Today we hear from Jane Kanarek (Hebrew College) who, with  Marjorie Lehman (JTS), led the Mandel Center’s Learning to Read Talmud project. In June, they convened ten scholars of rabbinic literature to reflect on how students learn to read Talmud. Here, Jane considers how learning to read Talmud can cultivate certain dispositions in students.

In its simplest and most straightforward sense, learning to read means learning to decode. It involves learning to assemble letters into words, words into sentences, and sentences into paragraphs. Of course, this understanding of reading is far too narrow. First, it ignores the blog post block quoteimportance of sense-making, of forming some kind of coherent understanding of these different words, sentences, and paragraphs. Second, it elides the fact that learning to read is not a linear process.

For some, the ability to decode precedes the ability to make sense of the words, sentences, and paragraphs one decodes. For others, sense-making is primary: An ability to articulate ideas about a book precedes the reader’s ability to decode the book’s words on his or her own. Certainly, learning to read the Babylonian Talmud involves both learning to decode and learning to engage in the process of sense-making, and the development of these two skills does not proceed in a linear fashion. A person may, for example, articulate a “reading” that captures an important idea within a sugya (a unit of Talmudic discourse), without being fully able to explain the argument. Or vice versa: A person may be able to explain the intricate steps within a talmudic dialectical argument but be unable to articulate much beyond who proposes a question and who a response.

At a recent workshop at Brandeis’s Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education, where a group of scholars in the field of rabbinic literature discussed how we teach students to read rabbinic texts, we certainly discussed these two components of reading: decoding and sense-making. But a third component of reading emerged as well: learning to read Talmud as cultivating specific dispositions in its readers. While one might suppose that this view of reading Talmud might apply only to those of us teaching in seminary contexts, where the Talmud is explicitly positioned as having personal and professional relevance, this idea of reading as cultivating dispositions was more far-reaching in our discussions. As Martha Nussbaum has written about the importance of the humanities, “narrative imagination is an essential preparation for moral interaction” (Nussbaum: 1997). Our forthcoming book, Learning to Read Talmud: What it Looks Like and How it Happens (Academic Studies Press, forthcoming later this year), explores these ideas further..

While we certainly discussed whether there are specific dispositions that one wants to help rabbinical students cultivate through reading Talmud and how the process of learning to read Talmud might help these students do so, we also considered liberal education more broadly. Chaya Halberstam presented an assignment for her undergraduate course at King’s University College where she tasked her undergraduate students with interpreting Leviticus 19:17-18 both in its biblical context and in the context of their own lives, before turning to any rabbinic understandings of these verses. She challenged them to create scenarios about the rule “love your neighbor as yourself,” and then explain how they thought the rule would require them to behave. Halberstam’s goal was to lay the groundwork with her students for their subsequent reading of rabbinic texts. This would enable them to read the rabbis more charitably (forestalling immediate dismissal of rabbinic interpretations), and help them to cultivate charity as a personal disposition.

Learning to read Talmud is a complex and multi-faceted endeavor. It became clear to all of us that doing so is not simply about acquiring content knowledge but also about forming a particular attitude towards the world. The process of learning to read Talmud involves developing the capacity to consider a range of interpretive possibilities and evaluate them critically. This includes reading the Talmud in its own ancient cultural context, through the lenses of its later commentators, and through one’s own perspectives. Reading Talmud requires a person to move outside of his or her own cultural context and into a larger world of complex considerations. Much as the study of the humanities seeks to cultivate dispositions of critical questioning along with recognition of multiple interpretive possibilities, so too does Talmud study.  Talmud is, therefore, simultaneously a specifically Jewish form of reading and part of a larger conversation about the importance of the humanities.

Martha C. Nussbaum, Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997: 90.