Teaching Jewish Texts: Authority and Relevance

  • by: Zvi Grumet


Most Judaic learning, especially past the primary grades, is text based.  As people who study texts, we have preconceptions about those texts, which define our relationship to them.  When we enter a classroom to teach, we not only carry those preconceptions with us, but assume that our students share those same notions and hence, share the same relationship to texts that we do.  That assumption, however, is likely to be inaccurate, and is a potential source of conflict between teacher and student.  That potential for conflict increases when the teacher is not even aware that he is making those assumptions and the resulting gulf that divides him from his students.  The focus of this discussion is to highlight some of those preconceptions, the potential conflicts that can result, and offer modest suggestions for bridging the gap between teacher and student. [1]

I. Preconceptions and Problems

  1. The text is authoritative.  Since the teacher assumes this to be true, when he questions the text it is for the purpose of analysis, to gain a greater understanding of that text.  In his eyes the text can never be in error—it is always correct and often binding.  Not all students consider texts authoritative, and may perceive the process of questioning as challenging the authority of the text.  Taken to the extreme, the student may even engage in study to disprove the verity of the text. [2]
  2. The text is relevant.  Since the teacher considers the text relevant, it is obviously worthy of study.  For the teacher, the text is alive and meaningful and has application (always in theory, sometimes in practice) to his daily affairs.  The student,  however,  may view the text as completely irrelevant and therefore unworthy of study.  Being forced to study irrelevant and meaningless texts can do serious damage to the student’s overall relationship to Torah.
  3. Alternately, although even the teacher will regard the text as essentially irrelevant, its study is nonetheless meaningful as an endeavor of Torah lishma.  The notion of Torah lishma, even if understood in theory by the student,  provides insufficient motivation for the average student. [3]
  4. The text is internally consistent, and any apparent inconsistency represents a problem demanding resolution.  This assumption is fundamental to any study involving comparing or contrasting of different texts.  Even students who generally accept the authority of the text may not necessarily be disturbed by contradictions and the like.[4] How much more so for students who do not a priori accept the authority of the text.
  5. Textual analysis is a worthwhile enterprise.  A major component of most limmudei kodesh curricula is critical analysis and interpretation of texts.  Even a simple study of Humash with Rashi requires careful reading of texts and the study of those texts qua texts.  While the teacher takes the process for granted, it is fundamentally foreign to the student.  In most of his educational experiences,  the student sees texts as repositories of information,  not documents to be studied.  With the exception of an advanced literature class,  books are to be read and the information they contain absorbed,  not dissected or analyzed.

The dichotomy between the teacher’s assumptions regarding texts and the students’ can present serious roadblocks to learning and is a potential source of conflict.  Students will be bored by what they consider to be a useless and meaningless enterprise,  while the teacher grows increasingly frustrated by their lack of motivation.  As the teacher feels the need to “prove”  the worthiness of the enterprise,  the classroom has the potential to be transformed from a place of serious learning to a forum for heated polemics and debate. [5]    Eliezer Diamond suggests that the teacher runs the risk of angering or alienating his more skeptical students. [6]

II. Suggested Approaches

Awareness of the problem demands a quest for solutions.  Although no solutions are offered, five suggested approaches are presented.

  1. The  “theological” approach.  In this school of thought, it is precisely those issues that divide student perceptions from those of their teachers that must be addressed directly, since they involve discussions.  One practitioner of this approach teaches a unit on prophecy before engaging in the study of Navi.  The fundamental assumptions about the course are established from the outset, defining the “ground rules” for all future discussions.  Included could be independent units on the centrality of Talmud Torah, discussion about Torah study being a vehicle for communication with God, the divinity of the text of the Torah, and the like. The fundamental thesis of this approach is to anticipate the challenges presented by the text and preempt them by dealing with the issues before they arise.

