suggests that he is to be found in real-life encounters, particularly in ones that are difficult or challenging.

It is not just midrashic/aggadic texts that help my students think through the big questions. I also introduce them to some of the great thinkers of the past 500 years, including some of whom are not so well known. Among those whom my students “meet” during their time in my class are Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, the Mei Hashiloah (Rav Yosef Leiner of Ishbitz), Rav Kook, Hillel Zeitlin, and Rav Yosef Dov Soloveichik. 

An illustrative example is the Torah that we learn from the Mei Hashiloah. In Rav Leiner’s telling, Avraham Avinu is a spiritual searcher who is looking for the purpose of life. Avraham knows that material goods and pleasures cannot be the purpose of life, as those things only serve as temporary diversions from the discomforts of life. It is at that point at which Hashem appears to Avraham and says “lekh leha,” only that in the Ishbitzer’s telling, one which translates the words very literally, these words mean “Go into yourself.” Hashem tells Avraham that as long as he looks outside of himself for meaning, he will never find it. Only by looking into himself, will Avraham be able to find life’s purpose.

There are two things that I wish to make clear about my course:

1) Although we use primary sources, everything is translated into English. In a once-a-week course, there is no possible way to engage with the texts in the original Hebrew, while also covering ground. While I do not deny that something is lost in not learning these thinkers in the language in which they wrote, the tradeoff is small, particularly when one realizes that reading and discussing these ideas in English allows those students for whom decoding Hebrew texts is very challenging, to have a Judaic studies class where they are able to participate as equals.

2) I have no assessments of any kind, and the only grades students can receive on the report card are Pass or High-Pass. While there are those who believe that grades must be held over students’ heads in order to get them to learn and/or behave, my experience in this class proves otherwise. In fact, I would argue that once they don’t have to worry about questions like “Will this be on the test?” students more fully engage with what we are learning. Part of the reason that I have no tests is that this is not a class where I want my students to cover the material. It is a process-oriented class, where there is no right answer that must be memorized. I am not trying to prove anything to my students or to get them to believe what I believe. My goal is to have them think deeply about big questions, with the help of our greatest and most creative thinkers. If a teacher would want to include assessments, they could ask students to journal, write creatively, or make a list of follow-up questions, and the like, rather than asking students to regurgitate what these thinkers said.

Having taught my hashkafa class for five years, I can tell you that a majority of students, including, and this is no small thing, students who are not necessarily so interested in Gemara, enjoy engaging with texts like these. They come to see Hazal and our great sages not just as rule-makers, but also as deep thinkers who can help us find meaning in everything. I have heard from honors-level students that this course is like nothing else that they’ve learned, and been told by students that I helped them regain their faith. Although I am also successful at teaching Mishna and Gemara, students who reflect back on their time with me, or who sign my yearbook, are much more likely to reference and remember my hashkafa class. Several times a year, I hear from teachers from the Ramaz Upper School, who tell me that my former students brought something up in their class that they learned with me. Almost without exception, they are referring to things that they learned in hashkafa.

Whether it is in a stand-alone course, like the one that I teach, or within classes that we are already teaching, a deep dive into aggadeta and/or Jewish thought is a good way to help our students see just how much Torah has to say to them.

Rabbi Pesach Sommer, a veteran educator of more than 29 years, is a member of the Judaic Studies faculty and the Coordinator of Spiritual Development at the Ramaz Middle School in Manhattan. Pesach is a graduate of Queens College, where he studied psychology and has semicha from Rav Zalman Nechemia Goldberg. Pesach is also a writer, blogger, and accomplished speaker. His versatility allows to him to speak on topics as diverse as biblical criticism, chassidic thought and its ramifications for modern Jews, and losing and regaining one’s faith. He lives with his wife and eight children in Passaic, New Jersey.

WHAT DO YOU THINK?

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Chaim Klein
Chaim Klein
8 months ago

I am in full agreement. I have spent the last 28 years as a teacher of Jewish Ethics, Jewish History, Tanach and Torah sheball peh as well as as teacher of Economics, History of Modern Western Civilization and World Politics.I mention the latter because although the institution I taught at was a fairly Charedi, but very open minded, to the extent that the Rosh Yeshiva , himself, taught the government approved Western Philosophy My yeshiva boys mostly developed a love of Torah, but quite a few had questions. Combining my secular teaching with a heavy dose of Hashkafa, I was… Read more »

Benjamin Lowin
Benjamin Lowin
8 months ago

Best article about Jewish education that I have seen in a long time; possibly ever.

Pesach Sommer
Pesach Sommer
Reply to  Benjamin Lowin
8 months ago

Thank you so much for your very kind words!

Chaim Klein
Chaim Klein
8 months ago

One additional thought. It is extremely helpful in establishing one’s bonafides with students to demonstrate that one is knowledgeable about world, politics, history, literature and .economics While it may be obvious creating “sage spaces” , forbid ad hominum attacks and demonstrate respect to the students Finally, there are no “stupid “
Questions. And dismissing questions because it is not on the curriculum.

Mayer Schiller
Mayer Schiller
8 months ago

Reb Pesach, as insightful a reflector on inyanei chinuch as there is, makes a point, whose very obviousness makes it oft forgotten. “The beginning of wisdom is fear of Hashem,” (Mishlei 9:10) and we must be creative in our means to achieve it. We should not neglect the learning of sugyos of Talmud in the halachic realm but that study must forever be seasoned with the “why” and “how” of it all. (See Nefesh Ha Chaim 4:1)

Deborah Netanel
Deborah Netanel
7 months ago

Great article. Would you be willing to give a few additional examples of texts you use in your Hashkafa class? Thank you