Why Do We Teach—and Not Teach—What We Do in Jewish Schools?

by | Sep 11, 2023 | Exploring Jewish Spirituality | 0 comments

Recently, a teacher asked me for some guidance. He will be teaching Jewish studies—Tanakh and Talmud—to a group of ninth graders who are both academically and motivationally challenged, and he has the latitude to choose the content for his classes. He is concerned that going the “traditional” route of Tanakh text and commentary, and the classic, legalistic pages of Talmud could turn his students off from both the texts and worse, from Judaism. Many of these students struggle just to decode Hebrew, can he really add Aramaic to the mix? On the other hand, he wants to support their growth in Jewish literacy, as well as in their Jewish faith, commitment, and practice. What did I think would be both the best content and methodology not only for teaching skills but also for conveying fundamental values and fostering a love for and connection to Judaism? 

He was asking a profoundly fundamental question: How and why do we choose to teach what we do in Jewish day schools? 

The Jewish literary tradition is vast. It includes the obviousBible and Talmud and their exegesesbut also ethical treatises, legal interpretations, mystical texts, folklore, medieval poetry, and modern prose. Throughout the centuries, and across the world, scholars and thinkers added to this impressive tradition, creating the rich Jewish literary corpus that exists today. Our schools tend to focus on teaching the fundamental Biblical and Talmudic texts, leaving the others on the sideline. This is generally a result of limited time, but also a clear value judgment as to the merit of teaching these “other” texts. But what are we sacrificing by largely ignoring centuries of Jewish tradition? What are our students missing out on?

Jewish education has come a long way since before World War II when children in Eastern Europe and many Mizrachi communities often left school by the age of 10 in order to work. More of us are more literate and have a greater ability to access texts than at any time in history. Yet many of our students don’t feel connected to the texts they are learning and miss altogether the deep and timeless wisdom that is embedded in them. The question is not whether or not to teach texts. The question is: Which texts are we choosing—and choosing not—to teach, possibly limiting ourselves and our students? 

What is the goal of Jewish education? More to the point, why has Jewish education become so focused, even myopic, on teaching Torah and Talmud to the exclusion of other areas of Jewish cultural and religious literacy that are just as intricately interwoven into the fiber of our Jewish being?

For me, the answer to the first question in the above paragraph is pretty straightforward: I want Jewish grandchildren and great-grandchildren (and so on) who will be passionate about and committed to their Judaism. For me, being passionate and committed involves a fusion of mind and soul, intellect and heart. I want literate and educated Jews because literacy and education are the sources of independence and pride. 

Literacy, however, takes many forms, and exposing students to texts and ideas outside the more “classic” canon can touch the hearts and minds of students who may feel disconnected. Midrash and aggadata, mysticism and hassidut, mussar, and morality can take their place alongside Tanakh and commentaries, Talmud, and Tosafists. Choosing these texts will demand the same thoughtfulness that choosing a masekhet, a sefer, or a peirush requires. These texts support the highest level of critical thinking, but they also push students to examine ideas and parts of themselves that they haven’t been exposed to in any way before. Exposing students to these texts and their ideas can nourish souls and open doors to places that many students are yearning to find—places that they don’t even know exist. Instead of looking for meaning and connection in other philosophies, our students can drink from the bottomless well-springs of the Torah. We just have to define “Torah” more broadly. 

While Jewish education is moving towards more student-centered practices, integrating social-emotional awareness into pedagogy, and promoting spirituality and connectedness, our curricula are focused, almost exclusively, on only one of Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences and largely on the Ashkenazic traditions. We need to ask ourselves why that is, and whether that should be changed. Artistic, musical, inter- and intrapersonal intelligences must be supported. “Hanokh la’na’ar al pi darko” (teach the child according to the child’s way) is a powerful and profound dictum. It is not an easy one to follow, neither in terms of content nor in practice. Different children are moved and inspired differently, connect to different topics and ideas, and are motivated by different ways of learning. These can and should be integrated into our schools. 

As an example, learning piyutim—those lyrical and deeply spiritual poems that we don’t understand anymore—could be a portal for multiple elements of Judaism. Piyutim integrate the breadth of Tanakh and the depth of Midrash, are masterpieces of Hebrew as well as exemplars of poetry. They can connect students to history in both the Ashkenazi and Sepharadi worlds, to music, and to art.

Hassidut and the works of the hassidic masters, as well as those of the more mystical writers from Mesillat Yesharim to Rav Kook, can support the deep yearning for spirituality that is demonstrably present among students across the Jewish spectrum. If used in Hebrew, they can support Hebrew language curricula, or they can be taught in translation so the content and the messages become the focus. As anxiety, depression, and existential loneliness continue to grow among students, hassidut and other mystical texts often fill the void, provide meaning, and inspire students. There is a clear and present thirst for spirituality, and these wholly Jewish texts can address that. 

Judaism is foundationally based on texts; literacy and text-based education are both critical to and inextricable from Jewish education. But literacy skills are complex and challenging, not to mention learning one or two foreign languages at the same time. The more we can engage our students along the long educational road, the higher our chances are for producing passionate and committed Jews. Choosing the best texts is critical, and there are many texts to choose from. We want to present the broadest, most diverse range of texts possible to ignite the passion of most students. The educational choices are neither comfortable nor easy, but they are also exciting, enriching, and vital.

Leah Herzog is a Senior Educator at The Lookstein Center. Leah is a master Tanakh and psychology educator, master coach and teacher mentor, and a prolific writer and lecturer. She has taught high school students and adults for over 30 years. At Lookstein, Leah creates meaningful, age-appropriate curricular materials, develops and facilitates professional development trainings, and is a member of the Jewish Educational Leadership staff. She holds an M. Ed. in Educational Psychology from Loyola University and continued her doctoral work in the same field.


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