Torah on the Right Side of the Brain

  • by: Shifra Kaufman

Shifra Kaufman is a graduate of Stern College for Women and the Pardes Educators Program.She currently teaches 5th and 6th grades at the Jewish Primary Day School of the Nation’s Capital. In this article, she describes how to integrate technology and the creative part of the brain in a Tanach classroom.

Over the last ten years, schools have struggled with the question of the most effective ways to integrate technology into the educational process. Modern technology has brought with it the increasing need for students to learn to navigate new computer programs and the Internet. As teachers seek to master these tools, their students are empowered with more information than has ever been available before. A seismic change is occurring in which we must not only access information, but also use it in an entirely new manner.

As Daniel Pink explains in his bestselling book, A Whole New Mind, “We are moving from an economy and a society built on the logical, linear, computer-like capabilities of the Information Age to an economy and a society built on the empathetic, big-picture capabilities of what’s rising in its place, the Conceptual Age” (Pink, 2005, p. 1). By the time our students reach adulthood, technology will have become seamlessly integrated into their lives to the extent that they will take for granted the ubiquitous access to information. What they will need is an approach to processing, rearranging and reinventing based on that information and they must be educated towards that. Manipulating data is the work of the “right-brain”, or the creative, inventive, and playful part of our minds.

In some respects, day schools are ahead of this tide. Torah study has, for generations, been placing emphasis on the profoundly human abilities that the world has just begun to recognize. While learning Torah “for its own sake” is important, teaching Judaic studies, particularly Tanach, also educates our students in the skills that they need in order to be successful in our changing world, as it addresses the six right-brain intelligences – play, design, story, symphony, empathy and meaning. This article will briefly explain each of those intelligences and offer suggestions to help the teacher facilitate their development in the Tanach classroom.

Play is the process of inventing and creating new inventions by generating ideas. Today, European companies such as Nokia and Daimler-Chrysler use ‘Serious Play,’ a system that trains corporate executives using Lego (Pink, 2005, quoting Gullapalli, 2002). Regarding learning Torah, the rabbis say to “Turn it and turn it for everything is in it” (Avot 5:21). Jews have long felt the pleasure of grappling with the Mishnah, Gemara and commentaries, and it is time to make sure that today’s day school students enjoy the hours spent learning to read Rashi and Tosafot as much as, if not more, than the video games that are entrenched in their culture. The technology increasingly available to us bridges this gap of interest, and can bring fun to many classroom activities (see below). A playful attitude towards all of the work in our classrooms can make all the difference in helping our students grow into lifelong learners.

Design is the process of making objects compelling to their consumers. As Pink (2005) explains, “In an age of abundance, appealing only to rational, logical and functional needs is woefully insufficient… if those things are not also pleasing to the eye or compelling to the soul, few will buy them. There are too many other options” (p. 34). Design is increasingly a vital aspect of everything we own, from Target’s Mossimo brands to BMW’s cars. The basis of design is closely observing the world and noticing how what is and isn’t there together contribute to an object’s beauty. “We tend to focus on objects; [the] aim is to make spaces become ‘real’ … and provide a new experience in seeing” (Edwards, 1979). Edwards describes here the concept of “negative space”, or the analysis of the spaces around an object. For example, in the FedEx logo, an arrow is created by the negative space between the “E” and the “x”. The midrash constantly notices and comments on what is not said (eg. Abraham’s discovery of God in Bereishit Rabba 38:13). For any story in Tanach, we can ask students to think about the negative space, or what wasn’t included in the story. What can we learn from what was excluded? In addition to reinforcing the classical Jewish notion that the Torah includes no extraneous words, these types of questions will shed light on some of the nuances of a text, and push students to not take the written word at face value.

Story is the way we frame and strive to understand our lives from the beginning of time to today. The stories we tell form the stuff of medical narratives and are the basis of the profession of psychology. “The Torah was written in the language of man,” and stories were told long before math or science were uncovered. The stories of the Tanach – from Noah and Abraham to Esther and Daniel – fit the paradigm of the archetypal story known as the “Hero’s Quest.” The Hero’s journey consists of six steps, which remain more or less the same from the Odyssey and King Arthur to Star Wars and Harry Potter. The “Call to Action” mirrors many of our prophets’ calls to prophecy, and the main character’s “Return” to his old world, changed by the challenges he has faced, is seen in Jonah after the fish and Jeremiah after the destruction. For each of these, a teacher might ask students to compare type-scenes (Alter, 1981) or wonder why the story was told a certain way. Why was each step included or not included (see negative spaces above)? Why was our sacred narrative written in the style of a thousand stories spanning history, and how does the pattern demonstrate its meaning? Appealing to students’ inborn understanding of the rhythm of stories, and connecting the modern themes of movies or books to the power of our sacred tales, can empower them to appreciate the unique birthright of our people.

