Today we hear from Marjorie Lehman (JTS) who, with Jane Kanarek (Hebrew College), led the Mandel Center’s Learning to Read Talmud project. In June, they convened ten scholars of rabbinic literature to reflect on how students learn to read Talmud. Here, she shares some of the questions about teaching and learning that surfaced.
Scholars in the field of Talmud and Rabbinics who also teach rarely have an opportunity to reflect, analyze, and discuss their successes and challenges in the classroom. While we attend academic conferences to discuss our work, and publish research in books and articles, we spend little time learning from one another about what we do in our courses or reflecting together on how the pedagogical decisions we make affect the learning outcomes of our students.
All of us spend a great deal of time preparing to teach our students how to read rabbinic texts. We articulate goals based on the teaching contexts in which we find ourselves, think about appropriate assignments, and examine what we can learn about our students’ abilities from them, but we tend not to gather to discuss our pedagogy–as important as it is. Furthermore, few of us ever take on the task of writing about how we translate our scholarship into teaching, or of reflecting on the extent to which teaching well and researching well do—or do not—inform one another.
But recently, at the invitation of the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education, Jane Kanarek (Hebrew College) and I gathered ten scholars in our field who represent universities and seminaries throughout North America, along with two scholars in the field of Jewish Education, to discuss how we teach our students to read rabbinic texts. The workshop was an outgrowth of the Mandel Center’s Learning to Read Talmud project, which culminated in our forthcoming book, Learning to Read Talmud: What It Looks Like and How It Happens (Academic Studies Press, forthcoming later this year).
It was clear that the Mandel Center had offered us an incredible opportunity. We were able to think through larger teaching and learning aspirations that are subject-specific to Talmud and Rabbinics. Together we could bring to the fore the scholarly dimension of teaching, that is, our engagement in the intellectual task of thinking about our courses by laying out questions and using the skills of a researcher to find answers to them. We were able to ask such questions of one another as:
- If the Talmud reflects and provokes a particular type of intellectual activity, how do we lead our students not only to recognize that activity and to read for it, but also to take part in it?
- How do we train our students in a counter-cultural approach to reading where they learn to feel comfortable with texts that are ambiguous and unclear?
- How do we ensure that they do not read past what appears incoherent?
- Is there a way that they can come to understand that posing more and more questions does not render the texts impenetrable, but rather enables them to discover myriad dimensions of rabbinic culture, to find meaning in a text’s obscurities and to feel comfortable with the notion that they will not find absolute clarity?
Lee Shulman has insisted that scholars in all fields need to create communities to share, critique and build upon one another’s work in the scholarship of teaching. Scholars of Talmud and Rabbinics, it seems, thanks to a commitment by the Mandel Center to invest in this endeavor, have begun to consider how much they can gain when together they dissect how to enhance student reading and therefore learning.
 Lee Shulman. (1993). “Teaching as Community Property: Putting an End to Pedagogical Solitude.” Change 25 (6), 6-7.