Methodology of Teaching Tanakh

Mar 14, 2005

What does a teacher do after reaching the radical conclusion that one can’t just walk into class, read pasuk after pasuk, perush after perush, and consider one’s job well done?!

This article originally appeared in Ten Da’at, vol. 2, 2, 1987, pp. 13-15. Appears here with permission.
Development of methodology is necessarily preceded by a clear definition of educational goals- both the ultimate goal of what kind of student we strive to produce, and the more immediate goal of how each individual lesson will bring our students closer to the long range ideal. Ultimately, we aim for knowledgeable and sensitive Jews who are capable of and interested in a certain degree of independent learning, and who view learning as a lifelong process, challenge and mitzvah. In order to strike this balance of imparting knowledge to students while simultaneously developing their independent learning abilities, a teacher must be aware that “covering material”, chapters and commentaries, while laudable, is by itself insufficient and does not automatically produce students who can learn on their own.
Side by side with quantifiable curricula, a teacher must plan lessons in Tanakh based on a developmental, hierarchical list of skills to be mastered by students who aspire to eventual autonomy in learning. This skills list is not necessarily linked to any particular grade level. It is up to the teacher to assess which of the skills his/her class has mastered and which need more practice. This will naturally vary from class to class and grade to grade.
Such an assessment is the first concrete step in the methodology of teaching Tanakh for it will determine the selection of material from the set curriculum as well as the focus of each lesson, and the kind of homework that a teacher assigns.
The pyramid of skills should .begin with the acquisition of the rudiments of Biblical language and grammar- without which there is no real learning. For “learning” as we understand it, involves the perception of the unity of language and content, form and concept. A skills list begins with such basics as retention of core repetitive vocabulary, identification of roots and nuances of meaning in the various binyanim, prefixes and suffixes. On the higher end of the pyramid it includes familiarity with poetic devices, principles of Biblical syntax and practical skills such as the use of a concordance. The skills list goes on to encompass the subtler aspects of limud p’shuto shel mikra – the ability to “feel out” a pasuk notwithstanding unknown words; to ferret out the key words and main ideas of a new perek and to develop the awareness of broader, connecting contexts and themes (in a parsha or, for that matter, a sefer) that emerge from the language of the Tanakh itself. A student learning Beraishit who wants, for instance, to understand the Torah’s perspective on man’s relationship to nature must grasp the meaning of key words, phrases, and repetitive themes e.g., redu, kivshuha, Shabbat, asher barah, ki tov. There are no shortcuts or detours around language. Everything flows directly from the text. Consequently, the apex of the pyramid is comprised of skills that develop the textual sensitivity and precision of thought that aid a student to formulate questions based on textual difficulties and to view parshanut as responses to these queries (rather than superimposed addenda to the text). This process culminates with the development of an awareness how to learn mefarshim step-by-step and an appreciation of the unique approach of each parshan.
How is this all put to work in a classroom? In teaching, for instance, Beraishit chapter 3 to two different high school classes, the core of knowledge imparted to them was similar. Beyond this core, what I taught them and how I taught them depended on where they placed on the developmental skills. In this case both classes had basic mastery of necessary elements of language and grammar. Both classes could read the perek as an “unseen passage” and pinpoint the significant questions. Where they differed in skills was that group A needed help in seeing the relation of a pasuk (or perush) to broader themes in the perek as well as to discerning that which was unique in the style and approach of each parshan.
For group A, I carefully selected pesukim and mefarshim that we learned together, with an eye to helping them a) see connections and context and b) create a clear picture of each commentary’s basic contribution- without introducing the internal complexity. (This class could well live without Ibn Ezra’s v’etz hadat sod yinam after learning his v’hame d’varim kmashmaam, or the tortuous process by which the Ramban arrives at his conclusion, kal eleh devarim kefulim…hagalui v’hechatum bahem emet.) Instead they were asked to categorize the mefarshim they had learned, according to their approach Gan Eden (philosophical, literal, literary, mystical, rational, midrashic) and to bring quotes from the perush to support their choice of category. (Yes they were allowed more than one category for each perush – if they had a corroborating quote.) Then, to help the class begin to go beyond seeing each perush as an entity unto itself, and to begin to perceive relationships, the class was asked specific questions, like:
1)What do Rashi, Ibn Ezra and Ramban have in common in their explanation of what took place in Gan Eden?
2) Do Ramban and Rambam share any perceptions as to what changes took place as a result of the sin? If so- what? If not, why not?
