The Bible Laboratory

  • by: Barry Levy

This article originally appeared in Ten Da’at, vol. 4, 1, 1989, pp. 30-32. Appears here with permission.

It has long been unthinkable to teach science without laboratory facilities; in some places it is actually illegal. The laboratory, literally a “workplace”, provides tangible and practical exposure to the real life situations about which the science student learns, and it offers opportunities to work and experiment with the techniques and theories that are taught – virtual impossibilities in traditional frontal settings. Language laboratory facilities became popular several decades ago for more or less the same reasons, as well as for their offering increased opportunities to individualize the learning, reviewing, and drilling processes. Even more universal use of laboratory facilities for teaching computer related skills. A typing, programming or word-processing course taught without adequate hands-on experience would be considered a farce.
The university model of science education, the availability of vast financial resources, and strong commitment to the value of laboratory-type education thus have enabled many courses to benefit from this type of arrangement. It is self-evident, however, that Jewish studies have not shared broadly in this development. A few schools have invested in some language laboratory equipment for the teaching of Hebrew; plays, performances and shows serve to teach dramatics; daily services offer opportunities for practicing synagogue skills; and socio-dramas sometimes find a place in the teaching of ethics. But we are far from the day when every beit midrash will he equipped with an adequate library, much less a computer hook-up to the Bar llan University Responsa Project. And most classes in which texts are taught, and which focus almost exclusively on the text, lack even the requisite dictionaries, atlases, and reference books. The school that proudly offers access to one reserve copy of each volume (and perhaps a photocopier) in its small and overcrowded library thereby demonstrating its superiority to many sister institutions access in which even this level of access is unavailable – should perhaps imagine the science course in which one test tube, or one microscope, or one piece of litmus paper, or one computer is made to suffice for a class of twenty-five or thirty budding scientists.
This is not to suggest that all Talmud courses be turned into laboratory encounters or that religious thought or the Bible be taught in a scientific way; both are valid to a point and self-defeating if carried to excess (though there is no other way to train someone properly to render halakhic decisions). Nor is this meant to debate the theoretical underpinnings of laboratory-type educational facilities and experiences; when used effectively, the laboratory wins. Rather, it is suggested that educators examine the laboratory model of education for what it is, scrutinize the many opportunities it provides for both teacher and student.1
The Laboratory is a Special Place
No one can mistake a biology lab for anything else. It is decorated with scientific equipment; its walls are covered with pictures and drawings; it is stocked with specimens of all sorts; it even has a distinctive smell. A well-equipped lab intoxicates the students with the many new and challenging -and, above all else, interesting- things it thrusts upon them. One may attend biology classes in any room in the school, but, for obvious reasons, administrators often schedule as many as possible in the lab. The Bible, on the other hand, is taught wherever convenient. Who has ever seen a special Bible room that dazzles the students who merely open the door, creating an enticing environment that is exclusive and absorbing?
Let every school stake a claim on one large, well-lit classroom that will become the Bible Lab, where all Bible classes and only Bible classes will be taught; which will be decorated with Bible motifs and equipped with multiple copies of the various tools that Bible students must learn to use; and which will become the hangout for the school’s Bible aficionados. Such a facility will need the following types of resources:
1. Furniture and Equipment:
Regular desks and chairs may suffice, but appropriate tables for group work are recommended. A locked storage closet, secure glass cases for displays and a sizeable library, are also important.
Walls should be covered with carefully mounted charts of Biblical chronology- perhaps a timeline; lists of Biblical books, kings, and weekly Torah readings; posters depicting the evolution of the Hebrew alphabet and recreations of Biblical scenes on Israeli stamps or by well known artists (their accuracy or lack thereof must be discussed as part of the program); and reproductions of illuminated manuscripts. These should be changed throughout the year, as should the displays of quotations and sayings culled from the Bible, and bulletin board collections of relevant newspaper and magazine articles.
Adequate space must be left for maps of the ancient Near East and Israel, which should be readable from every corner of the room and mounted on rollers so they can be closed when not in use. This will save valuable space, protect the maps, and enable the teacher to test student mastery of the information contained in them.
2. Work Centers:
Every student must bring to the lab a copy of the Bible in a format large enough to read easily, (the three-volume Mossad HaRav Kook edition of the Bible without commentaries is recommended), as well as a copy of the specific Biblical text and commentaries used in this particular class (for Genesis and Exodus, Torat Hayyim, above publisher, is the most easily read edition). In addition, every work center for two students should be equipped with a complete Mikraot Gedolot, Biblical atlas (The MacMillan Bibie Atlas, a translation of Atlas Carta, is one of the best), complete concordance (there are advantages and disadvantages to the editions of Mandelkern and Even Shoshan, but they are the best), dictionary of Biblical Hebrew, Ben David’s Makbilot BaMikra and a copy of both Pritchard’s The Ancient Near East (an anthology of ancient texts and pictures that relate to the Bible) and possibly the new Jewish Publication Society translation of the Bible. These books cannot be left unattended on the lab tables, so each set must be mounted in a portable carrying case that can be collected, checked, and locked in the supply closet in minimal time at the end of each class.
3. Reference Works:
In addition to the above, the lab must be equipped with a selection of the reference works, commentaries, halakhic codes, midrashim, histories and other books that students should learn to use in Bible classes, including (in no special order): Mishna, Babylonian Talmud;2 Encyclopedia Mikrait; Rabbi Baruch Halevi Epstein’s Torah Temimah and Tosefet Berakhah (of great pedagogic value if used properly); L.Ginsberg’sLegends of the Jews; and M. S. Segal’s Mavo HaMikra. At least one copy of the Jastrow Dictionary and Mazar’s picture commentary Views of the Biblical World, as well as subscriptions to popular journals of Biblical and archaeological interest should be available.
