By Elliot Goldberg
Virtually all of my colleagues who teach in Early Childhood (EC) or Early Elementary (EE) settings tell me that rabbinics is not a part of the curriculum that they teach.
This is not a surprise. It is a common assumption in Jewish schools that rabbinics is a discipline for the upper grades. In reflecting about the place of rabbinics in their curriculum, educators are likely to identify the starting point as the time in which a book from the rabbinic canon is placed in front of students and/or when students take a course that is named after a rabbinic text.
There is a certain logic to this assumption. Because we encounter the rabbis – and their stories, thoughts, ideas, and values – through texts, we equate the discipline of rabbinics with the study of rabbinic literature. Because rabbinic literature is often complex and, due to its language and logical structure, can be challenging to learn, we wait until students have acquired the appropriate skills and intellectual maturity before we engage them in the study of rabbinic texts.
But the notion that educational experiences must have a text at their center in order for students to be learning rabbinics is not accurate, and it is one that the field of Jewish education should work to change. If we are going to have a principled discussion of when the study of rabbinics should happen, we have to have a better understanding of when it actually does happen. In the earliest years of Jewish education, students are not yet engaged in the formal study of rabbinic texts. But the study of rabbinics actually begins with the youngest learners.
Jewish values, Jewish holidays, the recitation of b’rachot (blessings) and the performance of Jewish rituals are core elements of the curriculum in Jewish EC or EE classrooms, and each of these areas of contemporary Jewish life has been shaped in significant ways by rabbinic Judaism. When we teach our students about them, we are teaching them rabbinics.
This notion is not a radical one for EC or EE education or educators who are used to thinking about other disciplines in this way. Take mathematics, for example. Algebra first appears around grade 6 and becomes a central part of the curriculum through high school and beyond. Yet, the teaching of algebra actually begins in the earliest years of schooling.
This does not mean that we should expect six year olds to be able to solve algebraic equations. Rather, it suggests that by breaking down algebra to its core elements (e.g., patterns, symbols, and relationships between concrete materials) and bringing these concepts into the classroom, EC and EE educators help instill in their students the algebraic thinking that will lead to deeper understanding, comfort and fluency in their mathematical lives.
As we do with mathematics, so too should we do with rabbinics. This requires expanding the conversation about the teaching and learning of rabbinics to include EC and EE faculties. Doing so will:
- foster teachers’ awareness that rabbinics is already a part of their curriculum;
- engage them in conversation about the big ideas and essential questions that drive the rabbinic enterprise;
- develop a shared conceptual framework for how the discipline of rabbinics can shape the learning experiences of our youngest students; and,
- provide opportunities for teachers to increase their rabbinic knowledge and their confidence in bringing rabbinic content to their classroom.
Rabbinics is being taught in Jewish schools to the youngest of students. Once we acknowledge that, we can see that it can and should be done in a more deliberate way, within a framework that identifies goals, purposes and developmentally appropriate pedagogies. We do this with other subjects in the EE or EC classroom; does rabbinics deserve any less?
Rabbi Elliot Goldberg is a visiting scholar at the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Studies Education. He is an education consultant and rabbinics advisor for the Rabbinics Initiative of the Legacy Heritage Instructional Leadership Institute of the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education at the Jewish Theological Seminary. This post is part of a larger project exploring the teaching and learning of rabbinics in early childhood and early elementary settings.