The Effectiveness of Storytelling in Jewish Education

by: Annette Labovitz

Presented to the Thirteenth Annual Conference of the Midwest Jewish Studies Association

In recent years, there has been a proliferation of story anthologies published by a variety of publishers, ranging from Art Scroll to Jason Aronson to secular houses with Jewish departments.
From my anecdotal experience, I can say that every age group of learners loves to listen to and read stories. From my classroom experience, I know that stories were the highlight of my lessons. I would introduce new material with a story or finish a chapter with a story, proper motivation for learners to master the goals of the lesson.
The obvious question for educators is: “how can we harness the positive energy of storytelling and use it to enrich Jewish education?”
Before answering this question, it would be wise to briefly explore the goal of storytelling for education, both in the Jewish world and in the secular.
The Goal of Storytelling in Jewish Tradition
In general, the major goal of storytelling within Jewish tradition is to elevate faith, to inspire people to improve their actions, to teach them “mussar haskel” (ethical understanding). Stories have been a powerful, motivational, inspirational, educational tool to tell the “happenings” of the Jewish people. Stories have been used to retell our history, to describe our ethics and moral values, to clarify ideas, to help the listener understand specific concepts and ideas, to be an effective instrument to mold and strengthen character, to influence social relationships and draw a portrait of a world to which educators want the learner to relate.
A story illustrates the power of storytelling.
Two writers rushed in the bayt midrash of Rebbe Avraham Yisrahayl Friedman, the Rizhiner. They wanted him to write the preface to their respective books, one on Jewish law, the other on stories. The gahbiy was sure that the rebbe would see the writer of law first, but he checked. The rebbe told him that he would see the storyteller first. “Our Torah begins with stories, were it not for the stories, we would have no basis for the mitzvot that follow.”
It is my opinion, based upon the Rizhiner’s reasoning, that our Torah begins with stories for the specific purpose of making conceptual information concrete. In addition, in the words of Rabbi Chaim Vital, the stories in the beginning of our Torah provide the framework for the medot which are the character traits of the Jewish people. As in every culture, stories were told (or written) for the dual purpose of teaching and transmitting a unique heritage.
In every Jewish historical period following the biblical, such varied sources as the Midrash Rahbah, Ayn Yaakov, and the vast body of chasedic literature have been an effective method of education.
The message of many Midrashic texts is similar: if we want to learn about God and His world, if we want to understand the mysteries of Torah, it is possible to do so through stories.
“If you wish to come to know Him who by His word created the world, study ahgahdah.”[1]
“God involves Himself in listening to the praises of righteous people.”[2]
“Our rabbis say: Let not the parable be lightly esteemed in your eyes, since by means of the parable, a man can master the Torah. By means of a parable a man arrives at the true meaning of the words of Torah.”[3]
In the middle of the sixteenth century, Rabbi Yaakov ibn Chahviv anthologized the midrash / ahgahdah of the Talmud in his book titled Ayn Yaakov. Somehow, modern reprints of this work include an introduction to the effectiveness of storytelling and a description of the various genres of stories which was written centuries before by Rabbi Avraham ben HahRambam.
Briefly, Rabbi Avraham describes why stories are so important. “The greater part of the meaning of Talmudic lore is concealed from us. I have attempted to translate the midrashim of the sages to enable the reader to comprehend their words. There are many stories in which hidden meanings are found in addition to the simple interpretation of the facts.”
He adds that true stories may help set a precedent in a question of law, and that stories that have a moral theme draw the attention of the reader to a role model, religious faith, or even miracles.
Turning to the chasedic period, I have found more extensive proof for the effective use of stories as an educational tool. Among these proofs are the words of Rebbe Pinchas Koretz, the Berditchiver Rebbe, and Rebbe Nachman.
