Students' Understanding of Rabbinics

May. 02, 2016

Source: Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education


What have alumni of Jewish day schools learned, in the field of rabbinics? What do they understand about Talmud or other rabbinic literature? How do they conceptualize the subject, how do they think about its significance, and how do they feel about their learning?

While the study of rabbinic literature is a central component of the Jewish day school curriculum in both liberal and Orthodox schools, we know almost nothing about what students have learned, what they understand, or how they think. Educators and researchers therefore lack the empirical basis to articulate sound educational goals for this subject.

In an initial, exploratory phase of this project, we examined students' understanding of rabbinics by gathering interview data from new day school alumni, with input from scholars, teachers and other subject matter experts. A report on the findings from Phase I is now available. Phase II is now extending the exploration, gathering new data to enrich our understanding.

In the past decades, Talmud study has become more prevalent in American Jewish life: Day school enrollment expanded in the 1990s and adult education has similarly expanded, each bringing more learners to Talmud study. Simultaneously, scholarship in Jewish education has become increasingly sophisticated. Yet we continue to have very few studies of the teaching and learning of sacred Jewish texts, either from the teachers’ or especially from the students’ perspectives.

This project, A Text That is Never Resolved: Skills, Knowledge and Personal Meaning in Students' Experiences of Rabbinic Literature, endeavored to create an initial presentation of Talmud study from the students’ perspectives, looking very specifically not at their experience of their classes but at what they know from their lessons. The study was constructed in order to support an applied project, the Standards and Benchmarks project of the William Davidson Graduate School of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, which offers a set of standards around which day school teachers of Rabbinics construct their classes. As a result, the study focused on the ideas of high school students, particularly recent high school graduates, as opposed to adult learners or children. The study sought to illuminate what students actually do learn through their high school Rabbinics (Talmud) experiences, so as to inform the development of a set of standards for teaching and learning that schools might adopt for their use.

In total, 13 students participated in the study. They:

  • Graduated from a range of schools located throughout North America. Some student respondents were from the same schools, although we do not know if they had the same teachers (and nothing about their schools was referenced in their interviews). • Included both men and women.
  • Included students of different ages, from those who graduated just months before the interview to those who graduated a year or two in the past.
  • Varied in their religious observance and in the extent to which Judaism is important to them, including two currently studying in Orthodox yeshiva, a student beginning the joint Columbia-JTS program, and students in college who engage infrequently in Jewish life.

With 13 respondents, this study is a first step. In relating these findings, I offer concepts that might begin a typology. Moreover, that we identify concepts at all—as they are expressed by the students themselves—means that we can ask, are these our most desired learning outcomes? Are students experiencing what we as teachers might hope that they experience?

To begin to craft a typology, the findings follow a process that students experience:

  • What draws students into study? What excites them about study? (That is, in the study process, what marks the beginning of their process?)
  • What turns students away from study? What stops students from learning? (That is, in the study process, where does it go awry?)
  • What do students learn? (That is, in the study process, what is the result?)

We return, then, to the original question: What do we want for students who study Talmud? What do we want them to make of the Talmud? What role do we hope it plays in their Jewishness? What does it mean for them to know Talmud, and what are the different kinds of “know”?

From these few students’ experiences, we learn that teachers spend significant time devoted to the process of translation, and that exams may emphasize the same. How can we parse and identify what we want students to learn, be deliberate about their potential experiences, and devote classroom activities to desired outcomes? Even more important, how can we maximize the role that (not only the structure but) the content of this extraordinary text plays in the lives of Jewish students?

Updated: Oct. 09, 2016