By Arielle Levites

What does it mean to a student to understand rabbinics?

While rabbinic texts have long played a central role in the development of contemporary Judaisms and Jewish day school curricula, we don’t know very much about students’ learning. While we have some sense of what teachers and other experts think constitutes an understanding of rabbinics (Levisohn 2010, and Kanarek and Lehman 2016), there is little data about what students actually know about or are able to do with particular texts, or what sense they make of rabbinics as a whole.

In the spring of 2017, as part of the Mandel Center’s Students’ Understanding of Rabbinics project, we interviewed twenty students recruited from two Jewish community day high schools about their study of rabbinics. The students we interviewed offered three major types of approaches to understanding rabbinic texts:

  1. Translation and decoding of syntax
  2. Following the logic of the argument
  3. Making meaning.

As researchers we did not seek to impose a hierarchical assessment of understanding rabbinics because different educators and communities will want to emphasize different kinds of understanding, depending on their own goals for their students. Still, in the interviews many students expressed their own ideas of a hierarchy of understanding—with meaning-making, while not always achieved, occupying the highest level of understanding.

As reported by the students, the work of understanding rabbinic texts in school was primarily an exercise in translation to determine a plain meaning of the text. They described the focus of most class periods as translation from Hebrew and Aramaic into English, as well as on determining syntax to come up with a reasonably coherent translation. According to the students, understanding Talmud in their school seemed to be about understanding the plain meaning of the text, but they, as learners, wanted understanding to mean more than that.

Many students saw translation as a preliminary step toward understanding the text’s argument. Students often found this a more rewarding and important enterprise than the work of translation and adding syntax. Several said that understanding the argument gave them insight into rabbinic thinking and even influenced their own way of approaching arguments in other contexts.

A few students saw studying rabbinic texts as a process of making meaning and an opportunity to reflect on one’s purpose in life and the human experience generally.

More frequently, however, students made a distinction between the understanding that they developed in their Rabbinics classand what they thought would signify a true, deeper understanding of Talmud. Often they drew on their experience of closely reading texts in other subjects, including English and Tanakh.  Understandings of rabbinic texts that failed to meet a student’s own criteria for meaning often left the learner disappointed.

For example, David, an 11th grader, contrasted how he and his classmates read texts in his English class and in his Rabbinics class,

We read things in Beit Midrash. But then in English, we also like are supposed to have our own interpretations… I guess in Beit Midrash, we never really did anything like that. Maybe in the way we actually looked at texts, it’s like the least similar to English… I feel like in Beit Midrash that we would translate for like no purpose. There was no end goal in the translation. It was literally like the translation and then moving on to the next piece [of] text. There wasn’t actually like an end that we were supposed to reach. I guess the end was just like finishing the translation.

David had difficulty seeing what larger understanding or insight this translation work was helping him develop.

Naomi, a 10th grader, compared the study of Talmud to the study of Tanakh and English.

Talmud, because I think of it mostly as laws, I don’t think that there’s a morality that’s entrenched in it, versus the Tanakh, which is stories and which has characters and has a deeper meaning to me. In the same way as some English books would, but more so because it’s the Tanakh… To have a greater understanding [of Talmud]? It’s hard for me to know because I’ve never really tried to have a greater understanding. I’m not even sure really what a greater understanding of the Talmud would be, besides knowing what it says. But, for basic stuff – just a translation and knowing who says what, knowing how the argument proceeds.

Naomi wonders whether perhaps the primarily legal texts of the Talmud cannot be as meaningful as narratives, such as those found in Tanakh and English literature. She believes Talmud only lends itself to what she deems “basic” understanding: translation, syntax, and the tracing of the argument, but not “deeper meaning.” Notably, her paradigms (Tanakh as narrative and Talmud as law) ignore both the non-narrative elements in Tanakh and the non-legal elements in Talmud, which may or may not reflect her educational experience.

Understanding as a concept is made up of many facets and theoretical approaches. Saljo (1979) focuses on students’ own “conceptions of learning” a particular subject. That is, what kinds of skills, knowledge, and cognitive capacities do students believe they need to understand a subject? The Students’ Understandings of Rabbinics project continues with another round of interviews, which will probe some preliminary findings from this earlier stage. As we move towards a final report on this phase of study, we will examine whether students in other day schools demonstrate similar orientations to the study of rabbinic text that make the experience more or less valued as a worthwhile pursuit, and whether they share an implicit hierarchy of understanding rabbinic texts.

Arielle Levites is the project leader of the Students’ Understanding of Rabbinics project.