Rebbe Pinchas Koretz, one of the great leaders of chasedism wrote: “The hahlahchah and the ahgahdah are two parts of the oral law. For the hahlahchah, one
needs his intelligence to uncover its depth, it is necessary to have a sharp mind. For the
ahgahdah one needs a feeling heart.”[4]
The Berditchiver wrote: “Our holy Torah has innermost secrets that are hidden in stories, the stories of Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov, the stories of the matriarchs, Sarah, Rivkah, Rachel, and Layah, the story of Belahm and his talking donkey…the purpose of these stories is to teach good characters traits. For example, from Avraham we learn that loving kindness has no boundaries; from Yaakov we come to understand true righteousness, from Rachel we learn that the merit of our holy matriarchs stands in our good stead today, thousands of years later; from Belahm we learn why we should distance ourselves from evil and perversion. The Torah is filled with an infinite amount of secret stories in order to provide garments (morals, values, ethical lessons) for that which we have to learn from all the trials and tribulations through which the Jewish people passed from the beginning of time.”[5]
Rebbe Nahsan, the scribe of Rebbe Nachman discloses Rebbe Nachman’s reasons for telling stories which serve as powerful reminders to awaken man from slumbering in his effort to serve God.
“There are many who have fallen into deep sleep. Some people believe they are serving God, but they are really sleeping. There are others who are in such a deep slumber that they do not even know they are asleep. The only way to wake people up is through stories. The stories can awaken and revive them.”[6]The veil of Torah is the stories. The stories are a gate which is accessible even to those who are still infinitely far from God.
Modern writers, living within the past two generations seem to agree with my assumption that stories can be used as an effective educational tool.
The first supporting opinion describes the effectiveness of storytelling in the realm of understanding biblical “happenings”, of theology, of explaining about God and mitzvot. It points out that Jewish tradition contained many different types of stories to express the opinions of the sages and how they molded their worldview.
“…The literary record of Jewish existence…touched upon virtually every conceivable aspect of human life, every subject and matter that drew the sages’ attention or shaped their world…It’s literary forms range from biblical exegesis and extra-biblical legends—stories elaborating upon biblical characters and episodes in their careers not found in the Bible itself—to duly developed sermons, snippets of popular folklore, anecdotes about the sages’ own lives and about their contemporary history…every belief held by the sages, from their theological ideas about God to their views on the creation, the reasons for the commandments, and so on.”[7]
The second opinion states that stories crystallize the Jewish national spirit.
“The stories are a comprehensive, encyclopedic treasure of the spirit of the nation, reminders of is concepts, beliefs and opinions from many different periods that have been crystallized in its folklore. They contain segments of its communal and individual life, whose soul was originally transmitted orally, in conversations with other people, then it was written and stored as a treasure for future generations. The form of the story and its contents were transmitted together, but the nation was the real creator of those stories. The soul of the nation weaves the hidden and embroiders the revealed world, and sets the shape of its individuality as a people. The folklorist channels the spirit of the people through its stories and melds them into the national character of the people.”[8]
The last opinion explains that oftentimes, when an idea or concept is difficult to understand, a story provides a “plausible background for every thing that occurs, and establishes a meaningful link between the past, the present, and the future.”[9]
In our own days, Yosef Dan, corroborates the effectiveness of stories in general and chasedic stories in particular. He points out that folklore helps one reach the climax of understanding of specific concepts and ideas.
In concluding the discussion of Jewish sources for the effectiveness of storytelling, it is certain that storytelling can be an effective educational tool. In Midrashic sources, they help us learn about God and His World. Rabbi Avraham, a medieval thinker, wrote that the avowed purpose for storytelling is to explicate Torah. His reasoning was just as applicable in his day as it was a thousand years before him, and in our day, almost a thousand years after him. And a goal of chahsedic stories is to wake people up, to provide a gate to God, Who is accessible even to those who are far away. They provide insight into the great leaders of yesterday, in the hope of inspiring present day leaders (and lay people) to emulate their ways. Stories about tzahdekim are especially effective because they provide parameters for boundaries of acceptable conduct. Generations of Jews were raised and educated upon “mahsoreht hahmikrah v’hahmidrash” (traditional stories of Torah and midrash, parables),[10]and it behooves us to employ this method to enrich Jewish education today.