Although there are certainly merits to this approach,  one must question whether this direct (and potentially confrontational) approach is more harmful than helpful.  Adolescence is a period marked by the struggle for independence and the need to challenge authority.  When confronted by a teacher whose approach is to prove that he is right,  teens may resist simply because they must,  not as a result of their sincere disagreement with the teacher.  Further, the value of raising theological questions to students before they are gripped by that struggle on their own is questionable.  For example, many ninth grade biology students subjected to lectures on evolution within a Torah perspective aren’t even aware that a potential conflict exists.  Until they are ready grapple with issues of faith, discussions about those issues are meaningless.

  1. The “I’m OK, You’re OK” approach. Eliezer Diamond[7] suggests that the teacher present the issue and his perspective not to convince the students that he is right and that they are wrong, but simply to inform the students of the teacher’s position and, in a non-confrontational (i.e., without asking them to accept his position) manner let them know from what perspective the material is being taught.  Although the teacher doesn’t demand acceptance of his perspective,  it is the one through which the class will be taught.  Presented properly,  the teacher can avoid validating the particular beliefs of different students without confronting them by invalidating their beliefs.

This approach may be untenable to the teacher who views his role as to convince the student of the authenticity of the Torah and traditional learning.  Even for the teacher who has no religious difficulties with this approach,  there is once again a risk of the learning becoming irrelevant. Essentially,  the students are asked to  “play along”  with the teacher’s approach to the text.  While there is certainly the possibility that some students will be “won over”  in the process,  other students might not be interested in analysis of texts “as if” they were dealing with “real”  questions. The  “charade”  of making believe there were real issues in the text could strengthen the students’ convictions that the text is essentially irrelevant.

  1. The “relevancy”  approach.  In graduate seminars, Rabbi David Eliach (principal of the Yeshivah of Flatbush) insisted that every shiur begin with motivation, that is, presentation of some issue or question that was relevant to the students’ lives.  After an initial discussion designed to pique the student’s interest,  the teacher demonstrated that the Torah was concerned with the question too.  The rest of the shiur was a textual analysis devoted to demonstrate the Torah’s perspective on the issue.[8]  The advantage of this approach is obvious—it is predicated on addressing the question of relevancy and avoiding the issue of authenticity.  The students are involved in learning because it addresses their needs, not because the text is deemed as the ultimate Truth.

One major challenge this approach presents the teacher is to find relevancy in every text.  Not all texts lend themselves easily to relevancy (for example, the account of the travels of B’nai Yisrael at the beginning of parashat Mas’ei) and not all teachers are adept at finding relevancy in the texts they need to teach.  What message would the students receive if suddenly there were portions of Humash and Navi(not to mention Gemara) that were skipped because they were deemed “irrelevant”  to the lives of the students?  Further, are we willing to risk trivializing Torah by presenting it as a series of resolutions to adolescent crises? [9]

  1. The “it’s not my problem” approach.  Proponents of this approach choose to ignore the issues rather than dealing with them.  Any difficulties encountered by the student are his problem,  and the student’s need for relevance in studying Torah need not be addressed any more seriously than the student’s need for relevance in studying geometry,  literature or history. They are simply part of the curriculum.  Rosenak[10] calls this the “business as usual” approach.  Although it may be convenient for the teacher and serves to help the teacher avoid confrontation,  it cannot be taken seriously by any Jewish educator genuinely concerned with transmitting Jewish values and building Jewish commitment.
  2. The “re-create Jewish education” approach.  Many of the difficulties discussed earlier resulted from conflicts involving the study of Jewish texts.  While this is certainly the primary mode of Jewish education and certainly considered traditional,  it may not be the most effective for the masses.  Whereas the home was once the primary vehicle for teaching basic Jewish values and identity (a teaching that was certainly not text-based),  the school must now assume that role.  Just as the mesora of the home was not taught through texts,  neither should the mesora of the home that is now taught in the schools. [11]  Rather than being geared to training Jewish scholars, the schools would need to “retool”  to produce committed lay people. [12]

III. Concluding Thoughts

Teachers can not take for granted that their theological language,  with all its suppositions,  assumptions and preconceptions,  is shared by their students.  Particular care is needed when listening to students’ questions to understand the foundations on which those questions are based and to appreciate the underlying assumptions providing the background for those questions.  More significantly,  though,  is the need to evaluate and understand our goals in teaching Jewish texts.  Is our ultimate purpose the mastery of some forty pages of Gemara or eighty chapters of Humash a student will learn throughout high school, or do the texts we teach function as pretext for broader agendas we have for our students – agendas relating to the very essence of their identity and commitment?


