The following research study presents data drawn from an arts-based qualitative research study from 2013. Students created artistic interpretations of biblical texts using a variety of media. One of the significant findings of the study was that learning through the arts provided students with an opportunity to take on the role of parshan, or biblical commentator. Three examples of artwork is presented and combined, they show that by taking on the role of parshan, students were able to craft original interpretations of text and develop new connections with the text. Learning in this way demonstrated the significance of integrating the arts into Bible curricula as a vehicle for developing new types of positive and educational experiences for students.
During the academic year of 2012–2013, I conducted practitioner research on 40 Grade 10 students in my own classroom at a community Jewish high school in Canada with the goal of understanding what specific benefits were offered to high school students when learning through the arts in Tanakh class. The questions that guided the research revolved around understanding whether the arts led to new insights into text, self, and community and how the arts facilitated these new types of experiences. Using Numbers 12 as the starting point, students were tasked with crafting a creative response to the text. Following the data analysis, it was evident that two different, yet connected, types of projects were created. The first involved personal reactions to the text in which students identified what the text meant to them. The second type of project involved creating new insights or commentaries on the text by trying to resolve an issue or problem in the text. The following article will present examples and analyze the pedagogic value of what it meant for students to act as a parshan, or commentator. The significance of this type of creative work cannot be overstated as it directly led to students forming new associations with biblical texts and a feeling that Tanakh can be relevant to them.
I have observed in my own school, and in schools that I have visited, that the arts do not play a prominent role in many secondary Jewish studies schools. Occasionally, students will have the opportunity to demonstrate some creativity, but rarely will they receive academic credit for their work, nor will the creative work be a substantive part of the learning process. I have been told by some colleagues that they do not know how to properly make use of the arts, while others have said that students in high school won’t seriously engage with a creative project. More often, though, I am told that there is no place in high school for creative work because teachers expect a depth of thinking from students that they do not believe could come out of an art project. The commentaries presented here directly challenge this notion.
One of the major findings of this study, and its significance for Jewish education as a whole, is its emphatic demonstration of how the arts facilitate a different type of learning experience as a direct result of the opportunity to be creative. By learning through the arts, students created new interpretations of text, which were not present in their previous Tanakh classroom experiences and which makes them a valuable anchor for classroom pedagogy.
The projects that emerged as part of this study demonstrate that the arts can be used as a tool which leads students to expand their knowledge of specific texts, demonstrate competence in Jewish literacy and deepen their personal encounter with Jewish texts, allowing them to consider the relevance of Tanakh as an important book in their lives. Learning through the arts allowed students to become biblical commentators and to craft their own insights about ancient text. This allowed students to place themselves on a continuum of Jewish textual tradition, and to see that their ideas were not always so different from Jews who studied the same texts and predated them by hundreds, if not thousands, of years. This led students to gain new appreciation for traditional text, while also interacting with the text in a way that encouraged them to think about the world in a new way. Jewish studies teachers, even in schools that do not want their students to challenge the authority of the text, can make use of the arts as a vehicle for helping students think about their place in the transmission of Torah from one generation to another. Through this, the students can act as contemporary biblical commentators, extending and applying their insights to address problems they identify in the world today.