The Goal of Storytelling in Secular Tradition
Kieran Egan, author of “The Educated Mind: How Cognitive Tools Shape Our Understanding,” (EM) and “Teaching as Story Telling” (TST) has emerged as the secular academic authority on enriching the school curriculum to include storytelling. He reinforces all that we have known for so many thousands of years. His reasons parallel the reasons cited above. Let me share with you his ideas in “some of his own words.” I have taken the liberty of paraphrasing some of the original to facilitate reading.
“We need a storytelling curriculum to encourage the following:
1) The development and reflection of: cultural forms common to the oral language of its particular users (EM)
2) Disciplined inquiry into what we want learners to acquire, stimulated by a large range of a variety of stories. Each unique oral culture suggests rich examples from the most fantastic to the very accurate accounts of past events. (EM)
3) Sacred myths are part of ritual and serve to fit present experiences into an extended and meaningful context, thereby performing psychological and social functions. (EM)
4) Without knowledge of the stories of their culture, students find it impossible to make sense of their culture, meaning stories about central religious texts in Judaism, such as Torah and myths of pagan gods and mortals in Greek culture. Stories encourage students to absorb that which we as educators (and parents) want our students to absorb. Stories are the lore that is considered most true and most significant to the perpetuation of a culture. (EM)
5) Stories are important because they offer views of expectation and satisfaction, hopes and fears, courage and action, struggle for security against danger and violence, belief and behavior; they shape understanding of virtues and vices, and allow students to make sense of their society, amidst a changing world around them. (EM)
6) Certain kinds of narratives generate emotional states and therefore are an effective aid to memorization and to understanding the lore encoded into the story. Emotional reactions (affective) generate feelings about social status, group relationships, family celebrations, economic values and behavior. Psychological effect ensures that stories play a prominent role in our lives by providing role models to shape and reinforce our identity, our yearning for self improvement, and tolerance for others. (EM)
7) The content of the chosen stories should involve events, values, places, intentions, people, groups, environment, all focused on engagement within binary conflict, namely expectation and satisfaction of the narrative. (TST)
8) Most important: storytelling is a delightful form of communication and language development. The storyteller plays with our affective response and allows the listener to revise his / her conceptions of life and the significant events that occur. (TST)
9) Student’s learning proceeds from the concrete to the abstract, from the known to the unknown, from the simple to the complex, from active manipulation to symbolic conceptualization. Therefore, students must develop a sense of causality, which does not suddenly appear when they are teenagers. The best way to develop this is through stories. (TST)
10) Stories provide students with the things to think about that challenge and stimulate their imaginative powers. (TST)
11) Stories must make matters of human importance central to the educational method. Giving learners access to stories can become a dominant sense making tool. A story telling curriculum can be titled: “Great True Stories of the World,” and it should focus on content and social relevance. (TST)
To summarize Kieran Egan’s research into the effectiveness of storytelling for secular education, it becomes obvious that his research follows the exact same guidelines as the goals of using stories to enrich Jewish education. These are: acquiring meaningful explanations of past events, transmitting common culture, offering views of acceptable behavior, encouraging affective reactions, promoting and shaping one’s identity / values / conceptions of life.
Now that I have elaborated on the effectiveness of using stories to enrich both secular and Jewish education, I would like to return to my original question: how can we harness the positive energy of storytelling?”
I have come to believe that in selecting stories with which to enrich Jewish education, we must search for those that can be expanded with two goals in mind, mapping and integrating the characteristics of a Jewish story.
