Torah-Centered Judaism and the Rabbinics Classroom

July 31, 2013

Source: eJewish Philanthropy


Our Rabbinics curriculum should press us to ask crucial questions about what it means to cultivate Jewish identity in the 21st century. What types of encounter with Torah should we be creating for our students? What exactly will inspire young adults to make a passionate and long-term commitment to Torah and to the community that is its steward? In the vast world of Rabbinic tradition, what types of content should we prioritize? How do we define our main objectives?...


Rabbinics faculties at schools around the country are starting to think seriously about these challenges. Individual educators are examining Rabbinics teaching through the lens of curricular design. Experienced educators have also been joined by an influx of new teachers with deeper expertise in Rabbinic Literature. In addition to the established seminaries and education schools, there is a network of new institutions that offer extensive Talmud training in a progressive framework. For alumni of the Pardes Educators’ Program, the Conservative Yeshiva, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, and other programs, pluralistic schools are a natural home.


Moreover, as several of the newer high schools grow into maturity, teachers who move between schools have begun to share methods, materials, and philosophies of teaching Rabbinics. Academic work from Jon Levisohn and colleagues at the Mandel Center at Brandeis University, especially the work of “The Initiative on Bridging Scholarship and Pedagogy in Jewish Studies”, have begun to more clearly define the competing goals and concerns that Rabbinics teachers balance and to challenge some of our assumptions about how to reach those goals. We are in a position to have a richer community-wide conversation about what it means to teach Rabbinics, and thus to shape a concept of “Judaism” for our students, than we could ever have had before.


Rabbinics educators should seize this moment to start treating Rabbinics as a discipline. We must start talking about these big picture questions not only within schools, but across schools as well. We need to discuss what the study of Rabbinics should be in our schools and how we get there. To do that, we need to start to develop clear language in which to describe both our goals and our methods. A common language will allow us to have a real conversation about the merits and challenges of different orientations toward rabbinic texts, in Levisohn’s language. We need to challenge ourselves to more carefully define our goals; to more precisely pair methods with goals; and to look together for effective ways to test our methods and assess whether and to what extent we have achieved those goals.


The product of such a dialogue will not be a single set of guidelines for what specific content schools should be teaching or which goals are most valuable. Articulating and teaching a Judaism worth upholding is not about choosing a single truth – we know that there is no such thing.


Rather, such a dialogue can clarify the bases and challenges of different approaches, so that curricular decisions reflect a school’s values and vision. It can challenge us to continuously question and refine our practice and to consider different approaches to both understanding and teaching this material. Most of all, it would be the beginning of a profoundly important conversation about what rabbinic texts should mean in a non-Orthodox context. This is a conversation that needs multiple voices and perspectives, experienced educators who are prepared to learn from each other.


The lessons we learn from such a dialogue have the potential to transform how we think about the challenge of building the Jewish future. They can help us to recover the core values that should animate our work. Our Rabbinics classrooms, like our communities, should be constantly engaged with a principle that, despite its importance, is too easily sidelined: the belief that a serious and expansive conversation about the many different ways to approach our texts and tradition can itself serve as the core around which a truly modern Judaism can flourish.


Read the entire article at eJewish Philanthropy.

Updated: Sep. 11, 2013