By Jon Kelsen

Over the past couple of years, I have taught second-year rabbinical students at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah the pedagogy of teaching Talmud and other rabbinic texts. This experience has prompted me to ask whether there is any difference between training rabbis and non-rabbis to teach rabbinic texts. What distinct dynamics are present, of which my students should be made aware, when a rabbi teaches a rabbinic text?

In order to explore this question, and as part of a broader theoretical and empirical study of Talmud pedagogy, I recently conducted interviews with several American Talmud and rabbinics educators (of different denominational affiliations) who have taught in rabbinical schools. I asked, “What is different about teaching Talmud pedagogy to future rabbis, as opposed to non-rabbis?” Their responses, presented below, provide useful self-reporting of how they conceptualize their teaching practice in the context of rabbinical school.

Response I

When you teach as a rabbi, there’s a whole set of expectations that your students bring to the plate of you and of your relationship to the material…[T]here are situations where it’s appropriate for a teacher to really not reveal very much about their relationship to the material… I think that happens less often when you are teaching rabbinic literature as a rabbi… where you’ve brought your rabbinic persona deliberately into the room. That ethical imperative to back away from your own relationship to the text— I’m sure that it’s still there many times, but I would say that it happens less…

This respondent claims that students’ expectations and identification of the rabbi with rabbinic literature and with tradition demands a different sort of teacher presence and practice. Their expectations mitigate the standard moral imperative “on a teacher to not reveal very much about their own relationship to the subject matter, their own opinions…” The respondent argues that teaching as a rabbi means revealing more of one’s relationship with the text (and in fact presupposes the existence of such a relationship), including, ostensibly, “where one stands” vis à vis interpretation of, thoughts about, and feelings towards the text.

If we accept this description of how a rabbi approaches the teaching of rabbinic texts, then those who train rabbis need to get their students to consider how and when they might make these revelations.

Response II

All teachers have a lot of authority… when a teacher says something, people react differently… a rabbi needs to be even more aware of that. When a rabbi says something… people think that disagreeing with it might be more problematic.

This respondent focuses on the educational impact of the rabbi’s perceived authority. Being identified with the text can come to mean that the rabbi’s reading constitutes a sort of revelation, representing the truest intent and meaning of the text which she (re)presents. If so, we might expect an inhibition of students’ sense of license to disagree with the rabbi-teacher’s reading. While the rabbi’s expertise in the subject matter might indeed be reason to give her reading more weight than those of others in the room, it may not be the best reading. Expertise, after all, can blind one to fresh or unconventional possibilities). Regardless, rabbinical students learning to teach rabbinic texts need to be made aware of the interpretive authority which they may wield.

Responses III and IV

III. When I enter a room to teach Talmud, I am there to distill and convey Torah – texts that are sacred and central to my life as a Jew. I want to convey that sense of sacredness to my students as well. For me, this does not mean that I teach them uncritically, rather, I pay them, my students and myself the respect that sacred texts and their students should have. If these texts are to be alive, they must be engaged with, argued with and, through that encounter, embraced.

IV. For these rabbinical students, it’s, ‘how am I experiencing study and teaching Talmud in the context of my relationship with God?’…because I’m gonna be a rabbi, this is Torah… A rabbi has to ultimately believe and say to him or herself…how studying this material vivifies or nourishes your spiritual life, your religious life, your neshamah

Respondents III and IV focus on the framing of rabbinic texts as “Torah” when a rabbi-teacher teaches them. Respondent III uses the term ‘sacred’ three times in this context, associating this quality of the texts with their being “central to [her] life as a Jew,” as “Torah” and insisting that they be “alive,” “respected,” and “encountered.” Similarly, Respondent IV speaks of the role text study plays in a rabbi’s relationship with God and nourishment of her/his spiritual life, as both learner and teacher.

When a rabbi is teaching rabbinic texts, the texts are framed as “Torah,” and the rabbi-teacher becomes the facilitator of encounter with these texts as sacred, canonical works. Translated into prescriptive terms for the rabbi-teacher, these sentiments would render such a professional responsible for creating such encounters. But how does one do that? Rabbinical schools need to do more to train their students to answer that question.

Of course, further theoretical and empirical research is necessary in order to clarify the dynamics present when a rabbi teaches rabbinic texts. At this point, nonetheless, it is clear that there these respondents sense that there is something specific and significant occurring when a rabbi teaches rabbinic texts, texts with which they are identified by their professional title. If these respondents are correct, or if we think they should be correct, rabbinical schools will need think harder about how to help their students work in these roles and inhabit the identity of rabbi-teacher.

Jon Kelsen teaches Talmud at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and Drisha, and is pursuing doctoral studies in Education and Jewish Studies at NYU as a Wexner Graduate Fellow.