The laboratory library must also contain a selection of other important commentaries and midrashim, most in Hebrew, some in English, and a few in both languages. There is literally no limit to the volumes that can be included in this category, but it is important to choose authors and editions carefully. Among the contemporary contributions should be a set of Da’at Mikra and as many of Nechama Leibowitz’ publications as can be obtained, including her legendary question sheets
The collection should also have a selection of halakhic works, including the full Shulhan Arukh with commentaries, Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, and the Mishnah Berurah; and a selection of books on such topics as Biblical poetry, prophecy, history, law and narrative; a copy of Sefer HaHinukh, perhaps one for each work center, to be used in Humash classes; and Levine’s picture book Melekhet HaMishkan. Also useful are copies of various Bible curricula, teacher guides for specific parts of the Bible, and quiz books of Biblical interest, together with a file of materials related to the annual Bible contests held here and in Israel.
4. Supplementary Equipment:
The lab should have audio-visual facilities- a large screen, slide and movie projectors, video equipment, tape recorders, and a supply of appropriate materials, including a library of music on Biblical themes or related to Bible texts and full samples of all cantillation systems. The equipment may be shared with other departments, but the tapes and slides should be kept in the Bible Lab.
5. Reproduction of Ancient Artifacts:
Archaeological discoveries have enriched our understanding of ancient realia in many ways, and reproduction of many ancient texts and objects can be purchased relatively inexpensively. One can talk for an entire year about the Pharaoh who enslaved the Hebrews (and his identity remains uncertain) but a study of the buildings in which he lived or the artifacts left by his people (or even and embalmed mummy) livens the story in ways that text study cannot hope to match. Purim invariably includes an explanation of the word pur, and an awareness that the actual way in which Haman cast the lots remains unclear. Show students a model of an authentic puru (actually from several centuries before the time of Esther but possibly similar to those mentioned in the story), and this aspect of the story is clarified. Similarly, one may teach about Sennacherib’s invasion of Jerusalem (recounted in Isaiah, Kings, and Chronicles) using only the Biblical texts; include the version of the story in Sennacherib’s Annals, and the story will be remembered as a highlight of the course.
The principles of archeology, so important in all attempts to reconstruct the ancient past, can be demonstrated with a sandbox, though it is not necessary to maintain one for only this purpose. In addition, at least one company sells imitations of old broken jugs and pots that students can piece together to reconstruct a model of ancient ceramic utensils, thereby experiencing the excitement and task of the archaeologist (of course, they can make their own, too). One could run a simulated archaeological dig by mixing the fragments of several pots (including one modern flower pot), some text fragments, and other items in the sand and reconstruct them to determine what can be learned about the society that produced them.3
6. Laboratory Manuals:
In order to conduct “experiments” following the laboratory model, the teacher must have manuals for use at the different levels. On the high school level, much of Nechama Leibowitz’ material is suited to this purpose, especially her question sheets and the questions that appear in her various publications; other models are also appropriate. Using a simple format of Goal, Procedure, Observations and Conclusions, one can design brief (one or two hour) lab projects that follow scientific method and introduce students to the problem-solving strategies of Biblical studies. Individual lessons in these manuals should develop themes taken from the texts and never consist of series of factual questions based on them. Rather, in formulating them, the operative principle is that one not be able to answer any question without correctly answering all previous questions in the series. Thus the end result will contain developed concepts about the Bible, not mere information extracted from it. Initial definition of the problem, followed by a careful list of procedures (prepared by the teacher, perhaps in consultation with the class) would help students learn to define their questions and develop approaches to finding the answer. It would also direct teacher and student efforts away from the all too popular spoon feeding/memorization pattern of Bible teaching and expose the field as the exciting, stimulating and enjoyable endeavor it really is.
In Conclusion
Well-equipped rooms in which teachers can teach their specialties- biology, computer programming, French, cooking, or basketball are one of the essential elements required of all serious school programs. Attractive displays and equipment are only as valuable as the teachers and students make them. The Bible has been taught without such aids, and some students have learned their lessons well. Some teachers and administrators may fear that innovations can compromise religious goals, but this is not a serious challenge. The teaching of awe and reverence may not depend on the availability of the resources described above, but it should not be hindered by them either. The seriousness of purpose as well as the inspiring opportunities to that the Bible Lab affords the creative teacher make it an essential facility for every school. The Bible Lab should become an educational necessity, if only to demonstrate in a concrete way that the Bible is no less important and serious than physical education or computers. But it will also offer new and exciting opportunities to the creative teacher, involve students more directly in the activities of Bible study4– not only the mastery of subject-matter- and unquestionably highlight one of the most important aspects of the Jewish school curriculum.

1My sincere thanks to Dr.Joseph Lukinsky for sharing with me his conception of the Bible laboratory and a brief list of some of the resources such a facility should contain.
2Reprinted editions of classical printings of rabbinic texts are often available in varying sizes and quality. Sturdiness, readability and duplicability are the most important qualities. Texts must be large enough to read, small and clear enough to photocopy, and strong enough to withstand a good deal of use.
3Copies of artifacts are available, for example, in museum shops, numerous outlets in Israel, from companies who advertise in Biblical Archaeology Review and similar publications, and from the Biblical Archaeology Society, Washington D.C.
4I am pleased to report that the Akiva School in Montreal has begun to develop a Bible Lab for use at the elementary level. With the assistance of a grant from the Jewish Education Council of Montreal, it is also actively preparing a selection of Laboratory manuals for use in Grades 5 and 6.