Learning about Learning

Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education, Brandeis University

Author: Susanne Shavelson (page 1 of 13)

Megillat Esther and the Light Within

by Ziva R. Hassenfeld

An eighteenth century image of Queen EstherThe Talmud, in Mesechet Megila 14a, lists Esther as one of seven female prophets in Tanakh: “There were seven female prophets. Who were they? Sarah, Miriam, Devorah, Hannah, Avigail, Holda and Esther.” The reason for three of these women’s appearances on the list is clear: They are called prophetesses in the Torah. Three of these women require some interpretive gymnastics, but their cases basically make themselves. Then there is Esther. How exactly, in the only book of Tanakh where God does not appear, might the protagonist be a prophetess and a model for those of us who think deeply about the purposes of Jewish education?

The Talmud roots its hermeneutic case for Esther in verse 1 of Chapter 5:

וַיְהִ֣י ׀ בַּיּ֣וֹם הַשְּׁלִישִׁ֗י וַתִּלְבַּ֤שׁ אֶסְתֵּר֙ מַלְכ֔וּת וַֽתַּעֲמֹ֞ד בַּחֲצַ֤ר בֵּית־הַמֶּ֙לֶךְ֙ הַפְּנִימִ֔ית נֹ֖כַח בֵּ֣ית הַמֶּ֑לֶךְ וְ֠הַמֶּלֶךְ יוֹשֵׁ֞ב עַל־כִּסֵּ֤א מַלְכוּתוֹ֙ בְּבֵ֣ית הַמַּלְכ֔וּת נֹ֖כַח פֶּ֥תַח הַבָּֽיִת׃

On the third day, Esther put on malkhut and stood in the inner court of the king’s palace, facing the king’s palace, while the king was sitting on his royal throne in the throne room facing the entrance of the palace.

The Talmud asks, “Shouldn’t it have said, ‘in royal garments?’” (instead of malkhut, ‘royalty.’) The Talmud answers, “This teaches that Esther was clothed in the Divine Spirit… R’ Levi said, ‘As soon as she reached the chamber of idols, the Divine Presence departed from her, and she exclaimed, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’”

In a strange move, the Rabbis justify Esther as a prophetess by giving her divine attention and access, but then take it away right when Esther needs it most, as she prepares to approach King Ahashverosh on behalf of the Jews. The Midrash Yalkut Shimoni adds to this image of Esther’s compromised prophecy by calling this moment in history Eilat Hashachar, the liminal moment in the day where there is the first hint of light. Avivah Zornberg, one of the most poignant and brilliant modern Torah scholars, explains Esther the female prophetess: Continue reading

Stephen Colbert and the Goals of Jewish Education

by Ziva Hassenfeld and Jonah Hassenfeld

Rose McGowan and Stephen Colbert

Stephen Colbert and guest Rose McGowan

It’s not every night that Stephen Colbert talks Tanakh. Last week, in a somewhat unusual interview, actress and activist Rose McGowan brought up the biblical story of Jonah to explain her distaste for organized religion.

“There was a dude in a whale’s stomach that talked for three days or so. Then he got spit out because of Jesus. Am I following that correctly?”

“You… are not,” replied Colbert.

“I’m not?” McGowan seemed perplexed.

Colbert fills in some details of the story, but McGowan was already moving on: “It eventually gets to Jesus, right?” “Eventually, everything goes to Jesus,” he agreed.

As hilarious as this exchange was, there’s something worth lingering on here. Continue reading

Imagination and Interpretation

By Ziva R. Hassenfeld

The painting "Pharaoh Gives Sarah Back to Abraham," painted by Isaac Isaacs in 1640My students and I were in the middle of discussing Genesis 12:10-20, the story in which Abraham asks Sarah to say that she is his sister as they descend to Egypt. The Torah, however, does not record any dialogue when they arrive in Egypt, so that we don’t know what, if anything, Sarah said. Later, when Pharaoh, who took Sarah as his wife, discovers that she is indeed a married woman, he asks Abraham why he said she was his sister.

Saul, a passionate and excited student, raises his hand with a possible resolution.

