“Why are we learning this?” At times, this is a most invigorating question. What is more energizing than an invitation from an inquisitive student to passionately articulate the compelling reasons we are studying a particular text or idea? At other times, however, the same question from the same student brings a pit of anxiety to my stomach. In the second scenario, I do not have compelling reasons to passionately articulate. Responding, “Because I taught it last year and already have a worksheet on this,” or “Because it’s the next sugya/chapter,” will not satisfy students and should not satisfy educators.
The question becomes sharper when we consider the vastness of Torah knowledge available to learn and the miniscule fraction of which we can address within the confines of a typical K-12 day school setting. Consequently, for everything we choose to study with our students, we are, by necessity, choosing not to study something else within that time. If we spend the first three months of the year on the first three chapters of Exodus, for example, then we are leaving ourselves with six months to study the remaining thirty-seven. Is this a problem per se? Not necessarily. However, if our students are going to miss out on a meaningful analysis of the revelation at Sinai, the sin of the Golden Calf, and the experience of God’s presence resting amidst Israel then that should at least be the result of purposeful planning and prioritizing, not the arbitrary consequence of being found later in the book.
Making choices about what to leave out of our lessons and curricula can be a vexing and overwhelming process. I propose a framework which can help Jewish educators make those challenging decisions about what content to include in our teaching and what to—even if regrettably—leave out. In order to establish this framework, let us return to our hypothetical student who wants to know, “why are we learning this,” and the compelling reasons we can passionately articulate in response, which I believe fall into three categories.
The first category in the framework is content that enables continued learning and participation in the discourse around traditional Jewish ideas. This includes basic Hebrew reading skills, vocabulary, and what we may call “Jewish literacy.” The second category is content that promotes genuine introspection and self-improvement (both spiritual-religious growth and character development). The third category is content that makes a compelling case in support of the school’s (or community’s) Jewish worldview. On account of their potential to inspire authentic, positive changes in the attitudes and behaviors of students, it is the latter two categories that fall under the rubric of “meaningful Jewish learning.”
Let us explore specific examples of how this paradigm can be applied to the process of selecting (and rejecting) texts and topics for study within the subjects of Tanakh, Talmud, and Jewish history. Our examples will focus on the latter two factors of the framework: content that enables personal growth and content that explicates our worldview.
“In eleventh grade we do Genesis.” But what does it mean to “do Genesis” or “Exodus” or “Kings” or “Esther?” Each of these books have more text written in and about them than any student can possibly read in a year or more. How can filtering for personal or philosophical meaning aid us in the process of choosing Tanakh content?
For many of those eleventh graders with whom I “do Genesis,” one of the lessons they find most engaging is Rabbi Soloveitchik’s treatment of the duality of “Adam I and Adam II” in The Lonely Man of Faith. This study is a quintessential example of content that articulates our school’s worldview. R. Soloveitchik’s articulation speaks to students because it makes such a compelling case for what we, as a Modern Orthodox school and community, stand for. We have been telling our students implicitly and explicitly, for years, that we believe in the ideal of engagement in worldly matters moderated by an ultimate submission to the will of the Almighty. In this instance, meaningful learning is less about promoting change in the behavioral sense and more about promoting understanding, confidence, and pride about what we believe in. Who could be a better advocate for this worldview than “The Rav” himself?
At the same time, Tanakh study is certainly rich with opportunities for personal growth. In Deuteronomy, for example, we are privy to a long series of ethical sermons from Moses. His lessons aim to prepare us for maintaining our connection with God in the absence of His daily miracles and messengers. While dealing with the stresses of everyday life, this is a message with clear parallels to high school seniors preparing for life beyond their day school experience. Moses urges us to make Torah study, the Shema, and love of God part of our daily lives. He warns us not to become arrogant in our success or spiritually complacent, lest we forget God. He reminds us to find meaning in our suffering by making sure to care for others who suffer. He emphasizes the spiritual superiority of the land of Israel. The list goes on. Each of these topics, if studied actively and reflectively, can have a profoundly positive effect on a student’s religious experience. However, if we begin teaching Deuteronomy from the beginning of the book we can easily find ourselves caught up in the challenges presented by the discrepancies in Deuteronomy’s versions of the stories that were already taught in previous books. Dealing with these comparisons is interesting and important, but if our goal is the type of learning that changes hearts and minds, we may want to spend more time on other topics in the book.