The concept of expanding a story is based upon the “mapping model” introduced in the New York City public school system to increase comprehension. It is a system whereby the varied parts of a lesson are divided; each part is taught for mastery separately, and then, recombined. The course which teaches the application of the “mapping model” is titled: “Introduction into Integrated Language Arts.”[11]
Following the secular concept, but using the characteristics of a Jewish story, it becomes possible to imagine that the story is a road map out of which flows the quest for the needed information. The quest is the methodology, or the exploration of material focusing on the goal of the selected story. The process provides answers to the following questions and is cumulative as the story progresses.
What do I know?
What do I want to know?
What have I learned about this topic?
How is this topic applicable to my life as a Jew?
It focuses on these learning outcomes and learning goals:
– Explores previous experiences and/or knowledge
– Shows students how ideas and information are related
– Provides information about our Jewish heritage
– Introduces meaningful vocabulary,[12]so that students have a means of expressing themselves when describing a particular historical period, country, experience
– Provides role models to inspire behavior, personal response and interaction
– Visualizes aspects of the Jewish past and links them to the present, thereby enabling students to see that they are part of our heritage and our continuity
– Promotes discussion topics that are beyond the immediate subject matter of the story
These questions may be used as guidelines in the construction of a lesson plan. As knowledge gradually accumulates, each story adds more and more pertinent information to the body of information that we want our learners to absorb. Imagine an iceberg; the entry level learner sees only the visible portion. Each story that is presented explores the subject matter wider and deeper, until the mass of the entire iceberg is revealed.
The characteristics of a Jewish story are based upon Dr. Dov Noy’s (archivist, Israel Folklore Institute, Hebrew University) definition which is: place (history / geography), time (Shabbat, chagim, ritual / life cycle), character (role models), and message (introduction to classic sacred Jewish texts).
Integrating the characteristics of a Jewish story with the mapping model produce spectacular results in the classroom and can be achieved by focusing on the following:
Jewish Place which parallels peoplehood, describes how the Jewish people survived in a variety of historical / geographical exile situations. More specifically, it traces the origin of the Jewish people in Ehrehtz Yisrahayl, their ancestral homeland, through the destruction of the first bayt hahmikdash (holy temple), their settlement in Babylonia / Persia, the rebuilding of the second bayt hahmikdash, its destruction, and the subsequent gahlut (Diaspora) experience in the Franco / Germanic lands, Spain, Poland / Russia, United States, and their return to the reborn state of modern Israel. It is important to keep in mind that each chosen story had to occur someplace.
Jewish Time parallels how Judaism looks at mitzvot, observance of the holiday and life cycle events and translates them into action. More specifically, it describes how to perform the unique rituals associated with living a Jewish life style, ranging from setting a table for Shabbat, to fixing a m’zuzah on the doors in one’s home, to refraining from lahshon hahrah, slander, to arranging a Jewish wedding. I have named the focus on these details of the story as the “tag line,” which can be repeated many times while the story is being told.
Jewish Character describes the personalities who moved Jewish history forward. More specifically, it provides portraits of role models whose actions can be emulated. For example, our students should be familiar with the leadership qualities of Rahbahn Yochanan ben Zahkiy, the devotion to scholarship and learning of Rabbi Ahkevah, Gluckel of Hameln’s determination to raise ethical children while maintaining her role as her husband’s business partner, and Sarah Schneirer’s insistence that women can become scholars, much as men. Emphasizing the lives and achievements of illustrious role models can be an inspiring experience to the listener.
Jewish Message parallels the ethnic / national / legal / cultural qualities that are uniquely Jewish and provides the textual basis upon which these are based. More specifically, our students should be familiar with the Jewish viewpoint, and the myriad of issues which are significant and pertinent to modern society.
The above sounds theoretical, but can be easily implemented into classroom curriculums. Let me give you one example of process by selecting a story with which, I am sure, you are all familiar. Let us briefly examine the story of how Rahbahn Yochanan ben Zahkiy attempted to save Torah learning from the besieged city of Yerushalayim.