Saul:  Okay so I think it’s possible that no one said anything and when people saw him–like Avram just walked up to Mitzrayim. And Sarai didn’t introduce herself as his sister and Avram didn’t say anything about that and they just assumed “Okay she’s his sister, let’s take her to Pharaoh.”

Jane calls out: They didn’t lie but they didn’t say anything

Saul: And they didn’t lie but they didn’t correct. And then the courtiers went to Pharaoh and were like, “Oh ya, there’s this girl she’s Avram’s sister.” So then Pharaoh assumed that Avram told them that Sarai was his sister.

Ziva: Love it! Stronger with textual evidence. I think–textual evidence  doesn’t have to be spelling it out for you. This is literature. This is Torah. There can be hints.

There is an interpretive activity that lies at the heart of “advanced” literary analysis as well as rabbinic hermeneutics. It focuses on the details in the text–the words, the syntax, sometimes even the individual letters–in order to make meaning. This privileging of the smallest units of analysis guides new criticism’s close reading and often directs the flow of a daf of Gemara, so that every letter, every seemingly superfluous word, every missing word, teaches us something.

For most of my career as a Jewish studies teacher, I held this type of interpretation up as the gold standard. The value of Saul’s interpretation would stand and fall on whether or not he could make a textual case for it. I wanted to teach this style of interpretation because I believed it prepared my student for both literary and religious text study.  When I was a high school Tanakh teacher, many of my students rose to the challenge and met my expectations. They made meaning out of extra vavs and repeated phrases. They juxtaposed subjects called by proper name and subjects called by pronouns. Some of my other students did not care for it and eventually found themselves utterly uninterested in the study of biblical texts. It was with these students in mind that I entered my doctoral program in curriculum and teacher education.

Five years (and one doctorate) later, I am back in the Tanakh classroom, this time in an elementary school. Immersed in the study of biblical texts with these younger students, I am noticing something I never experienced teaching high school. Continue reading

Understanding Students’ Orientations to the Study of Rabbinics

By Arielle Levites

What does it mean to a student to understand rabbinics?

While rabbinic texts have long played a central role in the development of contemporary Judaisms and Jewish day school curricula, we don’t know very much about students’ learning. While we have some sense of what teachers and other experts think constitutes an understanding of rabbinics (Levisohn 2010, and Kanarek and Lehman 2016), there is little data about what students actually know about or are able to do with particular texts, or what sense they make of rabbinics as a whole.

In the spring of 2017, as part of the Mandel Center’s Students’ Understanding of Rabbinics project, we interviewed twenty students recruited from two Jewish community day high schools about their study of rabbinics. The students we interviewed offered three major types of approaches to understanding rabbinic texts: Continue reading

Helping Early Childhood Educators Become Teachers of Rabbinics

By Elliot Goldberg

Are we doing all that we can to support the development of early childhood educators as teachers of the Jewish tradition? Previously, I’ve argued that the learning of rabbinics begins in Jewish early childhood education settings. Awareness of the place of rabbinics in the curriculum gives us an important new perspective about the education of our youngest learners. Strengthening our schools’ ability to use the rabbinic canon to deliver a strong Jewish experience requires additional steps.

I recently spent two days with the faculty of an early childhood center (ECC) embedded in a Jewish day school, as a part of the Legacy Heritage Instructional Leadership Institute of the Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education at the Jewish Theological Seminary. The visit was part of a two-year initiative to strengthen the teaching and learning of rabbinics in the school.  A portion of the visit focused on developing an approach for incorporating the learning of Mishnah Bava Kamma, chapter 3, which deals with an individual’s responsibility for damages caused by personal property in the public domain, into the students’ school experience.

As we studied together, the ECC faculty made connections between the Mishnah and themes that are a part of school life at the start of the school year, especially teaching values and routines about cleaning up at the end of an activity and putting away personal property. It was striking how many examples of case law from the Mishnah resonated with situations that arise in a school’s hallways and classrooms. Our conversation about the various pathways we could use to bring the rabbinic material that we had studied into the classroom (a topic about which I hope to share more in the future) generated excitement and enthusiasm.

As we worked, a teacher raised her hand and asked a wonderful and challenging question, “How will we find texts as we explore other topics later, when there is no one here to provide them for us?” Continue reading

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