When the Truth Is Not What Actually Happened: The Epistemology of Religious Truth in Orthodox Jewish Bible Study

June, 2019

Source: Religions 2019, 10(6), 378


Very little has been done to flesh out how students in religious school environments understand the nature of religious knowledge. How, for example, do students in religious Jewish or Christian schools understand their own knowledge of the Bible? What does it mean to believe in biblical stories? How do students’ beliefs about the Bible relate to their other cultural and existential beliefs about the world?

This paper offers a beginning account of student epistemologies about chumash (Bible) in Orthodox Jewish day schools. Chumash is the most basic subject of instruction in the early grades in Orthodox schools; it is universally studied across all of these schools, and it is foundational to Orthodox Jewish belief and culture. Previous research (Krakowski 2013; Sigel 2010) has demonstrated that chumash study in Orthodox Jewish day schools almost always integrates midrashic elaboration with textual analysis (particularly in the early years of instruction). Stories drawn from midrashim—homiletical expansions of the biblical text written mainly in late antiquity but whose content is often embedded within later Jewish biblical commentaries from the Middle Ages and after—frame student chumash learning both within the classroom and in other domains, e.g., when listening to sermons in the synagogue. Conversely, students’ non-school religious lives also frame chumash study; students learn chumash through the lens of their larger religious and cultural experiences as Orthodox Jews. Thus, chumash study is part of Orthodox life. It typically assumes midrashic expansions as necessary to its study, and both these aspects affect and are reflected to Orthodox classroom practices (Krakowski 2013).

Using data from two sources, classroom observation of a chumash class in an Orthodox day school and a set of clinical interviews conducted with Orthodox day school students, this paper asks a series of related exploratory questions: What beliefs do students in this setting maintain about chumash knowledge in this setting? More precisely, what epistemic commitments are assumed by chumash study? How does incorporating midrash into textual study shape students’ epistemology of chumash? How do chumash study practices in these schools relate to the types of claims students make about the biblical text?

These questions are foundational to all Orthodox Jewish education and have major implications for Jewish education more generally. How do schools’ and teachers’ curricular and pedagogical choices impact how students understand central elements of their religion? As students make sense of chumash, they may also be implicitly shaping the ways they understand truth, history, and the nature of knowledge itself.

This paper argues that the types of epistemological commitments that have been the subject of most epistemology research are a poor fit for understanding student understandings of chumash. Questions about the empirical truth of Bible and midrash that turn on evidence, sourcing, or historical accuracy do not help explain students’ understanding of the biblical text or the consequent religious epistemology that they develop through chumash study. Drawing on an initial set of data drawn from clinical interviews with 19 Orthodox day school students, we suggest that questions centered on the empirical “truth” of chumash may be the wrong epistemological heuristic to apply to chumash study, which privileges very different types of knowledge questions. In chumash study, “truth” is an ill-defined construct that hovers behind the practice, while chumash epistemology is built around other concerns, such as how or why the text appears as it does.


Krakowski, Moshe. 2013. Worldview Construction and Identity Formation in Ultra-Orthodox Jewish Elementary Schools. Diaspora, Indigenous, and Minority Education 7: 21–38.

Sigel, Deena. 2010. A Model for Teaching Midrash in the Primary School: Forming Understandings of Rabbinic Interpretation of Scripture. British Journal of Religious Education 32: 63–76.

Updated: Jul. 17, 2019