Toward a Moral-Imaginative Pedagogy of Talmudic Narratives

Jul. 03, 2015

Source: Journal of Jewish Education, Volume 81, Issue 3, pages 312-339


This article proposes a theoretical framework for understanding the possibility of Talmudic stories (as well as other narratives and scenes of interactions among two or more characters) to nurture the growth of the moral imagination as it is expressed in two related but distinct ways. At the intersection of work by educators, literary critics, and Talmudists, the approach suggested in this article offers a foundation for a Talmud pedagogy that provides a sophisticated, nuanced, and morally imaginative engagement with the text that is not restricted to technically or linguistically advanced students, and is independent of the subject matter of the text and other curricular goals.


The article identifies a connection between reading narrative and the moral imagination, and applies that understanding to the problem of Talmud education for students in high school and beyond, suggesting possible directions and strategies.

It is one thing to say that a morally sensitive reading of a narrative will be attentive to the tensions, interactions, and relationships between and among the various characters. But not all characters are meant to be understood as independent moral agents; not all plots are driven by the logic of human psychology. Different kinds of narrative use plot and character in different ways and toward different ends, and as a consequence require different reading strategies. Following a brief review of some of the relevant background in the use of stories in both rabbinic and moral education, I identify five distinct narrative types found in the Talmud based on the different reading challenges and opportunities they offer, and explore the particular issues raised by each for a moral-imaginative pedagogy.


In this article, I have tried to demonstrate that Talmudic narrative passages, from fully developed stories to allegories to genre tales to halakhic debates, can be a forum for developing a way of seeing the world. This way of seeing, identified here as the moral imagination, involves (as the term suggests) the ability to develop a sense of morally significant possibilities that are as yet unknown, based on the known. These possibilities can involve the otherwise inaccessible inner life of an other person, the implications of an action, etc.

Although different kinds of narrative will demand different reading strategies, there are certain generally applicable practices that will help to nurture the student reader’s moral imagination. These can be thought of as questions and/or tasks for the reader to address at various points in his or her encounter with the text:

  • How does the narrative present itself? What kinds of truth claims does it make? What are the nonce and fixed norms? What kinds of questions does it invite?
  • Identify the various parties implicated, not just the obvious ones, or main characters. Whose voices are not being heard?
  • Identify the moments of moral import, and how they might affect the involved parties.
  • Pay attention to the emotional content of an interaction; identify what emotional markers may be found.
  • Identify, and try to understand, the choices being made, both by the characters and the author. What is at stake in those choices?
  • Identify the moral vision implicit in those choices, and compare them with one’s own. What experiences or understandings might account for the differences?

It will be seen, though, that the approach I am suggesting addresses not only abilities, but dispositions as well; so that a student will begin to develop certain habits of mind, at least insofar as it relates to the texts. These dispositions—patience, intellectual humility, attention, as well as openness and creativity—grow out of an awareness of certain principles that have been articulated throughout the article:

  • Understanding precedes judgment;
  • Because much is unseen and inaccessible, understanding requires imagination as well as knowledge;
  • There may not be clear heroes or villains in a given situation;
  • There may be no “right decision” in a given situation that will resolve all difficulties;
  • Every interaction between people is potentially morally significant.

Rabbi Israel Salanter is famously quoted as having said, “The MaHaRal of Prague created a golem, and this was a great wonder. But how much more wonderful is to transform a corporeal human being into a mensch …” (Etkes, 1993, p. 94). To be sure, the experience of reading Talmudic narratives, even reading them according the approach described here, will not in itself work that transformation. It can, though, help develop the vision and the attitudes that are crucial attributes of that process.

Updated: Sep. 24, 2015