By Ziva R. Hassenfeld
My students and I were in the middle of discussing Genesis 12:10-20, the story in which Abraham asks Sarah to say that she is his sister as they descend to Egypt. The Torah, however, does not record any dialogue when they arrive in Egypt, so that we don’t know what, if anything, Sarah said. Later, when Pharaoh, who took Sarah as his wife, discovers that she is indeed a married woman, he asks Abraham why he said she was his sister.
Saul, a passionate and excited student, raises his hand with a possible resolution.
Saul: Okay so I think it’s possible that no one said anything and when people saw him–like Avram just walked up to Mitzrayim. And Sarai didn’t introduce herself as his sister and Avram didn’t say anything about that and they just assumed “Okay she’s his sister, let’s take her to Pharaoh.”
Jane calls out: They didn’t lie but they didn’t say anything
Saul: And they didn’t lie but they didn’t correct. And then the courtiers went to Pharaoh and were like, “Oh ya, there’s this girl she’s Avram’s sister.” So then Pharaoh assumed that Avram told them that Sarai was his sister.
Ziva: Love it! Stronger with textual evidence. I think–textual evidence doesn’t have to be spelling it out for you. This is literature. This is Torah. There can be hints.
There is an interpretive activity that lies at the heart of “advanced” literary analysis as well as rabbinic hermeneutics. It focuses on the details in the text–the words, the syntax, sometimes even the individual letters–in order to make meaning. This privileging of the smallest units of analysis guides new criticism’s close reading and often directs the flow of a daf of Gemara, so that every letter, every seemingly superfluous word, every missing word, teaches us something.
For most of my career as a Jewish studies teacher, I held this type of interpretation up as the gold standard. The value of Saul’s interpretation would stand and fall on whether or not he could make a textual case for it. I wanted to teach this style of interpretation because I believed it prepared my student for both literary and religious text study. When I was a high school Tanakh teacher, many of my students rose to the challenge and met my expectations. They made meaning out of extra vavs and repeated phrases. They juxtaposed subjects called by proper name and subjects called by pronouns. Some of my other students did not care for it and eventually found themselves utterly uninterested in the study of biblical texts. It was with these students in mind that I entered my doctoral program in curriculum and teacher education.
Five years (and one doctorate) later, I am back in the Tanakh classroom, this time in an elementary school. Immersed in the study of biblical texts with these younger students, I am noticing something I never experienced teaching high school. Continue reading