Additionally, to heighten this group’s sensitivity to context they were asked questions like: How does the sin of Gan Eden relate to the story of Creation which precedes, and to the sin of Cain which follows in Chapter 4? What seems to be the over-arching theme? What are the key words that help you see that? (vayomer, vayehi khen, ki tov, etz hadaat, im tetiv, lo yadati). As a culminating activity, they made two graphs of Sins and Sinners in parshat Beraishit. On one graph they had to plot the linear and incremental regression leading to the flood (according to some commentaries). On the other graph they had to note, as well, moments of teshuva and zig zag progression towards the flood (according to other commentaries). Did Cain do teshuva (Ramban) or was he impenitent until the last (Rashi)? Was Lemech a shogeg pleading poignantly with his wives for reconciliation, or was his a war boast? How do Adam and Chava fit in on these graphs? In each instance which interpretation seems more substantiated textually, and what light does the concluding summary of parshat Beraishit, “rabah r’at haadam baaretz…emche et haadam” shed on the graphs and the main themes of the whole preceding parasha?
The process of learning this perek was totally different for Group B. This class studied each verse of the chapter, analyzing commentaries word by word, with an eye open to a)methodical knowledge of linguistic cues peculiar to each parshan (vehayashar be’ainai, ve hanakahon be’ainai) b) knowledge of both the response of each parshan to the original question and the aspects of the question that remained unanswered, as well as new questions raised by the response. For homework they were provided with lists of key works and idiosyncratic language of these mefarshim and they were asked:
1. Which parshan said this?
2. How does this quote reflect the individual style of the parshan?
3. How does it fit into his approach to Gan Eden?
The culminating activity of learning this perek was the class preparation of that they termed:
A product of a consciousness-raising session in the ninth grade, held after learning Beraishit, chapter 3. The question we addressed was: What were the steps that we took, in iequential order, in learning this perek with mefarshim? After brainstorming together, the students listed these steps as guidelines for independent study:
1. First look at the pasuk and the surrounding psukim. Pinpoint problematic words and questions.
2. Look for ways to resolve the questions by yourself. Ask yourself whether:
a. your perush takes the language (roots etc.) sufficiently into consideration.
b. it fits the total context
c. it is textually based
d. it is common-sensical
e. It is not contradictory to other places in the Torah.
3. Now read the perush of your choice for an overview. Pick out the main ideas. Find the key sentences and phrases in the perush. Do not try to understand each word yet.
4. Then read the perush over word by word. Do not go on to the next sentence until you understand the first.
5. Look up any sources in the perush. E.g., in lbn Ezra’s perush on etz hachayim, he quotes “vaavado l’olam”. We looked this up and found that l’olam meant a limited, if long, time period. We then applied that to our definition of etz hachayim and v’chai l’olam.
6. Check the context of a quote that a perush brings from another source. Make sure that it agrees with the interpretation that the perush gives it, and that it is not being isolated from the text midrashically to back up the perush.
7. See if the perush is consistent, not just with the pasuk it explains, but also with the flow of the text. E.g. according to lbn Ezra, etz hadaat yolid taavot hamisgal is consistent with the pasuk “vayedu ki airoomim hem” which comes right after the sin.
8. See if the perush is consistent with the general style and approach of the parshan to parshanut in general and to specific issues which recur in his perush. E.g., when Ibn Ezra says that the snake spoke and walked upright, it does not seem in line with his “scientific” tendencies of rationalizing the miraculous.
9. Try to find out why the parshan seems inconsistent. In this case, we found that Ibn Ezra’s resistance to allegorical interpretation (except where absolutely unavoidable) is greater than his tendency to rationalize the miraculous. Therefore he said that the events of Gan Eden actually took place as recounted in Beraishit 3 and that the snake was real.
(This example is based of Ibn Ezra verses 1 and 6 and does not take into account his perush verse 24 v’yesh lo sod.)
10. Read other perushim about the same problem, going through steps 1-9. Compare the various perushim:
a. Which questions do they answer?
b. Which questions do they leave answered?
c. Which new questions do they bring up?
d. How strong or weak are the proofs?
REMEMBER: Eileh v’eileh divrei elohim chayim, but that does not mean that they are all equally valid for textual interpretation.
As they hammered out these “Parshanut-Attack-Skills” it became more that obvious that theses students had mastered the requisite skills for their level. Each class, although learning the same perek, had appropriately gotten development and reinforcement of and entirely different set of skills. Group A had drawn thematic connections through careful attention to language, had begun to characterize the particularity of each parshan and even to move a but beyond that level. Group B, building on the very skills that group A was still working on, had gone on to identify the idiosyncratic linguistic cues in the mefarshim themselves (a key to independent learning) and to achieve a sophisticated level of awareness of the very process of learning that is invoked on every occasion of talmud Torah.