[1] Yeshivot in North America generally service students from diverse backgrounds with a wide variety of religious affiliations and commitments. The ideas presented here are relevant to almost all Modern/Centrist Orthodox Yeshivot, whether they be single sex or coeducational, and whether their students are fundamentally committed to halakhah or not. Although references to students and teachers are masculine, the intent is generic, and applies equally to women.
Some of the discussion here is particularly appropriate for Tanakh texts.  Talmudic texts involve slightly different preconceptions and additional levels of complication. For a discussion on teaching Talmud see Binyamin DeFries, “’Al Limud haGemara Bevet haSefer haYesodi vehaTikhoni haDatiim,” Ma’ayanot vol. 4.

[2] Again, a distinction needs to made between the study of TanaKh and the study of Talmud. Whereas there is no room in a traditional Yeshiva for the discussion of variant texts in Tanakh, there is certainly room for that in the study of Talmud. Still, great care must be taken in the presentation of variant Talmud texts.  With all but the most advanced students the idea of alternate reading of a Gemara is, at best, confusing, and can potentially undermine the respect the student has for the Gemara (and hence, the entire halakhic process) itself.

[3] Ironically, students will invoke Torah lishma as a ploy to avoid being tested.

[4] In one particularly poignant incident, a group of highly intelligent and motivated students were studying sections of the Rav’s ‘Al haTeshuva. After reading his presentation of a contradiction in the Rambam, the students appeared genuinely bored. When asked about their lack of enthusiasm, they offered replies such as “Maybe the Rambam made a mistake” and “Perhaps the Rambam changed his mind.”

[5] Although there may be value in some of those debates, the resulting environment may become one in which the relationship between teacher and class has been concretized as adversarial rather than cooperative.

[6] Eliezer Diamond, “Teaching From Within/Teaching From Without: The Problem of Unshared Assumptions in the High School Gemara Class,” Tradition 19:4 (Winter 1981).

[7] Ibid.

[8] See also Michael Rosenak, Teaching Jewish Values; A Conceptual Guide, The Melton Center for Jewish Education in the Diaspora, Jerusalem, 1986. On pp. 35-45 he writes of relevance and authenticity in trying to present classical Jewish sources to those who might consider original texts neither relevant nor authentic. See also the accompanying sourcebooks of that series, also published by the Melton Center and the Department of Jewish Education of the World Zionist Organization.

[9] Some of these concerns may be alleviated by teaching sugyot rather than a running text. This widespread use of sugya oriented sourcebooks lends itself to this approach. In an unpublished manuscript (as part of a study conducted for The Jerusalem Fellows, 1994) Talmud Instruction in the Modern Orthodox Day School, Scot Berman develops a sample curriculum for teaching Massekhet Kiddushin using a variation on this approach.

[10] Rosenak, ibid.

[11] On the notion of the mesora of the home, see Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, “A Tribute to the Rebbitzen of Talne,” Tradition 17:2 (Spring 1978). See also Haym Soloveitchik, “Rupture and Reconstruction: The Transformation of Contemporary Orthodoxy,” Tradition 28:4 (Summer 1994), in which he discusses the loss of the mimetic tradition.

[12] Clearly, a complete discussion of such an approach, including its benefits and dangers, are beyond the scope of this paper. For further discussion of this suggestion, including some of its pitfalls, see my “Goals of the Day School Movement: Torah Scholars All?,” Ten Da’at 7:1 (Fall 1993).