A meaning-focused study of the later prophets also necessitates a selective approach. By choosing certain sections and verses from books like Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel we can frame discussions about contemporary issues, whether Jewish or general, through the wisdom and moral compass of these great visionaries. Being selective in our teaching of these texts enables us to challenge students to reflect on issues such as social responsibility, Zionism, Jewish life in the Diaspora, and religious authenticity, among others. Consider an assignment in which we ask students to manage the social media presence of a modern Jeremiah. What rebuke and guidance would he deliver today?
When it comes to Talmud curricula, the discussion often surrounds the question of which tractate to learn. That question, however, is somewhat of a misrepresentation. Since we are not learning entire tractates, the question should really be, “which sugyot (Talmudic sections) should we study?” and “what should be our focus when learning those sugyot?” Within the orders of Moed (and tractate Berakhot), Nashim and Nezikin, we have at our disposal more potentially life-changing sugyot than we can possibly cover in the span of a student’s day school career. As such, it behooves us to be mindful about the choices we make regarding Talmud content.
Studying sugyot in Moed (dealing with holidays and ritual matters) affords us the opportunity to help our students explore the spiritual and character-based values at the core of our ritual practices including prayer, holidays, and the values related to Torah study.
In the tractate of Megilah, for example, we can take learning about the sanctity of the synagogue and Beit Midrash to the next level by bringing our students to our school’s Beit Midrash and asking them to determine when their behavior is and is not aligned with the values taught by the Talmud. They can establish a code of conduct for the Beit Midrash and make signs communicating the proper expectations and the values upon which these rules are based. We can discuss how we would approach the Beit Midrash differently and, therefore, the Torah and even our relationship with God differently, if we were to more carefully adhere to the guidelines laid out by the sugya. A deep internalization of these values can alter the way a student relates to holy places for the rest of his or her life. Note, however, that studying this sugya can only happen if I actively choose to do so. If I were to start at the beginning of the tractate and go in order, my students may know on which days the Megilah is read in a village but they will have been deprived of the meaningful opportunity to shape the way they relate to God’s holy places.
Applying the same thought process to Nashim (dealing primarily with issues relating to marriage and divorce) and Nezikin (damages) will yield similarly meaningful results. Consider the way an in-depth study of the laws of the Sheva Berakhot, for example, can open students’ eyes to the Torah’s values of sanctity, affection, and responsibility within spousal relationships. Or imagine a child who, upon seeing an iPhone on the ground, immediately begins thinking not about keeping it, but about how he or she will go about fulfilling the obligation of hashavat aveidah (returning lost objects). The way the child relates to lost objects, indeed all property, has been transformed by a rigorous study of a few carefully chosen sugyot in the tractates of Bava Kama and Bava Metziah. This type of learning gives us the opportunity to help students appreciate the sacred values at the foundation of the Jewish home or to internalize the ethical principle of “love your neighbor as yourself.” Studying Talmud in this manner, however, can only be achieved through a mindful selection of sugyot and commentaries brought to life through exercises like probing discussions, engaging activities, and reflective writing prompts. Careful curricular choices will be the difference between meaningful, life changing learning and the type about which we struggle to articulate “why we are learning this.”
For some teachers and students, Jewish history has the reputation of being a dry survey of dates, locations, books, and rabbis punctuated by astonishingly depressing examples of anti-Jewish brutality. As such, when we think of meaningful learning, we often look past Jewish history in exchange for complex and inspiring texts like those described above. However, Jewish history can be a treasure trove of values and inspiration. Instead of seeing the many examples of Jewish persecution as a depressing and tiresome recounting of Jewish victimhood, we can use it as an opportunity to explore the ways Jews have historically responded to persecution. We can then ask what our responsibilities are to those historical experiences, as well as how we should respond when, disturbingly, Jews today experience antisemitism—whether on a personal, communal, or national level.
We can learn from the inspiring optimism and undying faith of heroes like Rabbi Akiva and his fellow martyrs of the Hadrianic persecutions. We learn how to honor those who have suffered and to find meaning in that suffering by studying moving prose (like Crusade Chronicles), poetry (Emma Lazarus on the Expulsion from Spain) and liturgical works (lamentations recited on the ninth of Av) written in response to respective catastrophes. Studying these aspects of our history also helps students appreciate how unique and not-to-be-taken-for-granted are our freedom and security in North America as well as, of course, the reality of the State of Israel.
There is a wide range of factors that will determine whether Jewish education leads to personal and religious growth for our students. These include social context, teacher-student relationships, and pedagogy to name a few—some of which we can control and some we cannot. One critical factor is content—the selection of texts and ideas we introduce to our students. Reasonable minds can debate the specifics, but one thing is certain. We, as Jewish educators, must be able to answer for ourselves, “Why are we teaching this?”