Learning about Learning

Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education, Brandeis University

Author: Susanne Shavelson (page 1 of 14)

Moving Beyond “Jewish Identity”

For many years, Jewish educators have relied on the phrase “Jewish identity” to describe their educational goals. We hear about “strengthening Jewish identity” or “deepening Jewish identity.” The Mandel Center’s new book, Beyond Jewish Identity: Rethinking Concepts and Imagining Alternatives (Academic Studies Press, September 2019), argues that this formulation is a problem. What does it actually mean? What are the unintended consequences of talking that way?

This is the first book to examine critically the relationship between Jewish education and Jewish identity. It looks at the costs of framing Jewish education in these terms and provides educators, policy makers, scholars and policy-makers new ways of thinking and talking about the desired outcomes of Jewish education.

Edited by Jon A. Levisohn (Brandeis University) and Ari Y. Kelman (Stanford University), the essays collected here argue that the use of “Jewish identity” as an educational goal hampers efforts to think seriously and aspirationally about Jewish education, and offer new possibilities for thinking about what Jewish education can be for.

Questions About Questions

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. Continue reading

Reframing the Conversation on Jewish Learning

Cover of the book Advancing the Learning Agenda in Jewish EducationA few years ago, Brandeis professor Jon A. Levisohn and Jewish Theological Seminary professor Jeffrey Kress began a conversation about what Jewish education might look like if educators shifted the focus to students’ learning, rather than teachers’ teaching. Levisohn is a philosopher; Kress is a psychologist. But together, they wondered how to shift the focus of discussions about Jewish education. How might those discussions pay more attention to shaping character, creating meaning, and making connections, and less to what teachers say or do?

If the goal of Jewish education is to help Jewish people live better lives, they thought, we need to think harder and more critically about the desired outcomes that support this flourishing. That conversation led to a 2015 conference at Brandeis that brought together researchers in Jewish and general education, from Jewish studies and the learning sciences, for an unprecedented exploration of how Jewish education can be expanded and enriched through a focus on learning.

Now selected essays from conference participants have been collected into a new volume, Advancing the Learning Agenda in Jewish Education (Academic Studies Press, 2018). It offers creative and critical perspectives on unexamined assumptions about learning in Jewish education, and promotes the idea that learning is never only about subject-matter knowledge but is always at the same time about the learner’s relationship to the subject—an idea that has taken hold in the science learning community.

Levisohn, director of the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education, said that the project was prompted by “a concern that Jewish educational processes built around outcomes that are too flat (such as learning facts) lead to alienation. It comes at a cost. There are too many cases in which students learn the material that teachers teach—but find it utterly irrelevant.”

Levisohn, Kress, director of research at the Leadership Commons at the Davidson School of Education, and their collaborators wanted to ask deeper, harder questions about student learning, such as, Kress said, “What frameworks for understanding and being in the world emerge from involvement in Jewish education? What would Torah learning look like if it were framed as socialization into a community?”

“We were dissatisfied with conversations about outcomes that seemed too narrow or too cognitive,” Levisohn said. “We need to focus on bigger, broader goals of meaning, connection, and flourishing. People need to have homes—within communities, traditions, and discourses. Jewish education can help to provide that home.”

Advancing the Learning Agenda in Jewish Education provides a fresh set of perspectives on a new set of questions about Jewish education. It offers new ideas, Kress said, “about what it means to be a learned Jew, and how Jewish education can inform multiple elements of the human experience.”

Megillat Esther and the Light Within

by Ziva R. Hassenfeld

An eighteenth century image of Queen EstherThe Talmud, in Mesechet Megila 14a, lists Esther as one of seven female prophets in Tanakh: “There were seven female prophets. Who were they? Sarah, Miriam, Devorah, Hannah, Avigail, Holda and Esther.” The reason for three of these women’s appearances on the list is clear: They are called prophetesses in the Torah. Three of these women require some interpretive gymnastics, but their cases basically make themselves. Then there is Esther. How exactly, in the only book of Tanakh where God does not appear, might the protagonist be a prophetess and a model for those of us who think deeply about the purposes of Jewish education?

The Talmud roots its hermeneutic case for Esther in verse 1 of Chapter 5:

וַיְהִ֣י ׀ בַּיּ֣וֹם הַשְּׁלִישִׁ֗י וַתִּלְבַּ֤שׁ אֶסְתֵּר֙ מַלְכ֔וּת וַֽתַּעֲמֹ֞ד בַּחֲצַ֤ר בֵּית־הַמֶּ֙לֶךְ֙ הַפְּנִימִ֔ית נֹ֖כַח בֵּ֣ית הַמֶּ֑לֶךְ וְ֠הַמֶּלֶךְ יוֹשֵׁ֞ב עַל־כִּסֵּ֤א מַלְכוּתוֹ֙ בְּבֵ֣ית הַמַּלְכ֔וּת נֹ֖כַח פֶּ֥תַח הַבָּֽיִת׃

On the third day, Esther put on malkhut and stood in the inner court of the king’s palace, facing the king’s palace, while the king was sitting on his royal throne in the throne room facing the entrance of the palace.

The Talmud asks, “Shouldn’t it have said, ‘in royal garments?’” (instead of malkhut, ‘royalty.’) The Talmud answers, “This teaches that Esther was clothed in the Divine Spirit… R’ Levi said, ‘As soon as she reached the chamber of idols, the Divine Presence departed from her, and she exclaimed, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’”

In a strange move, the Rabbis justify Esther as a prophetess by giving her divine attention and access, but then take it away right when Esther needs it most, as she prepares to approach King Ahashverosh on behalf of the Jews. The Midrash Yalkut Shimoni adds to this image of Esther’s compromised prophecy by calling this moment in history Eilat Hashachar, the liminal moment in the day where there is the first hint of light. Avivah Zornberg, one of the most poignant and brilliant modern Torah scholars, explains Esther the female prophetess: Continue reading

Stephen Colbert and the Goals of Jewish Education

by Ziva Hassenfeld and Jonah Hassenfeld

Rose McGowan and Stephen Colbert

Stephen Colbert and guest Rose McGowan

It’s not every night that Stephen Colbert talks Tanakh. Last week, in a somewhat unusual interview, actress and activist Rose McGowan brought up the biblical story of Jonah to explain her distaste for organized religion.

“There was a dude in a whale’s stomach that talked for three days or so. Then he got spit out because of Jesus. Am I following that correctly?”

“You… are not,” replied Colbert.

“I’m not?” McGowan seemed perplexed.

Colbert fills in some details of the story, but McGowan was already moving on: “It eventually gets to Jesus, right?” “Eventually, everything goes to Jesus,” he agreed.

As hilarious as this exchange was, there’s something worth lingering on here. Continue reading

« Older posts

Protected by Akismet
Blog with WordPress

Welcome Guest | Login (Brandeis Members Only)