Using a map of the middle east and Ehrehtz Yisrahayl, we have the setting for Jewish place. Classroom discussion leads to what occurred before in that place, and what happened afterward? Why do we consider that place a “holy land?” What relevance does that place have to our lives today as Jews? Jewish time certainly should describe the commemoration / ritual of Tishah B’Av, while the telling of the actual story enlightens us as to his character and leadership qualities. Exploring Jewish message allows us to examine the Mishnaic dictums for which Rahbahn Yochanan is remembered. By exploring how Jewish life changed after the destruction of the second bayt hahmikdash, we come to understand that the sacrificial offerings were replaced by the study of Torah, the development of Talmud, and tefilah, which enables students to see their role in living a uniquely Jewish lifestyle.
Our oral literature abounds with so many stories: from Midrashic to stories of tahnahim and ahmoraim, medieval, chahsedic, Peretz, Bialik, Agnon. Our story telling tree is rich with fruit. We must only take time to pick it and reap its luscious rewards.
Drawing from five millennia of Jewish oral tradition, and from the research outlined by an eminent secular educator, it behooves us Jewish educators to rethink the methodology of enriching Jewish education by integrating stories into our curriculums.
Story anthologies by the presenter:
Time for My Soul: A Treasury of Jewish Stories for Our Holy Days (Jason Aronson)
A Touch of Heaven: Spiritual land Ethical Stories for Jewish Living (Isaac Nathan)
A Sacred Trust: Stories of Our Heritage and History (Isaac Nathan, Los Angeles)
Listening to the Stirrings of My Heart (Targum, soon to be released)
Dissertation (Project to Demonstrate Excellence-PDE)
An Integrated Curriculum to Achieve Jewish Cultural Literacy Through Stories
(Spertus College of Jewish Studies)
1015 West Broadway, Woodmere, NY 11598
516–374 –6861,
[1]Sifray, D’vahrem Aykehv 49: 11 – 12
[2]Midrash Bahmidbar Rahbah 21: 4
[3]Midrash Rahbah Sher Hahshereim 1: 8
[4]Rabbi Y. L KaKohen Maimon’s Introduction to Otzar HahAhgahdot, op.cit.
[5]Rebbe Layve Yitzchak Berditchev, K’dushat Layve, Parshat D’vahrem, D”H Debayr Moshe El B’nay Yisrahayl(Lemberg, Reprinted in Jeruslaem: 1973)
[6]Rebbe Nachman M’Breslov. Likutay MaHaRan. S’ef 60. D”H “Pahtach R’ Simon V’Ahmar, ayt lahahsot lahshem.” Page 72b in the edition reprinted by Chaseday Breslov. (Brooklyn, NY: Moriah Offset Company, 5734 / 1973)
[7]Chayim Nachman Bialik and Yehoshua Hana Ravnitzky, The Book of Legends: Sayfer HahaHgahdah. David Stern, ed., (New York: Schocken (Random House ) Publishers, 1992)
[8]Mordechai ben Yecheskayl. Sepuray Mahahseyot. (Tel Aviv. D’vir Publishing Company, 1927)
[9]Galit Hasan-Rokem. Myth. Cohen and Mendes – Flohr, ed. Contemporary Jewish Religious Thought.
[10]Yosef Dan. HaNovellah HahChahsedut. (Jerusalelm: Mossad Bialik, 1966)
[11]Bonnie Grossen and Doug Carnine, “Translating Research on Text Structure into Classroom Practice,” Teaching Exceptional Children, Summer, 1992
[12]Baumann, Grant, Hiebert Indrisamo, Paratore, Pearson, World of Reading. Sterling Edition. Administrator Handbook. (Needham, MA and Morristown, NJ: Silver Burdett & Ginn, 1991) “Before reading begins, students need to know story – critical words—words so important that meaning will be lost without them. Vocabulary activities need to be engaging and help develop a love of language. Vocabulary instruction should recognize that students may need guidance in connecting their prior knowledge to new words and concepts.”