by Sarra Lev, Reconstructionist Rabbinical College

Last spring, I participated in a gathering that was part of the Rabbinic Formation project, a study of the role Talmud learning in rabbinic formation, sponsored by the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education at Brandeis University. The gathering included cognitive scientists, sociologists, education specialists and Talmud specialists. We spent the day looking through rabbinical students’ written responses to questions about learning Talmud, as well as syllabi and course work from three rabbinical schools (JTS, HC and RRC), and transcripts of extensive interviews with some of those same students. We also listened to brief recordings of classes. All in all, the day was exhilarating, and left me with many questions about Talmud learning in the context of rabbinical school, but one issue in particular, the relationship between “skills” and “content,” struck a chord.

Many of the student questionnaires and interviews revealed that rabbinical students who study Talmud in each of these rabbinical schools were interested in a combination of skills and content. We saw repeatedly that students loved deciphering the structure of the argument and understanding how the rabbis think, sometimes (but not always) as a way of engaging with contemporary issues. That these are matters that interest rabbinical students is no surprise, but what did surprise us is just how much they were invested in the process, that is, in figuring out how to negotiate the workings of the text, and not only in the content. In response to the interviewer’s question, “I’m wondering, what do you love about Talmud? Maybe there’s nothing,” one student said:

No, I love Talmud… I love trying to figure out the rabbi’s logic. I love trying to figure out what the argument is. I love the idea that argument is the basis and that argument is valued. And I love that it’s a collective, co-creative process to understand it. The content itself matters, but so much of what matters is the process that the rabbis went through and then the process that we’re going through trying to understand it.

When I have taught Talmud to rabbinical students, I have grappled with the sometimes paralyzing question, “given the limited amount of time that I have, what do I want my students to walk out with?” Their responses to my questions have left me wondering what “content” even means. That is, when I teach Talmud, is “content” the subject matter that the rabbis are discussing, or is “content” actually the combination of subject matter and of the gemara’s processing of that subject matter? If I want the students to understand how the rabbis think about shunning, for example, would it be enough to just read the text in translation? Or would they lose the actual totality of the content? Is it the same as the difference between teaching a formula in physics, and having the students do an experiment that demonstrates the formula? To my great joy, it would seem from the responses of the students in the study that most understand process and subject matter to go hand in hand in producing “content.”