Studying Sacred Texts as a Pathway to Positive Youth Development: Middle School Students Read Hebrew Bible

June, 2019

Source: Religions 2019, 10(6), 379 



Sacred text study need not be only a canvas through which to transmit religious values. It can move from passive reception to active religious activity. And as such, it has the potential, as part of a child’s religious environment, to contribute significantly to positive youth development. In what follows, I will describe how sacred text study can be taught in such a way that makes it an active religious activity. I will present findings from my own teacher research in which I implemented a pedagogical intervention that taught Hebrew Bible as an active religious and interpretive activity. This paper begins with an exploration of conceptions of textual meaning in literary theory and educational research and goes on to introduce the pedagogical intervention, its findings, and the promising implications for Positive Youth Development (PYD).

This study examines a Jewish sacred text classroom from a different perspective. It reports on the findings of an attempt to bring reader-response theory into the study of sacred texts. It asks: What happens when a sacred text teacher moves away from a transmission model of teaching to instead allowing students to bring their own interpretations to the sacred texts? How do students interpret the text given the room to do so?

Materials and Methods

This study took place in a religious context, specifically a Hebrew Bible classroom in a Jewish private day school. The classroom in which this research was conducted, unlike the majority of Hebrew Bible classrooms in Jewish day schools (Hassenfeld 2017), took a reader-response approach to text study, emphasizing students’ identities and interpretations when studying sacred texts. I know so because I was teacher. As part of a one-year research grant, I became a 7th grade Hebrew Bible teacher in one Jewish K-8 school. While this was my first time teaching in this school, I was familiar with the community and the school. Before beginning my doctoral work, I had taught Hebrew Bible full time in another Jewish day school in the area. I also knew many of the families from the broader Jewish community in which I live and practice. Becoming the teacher gave me pedagogical control so that I could explore the phenomenon of student interpretation of sacred texts in an ideal context. It had the additional privilege of allowing me to get to know each student. As will become clear, getting to know the students added tremendous depth to my understanding of the students as interpreters.

The goal was to implement an approach to teaching Hebrew Bible that would allow students to develop close reading skills, while also making room for them to interpret the text in ways that were “internally persuasive”. Close reading, a traditional hermeneutic for Jewish Hebrew Bible study, sets it apart from the biblical hermeneutics of other traditions. The Hebrew Bible curriculum developed for this intervention was one in which the traditional Jewish hermeneutic of close reading was cultivated in service of individual interpretation.

Creating a Classroom Community of Interpretation

The school in which this study took place is situated in a particular cultural and religious milieu. The school is traditional. In this school Hebrew Bible is considered sacred. Children receive their first personal copy of the Hebrew Bible in second grade and the entire community gathers to celebrate this milestone. At the same time, the religious milieu of the school is progressive and non-doctrinal. In other words, while an intervention that intentionally emphasized students’ interpretations may have been pedagogically novel, it was well within the theological bounds of the school.

The curricular and pedagogical intervention implemented in this study cultivated a particular interpretive community (Fish 1980) with very intentional interpretive rules. First, in this classroom there were no authoritative interpretations. Second, the metric of a strong interpretation was not its alignment with tradition, or the historical or cultural context of the biblical text, but rather the ability to ground the interpretation in the words of the biblical text itself. That was the primary interpretive principle, to ground a comment about the text in the language of the text. The primary expectation was that students would use the text to understand the text. In other words, the particular constraints placed on textual interpretation in this pedagogical intervention were about process not content. It was this focus on creative and elastic close reading that shaped the interpretive community.

Data Collection

Data collection took place from fall 2017 to spring 2018. It focused on the whole class text discussions over the course of the entire intervention (one complete school year). Whole class text discussion was the culminating activity of every unit, each of which focused on a single biblical text ranging from 10 to 18 verses. Throughout each unit, students spent time translating the text and reading classical commentaries on the text. The whole class discussion came after the students had been immersed in study of the text for two weeks. Each student brought one question to whole class discussion and the students decided together which questions they wished to pursue in discussion. During discussion, students controlled the discourse. As the teacher, I only stepped in for classroom management and to occasionally summarize student comments. These whole class discussions demonstrated in a situated mannerstudents’ development of close reading skills as well as the focus of their textual inquires.

Every whole class discussion was video-recorded and audio-recorded. The transcripts of these discussions were the primary data source in this project. Alongside these transcripts were a number of secondary data sources that served to triangulate the findings. These included my teaching journal, student work, and ongoing assessment of the students’ biblical Hebrew decoding skills.

Data Analysis

Whole class discussions were video recorded and later transcribed. The transcripts were analyzed for both close reading skills and the nature of students’ textual inquiries. It was important to measure both because the hypothesis of the intervention was that developing close reading skills with sacred texts, combined with a reader-response pedagogy, would facilitate students’ personal meaning making of the biblical texts. To measure close reading, student comments were analyzed for how they used the biblical text. A text-intensive comment referred to a student comment in which s/he specifically analyzed and cited a word or phrase in the biblical text. In contrast, a non-text-intensive comment referred to a student comment in which s/he did not quote the text. When the students discussed the biblical text, were they using the original Biblical Hebrew? To measure the focus of their textual discussions, I turned to discourse analysis. I looked at the emerging themes in their text discussions and connected them to broader conversations and experiences the students were having outside of the classroom.


Over the course of the year, students began to study the text with increased attention to the details of the text. At the same time, given the space, their textual discussions broached topics that were deeply personal and relevant to their lives.

As the year progressed, the students increasingly used the Biblical Hebrew text to talk about the text. Of course, there were fluctuations, but the overall pattern is clear. Students’ discussions of texts were increasingly rooted in the language of the texts themselves. It is important to note that the students did not begin the year quoting the biblical text in their discussions. Through the intentional design of this curricular and pedagogical intervention, which involved many different scaffolds and avenues into the text, the students learned how to engage in rich text-intensive discussions.

As the year progressed, and the students became more comfortable and trusting of the fact that the interpretive space was truly theirs, they began to use the biblical text as a canvas for exploring deeply personal issues.

Research practitioners before me have documented the ways in which reading and discussing literature can facilitate students’ exploration of salient issues of identity and moral questions. In this sense, the interpretive community created in this Hebrew Bible classroom was just another good text classroom that taught students how to read in a meaningful way.

But I would suggest that there was something unique about reading a sacred text in this way. The students in this study have continually been told throughout their lives that the Hebrew Bible holds deep meaning and relevance. And yet, that meaning has always been presented as something external to the students. Something that need not be constructed in the classroom but rather exists as stable truth to be imported into the classroom by experts.

The interpretive community created in this Hebrew Bible classroom gave students the opportunity to find the text’s meaning for themselves, and the tools to do so. The interactive effect of the cultural significance of the Hebrew Bible combined with a method of close reading and open-ended interpretation allowed students to develop personally relevant and meaningful readings of the text The next step in this research is to follow these students and see how this sort of religious text classroom affects their overall religious development.


Hassenfeld, Ziva R. 2017. Teaching sacred texts in the classroom: The pedagogy of transmission and the pedagogy of interpretive facilitation. Journal of Jewish Education 83: 339–66. 

Fish, Stanley Eugene. 1980. Is There a Text in This Class? Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 

Updated: Jul. 17, 2019