'A Judaism That Does Not Hide': Teaching the Documentary Hypothesis in a Pluralistic Jewish High School

Jan. 15, 2008

Source: Journal of Jewish Education, Volume 74, Issue January 2008 , pages 29 - 52


In this article, the author examines and analyzes the experiences of students at a pluralistic Jewish high school studying the documentary hypothesis in biblical scholarship as an approach to reading the biblical text. Because this is a subject area that is laden with theological and emotional weight, and because her students are exposed to the documentary hypothesis more extensively than their peers at other schools, she wanted to understand more intensively - and more intentionally - their experience of learning it. In what follows, she examines selected student writings in order to understand their general experience - and especially the challenges they face - in learning and applying the documentary hypothesis. She locates her teaching of the documentary hypothesis in the context of the particular institution in which she works. She then classifies student experience in terms of different student types, and argues that for all of the kinds of students she encounters, this curricular choice is ultimately not only defensible but indeed beneficial to their theological and intellectual growth. She concludes by addressing many of the challenges other educators might and do raise: whether or not this is a "Jewish approach," whether it is wise to raise so many intergroup tensions in a high school environment, and how much time to devote to this aspect of the curriculum-and outline how a developmental perspective, too, supports this curricular and pedagogic choice.


She collected data during the 2002-2003 academic year from her 12th grade Tanakh classes at Gann Academy. In teaching 12th-grade Tanakh class over a period of two years, she became more aware of how her students were struggling with learning the documentary hypothesis and wanted to understand their experience better. Data collection took place chiefly during the first four months of the school year, when she taught Genesis 1-2 and introduced students to the documentary hypothesis and the source critical method.


In addition to videotaping her class and keeping a teacher's journal, she gathered data on how the students were making sense of the material that she was teaching. She copied students' weekly journals, short and long academic papers, and their reflective papers.She also kept copies of all her assignments.


The main source of data for this paper was the final assignment. To close the unit of studying Genesis 1-3 and introducing the documentary hypothesis, she assigned two papers. The first paper consisted of applying the documentary hypothesis to a "new" text, Numbers 16, dividing this redacted text into its earlier sources and to explaining a rationale for the divisions. The second paper was less academic in nature. For this one- to two-page assignment, she asked the students: "Please describe your thoughts, your feelings, and your reactions about having learned the documentary hypothesis."


It is readily apparent why teaching the documentary hypothesis, and thereby often challenging long-held and/or traditional beliefs, is such a charged topic, and why students can experience discomfort with it. That discomfort is understandable, and even pedagogically important. The teaching of the documentary hypothesis and the method of source criticism offer Tanakh teachers a profound curricular opportunity to engage their students in a dialogue around key biblical and religious issues, including the authorship and origin of the Torah. These conversations will elevate biblical texts beyond mere dogma or fairy tales. Without confronting the source-critical material, students may be left with naïve conceptions - or worse, they may discard Jewish sacred texts and find them irrelevant, as the texts are unable to withstand serious intellectual inquiry. There is little long-term benefit to sheltering students from religious issues that they will continue to confront as they mature into adult members of the Jewish community.
Despite the complexities involved, extensive teaching of the documentary hypothesis can be a highly beneficial and important aspect part of the curriculum at a pluralistic Jewish high school. It offers students openings to continue crafting their own theologies, establishing their own relationship to Jewish sacred texts, and envisioning their own Jewish lives - and provides teachers with a fertile opportunity to learn more about the hearts and minds of their students. It is the authors hope that more educators - and community Jewish high schools - will take this opportunity, accepting responsibility for helping students wrestle with this approach to Tanakh as well as publicly evaluating the impact of their work.

Updated: Mar. 26, 2008