We know almost nothing about what students have learned, what they understand, or how they think when they study rabbinic literature. There is, therefore, no empirical basis for educators or researchers to articulate educational goals in this subject. The Students’ Understanding of Rabbinics project, a partnership between the Mandel Center and the Davidson School at Jewish Theological Seminary, was launched to develop a knowledge base for the field of rabbinics education in general, and to support the ongoing development of standards and benchmarks in rabbinics, as part of the Jewish Day School Standards and Benchmarks Project at the Davidson School.
The exploratory first phase is complete, and Dr. Beth Cousens’s report is now available. Cousens worked with a set of practitioners to develop an interview protocol, and recruited 13 recent day school graduates for in-depth interviews about their experience with Talmud study and their current understanding of the field. She sought to understand what they think and know about Talmud, and a little bit about what they can do when they encounter rabbinic texts.
In her analysis of the data, she discerned responses about three key questions:
- What draws students into study? What excites them about it?
- What turns them away from study or interferes with their learning?
- What do they learn?
Students who enjoy learning Talmud and find it rewarding say that it informs their lives in interesting ways; it speaks to their sense of self, opens a window into Judaism, and helps them understand Jewish law better. They enjoy the text’s complexity and feel that studying it builds their analytic and reasoning skills.
Some students, however, find the text so complex that it is difficult to understand and ultimately unsatisfying. For some, the Rabbis’ relationship to religion and practice of Judaism is so foreign to their understanding of the world—particularly with regard to the Rabbis’ treatment of gender issues—that these students cannot connect with the Talmud at all.
Students of Talmud developed a mental model of what Talmud is and learn about how the text “works.” They developed ways of making meaning and often learned how to translate the texts.
This exploratory, pilot study is certainly not a comprehensive analysis of the state of students’ understanding. Nevertheless, it represents an initial, unprecedented effort to take the issues seriously, and it has yielded important data for helping us identify what we want students to learn and experience in their study of rabbinics. We are particularly pleased that it has already proven useful in the ongoing development of standards and benchmarks.
The Standards and Benchmarks project received generous funding from the AVI CHAI foundation.