Symphony is the ability to think about how relationships make up parts of a whole. It is the skill of the composer or conductor of an orchestra, “whose jobs involve corraling a diverse group of notes, instruments, and performers and producing a unified and pleasing sound” (Pink, 2005, p.130). Today it is a vital skill of entrepreneurs, inventors and businessmen in every field (e.g., commercials in which peanut butter and chocolate collide to create Reese’s). Not only must our modern students learn to navigate the relationships in their lives, they must also learn to see the big picture of how they all fit together. An easy exercise in Tanach is to ask students to think about how the various personalities in a story fit together like a puzzle to tease out the meaning of the text. For example, what is the relationship of Pharaoh to Moshe? To Aaron? What do understanding these add to the nuance of the story about the freedom of the Jewish people? What are the relationships between Abraham and Hagar, or Ishmael and Sarah? What does the sum total of all of these teach us about what the story is saying? Asking students to role-play these relationships and the complex fabric of the stories that they weave will teach students to see both the small picture of a relationship and the big picture of how to integrate disparate elements of their lives into a unified whole.

Empathy is the abillity to imagine oneself in another’s shoes and intuit what that person is feeling. Developing our students’ capacity for empathy will foster their growth into responsible and caring Jewish adults. The books of Tanach are written more like a play than a novel – they seldom tell us what a character is thinking or feeling, and leave most interior monologue up to the learner’s imagination. We have no idea if Naomi was being sarcastic when she invited Ruth to join her in returning to her homeland, or how Abraham felt standing with a knife, about to slaughter his son. Asking students to imagine what each character was thinking and how those emotions impact the story will strengthen students’ emapthy muscles, as well as bring richer understanding to the stories themselves.

Meaning is man’s search from time immemorial for the purpose of life and his place in the world. Ultimately learning Torah leads to finding meaning in the stories of the Tanach and in the passionate arguments of the Talmud. Every teacher of Torah, from the rabbi who inspires congregants on Shabbat morning, to the classroom Judaic studies teacher, aims to draw meaning from our age-old books and fascilitate student growth in the process. In the sacred work of Jewish education, all pedagogy services the ultimate question of meaning. We use the first five right-brained intelligences to analyze the texts and thus learn about their meaning. The process of exploring these questions along with our students enriches their experience and ours, whether we are led to ultimate answers, or to further questions for more examination and study.

Our increasing technology facilitates this process. Besides the web tools that come with curricula (e.g., TalAm (www.talam.org/talam.html), Bonayich (www.bonayich.com/)), many technologies used in general studies can be harnessed in Judaics to teach the right-brain intelligences. Programming teaching tools (Storytelling Alice – www.alice.org/kelleher/storytelling/) and cartoon editing software (ToonDoo – www.toondoo.com) allow students to animate scenarios, and can be used to recreate stories with thought bubbles and alternate endings. Using visual presentation software (Publisher, VoiceThread) and visual art software (PhotoShop, Paint programs) can help students to dabble in design and meaning, while they organize information in a way that they intuitively understand from media and advertising. In addition, these tools allow students to learn kinesthetically. Stories, videos, plays, art and multimedia skills from other classes can be used for a variety of activities that will facilitate development of the right-brain intelligences.

It is my hope that we continue to develop pedagogies to draw out the right-brained thinking that is deeply embedded in learning Torah, and that we inspire our students as we educate them toward a right brained world full of play and design, story and symphony, empathy and meaning. While the above suggestions pertain to the study of Tanach, it remains to be seen how these principles would apply in teaching Torah Shebe-al Peh, which by nature is analytical, and therefore left-brained. By emphasizing the right brain, we ensure not only that our students are capable of using technology as a tool for learning, but that their technology-enhanced learning will ultimately bring the world into a better future.

References

Alter, R. (1981). The Art of biblical narrative. United States: Basic Books.

Edwards, B. (1979). Drawing on the right side of the brain. New York, NY: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam.

Gullapalli, D. (2002, August 16). To Do: schedule meeting, play with legos. Wall Street Journal.

Pink, D. H. (2005). A Whole new mind. New York, NY: Riverhead Books.

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