By Arielle Levites
As part of a larger study of student understandings of rabbinics—what it is, how it is learned, and what it’s for—it was clear to the research team that it would be important to include the voices of day school educators who teach rabbinics. We interviewed ten educators, including those who teach rabbinics and those who supervise its teaching. We sought diversity by denomination (of the school and its students), geography, perceived sophistication of the school’s curricular approach by the standards and benchmarks team, and the educator’s pre-service preparation (rabbinic ordination, graduate level study of education, academic study of rabbinic text). We asked them how they conceptualized rabbinics and what understandings they wanted to develop in their students.
The educators we spoke with respected the complexity of rabbinic texts and the possibility that one could teach for multiple understandings. Yet when asked what understandings they prioritized in their teaching, almost everyone emphasized promoting an understanding of rabbinics as a model for reasoning and ethical decision making.
One educator in a community day school explained that she wanted her school’s students to understand that “rabbinics is a language of decisions and questioning… It’s a way for us to think when we encounter dilemmas. We have a tradition that teaches us what [to] do when we encounter modern dilemmas. In studying rabbinics we learn how Jews think.” Another educator in a modern Orthodox day school offered examples of the kinds of dilemmas he hoped his students would be prepared to navigate. He explained “the point … is … to discuss and debate and to think and to act…. So if we said ‘should women become rabbis?’ or ‘what does Judaism think about homosexuality?’ …. What ought to happen is students should be able to thoughtfully analyze the question without needing to have seen the question before because they have learned the principles of how [rabbinic reasoning] works.”
Through this lens, rabbinic texts are primarily a body of legal codes that explain how a person should act, or that lay out the process through which a person should decide how to act (often, and importantly, in discussion with others). Some educators offered “secular” moral dilemmas (such as whether to smoke marijuana or separate conjoined twins) and others offered more parochially “Jewish” dilemmas (like those in the paragraph above). The educators shared an interest in looking at the text as a means of inducting students into what they saw as a uniquely Jewish mode of thinking, marked by features such as multi-vocality, disagreement, use of prooftexts, and the favoring complexity over clear resolution.
This approach is only one way to think about what learning rabbinics is for and what modes of thinking an engagement with rabbinic texts provokes (for more examples, see Levisohn 2010, and Kanarek and Lehman 2016). We did not hear much about reading rabbinic texts as a source for personal theology, or as historical documents that illuminate the periods over which they emerged. One educator discussed the possibility of teaching of aggadic and midrashic rabbinic texts through the arts—an approach that would seem to be a fairly atypical presentation of the legacy of the rabbis in most day schools.
Understanding rabbinic texts as a model for ethical decision making and problem solving has important ramifications for the way rabbinics are presented in Jewish day schools. It can lead to a multitude of educator choices, from the selection of texts to the activities for learning in the classroom, all of which shape students’ experiences of this vast, diverse, and complex body of literature. As we begin a series of interviews with current day school students in the next few weeks about their own conceptions of rabbinics: what it is, how it is studied, and to what purpose, it remains to be seen to what extent students will echo the understandings of their teachers.
Arielle Levites is leader of the Students’ Understanding of Rabbinics project and an affiliated scholar at the Mandel Center.
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