What Can Jewish Scholarship Contribute to Jewish Teaching?: The Case of the Rabbinic Tale


Source: Journal of Jewish Education, 87:1, 78-106


What does it mean for teachers to “know their subject matter” and what are—or might be—the sources of teachers’ knowledge? The article contends that there is an underutilized potential resource for Jewish teachers that Judaica scholarship about classic texts may offer to pedagogy. The article examines, as a model, the Rabbinic tale—stories found in Rabbinic literature about the Rabbis themselves—homing in on the ways that this literature is viewed by scholars today. It then explores the pedagogic implications of this scholarship and suggests both the advantages and complexities in using Judaica scholarship in this fashion.

What do we learn from this bird’s-eye view of the scholarship about the Rabbinic tale? And what can this contribute to the teaching of Rabbinic tales? Scholarship about the Rabbinic tale leads to the following animating ideas, the substantive structures that can guide pedagogy:

  • Rabbinic tales should not be viewed as reliable historical data that gives us the “true” biographies of the sages.
  • Nor are these tales hagiographic—saintly portraits of flawless individuals. Indeed, one of the reasons that these stories still speak to us is that they show the humanity of our ancient forebears, people with both strengths and weaknesses.
  • Rabbinic tales should be viewed as carefully shaped literary artifacts by editors, most of whom lived long after the Rabbis who are the subjects of these tales.
  • These stories offer us insight into the world of the ancient Rabbis, their concerns, their values, the tensions with which they lived.
  • Therefore, applying the tools of literary analysis is an important hermeneutic lens as we study or teach these tales.
  • Hence asking the following question will help unlock the meanings inherent in these tales: “How did the storytellers employ wordplay, irony, dialogue, rhetorical questions, repetition, biblical verses, and structural parallels to create meanings?” (Rubenstein, 1999, p. 23).
  • A fundamental question—perhaps the fundamental question—appropriate to ask about any of these tales is: Why was this tale preserved; what were the editors of the Rabbinic sources aiming to teach the future readers of these texts?
  • Although as teachers we may not have the scholar’s expertise in the work of source criticism or redaction criticism, studying the work of scholars in these domains may help illuminate tales for us.
  • Stories should be analyzed as autonomous creations, and where possible the study of parallel versions of tales about the same sage can let us “see the different concerns and interests of the different storytellers, or gain a window into how they emphasized certain matters that their counterparts did not” (Rubenstein, 1999, p. 23).


Rubenstein, J. L. (1999). Talmudic stories: Narrative art, composition, and culture. Johns Hopkins University Press. [Google Scholar]

Updated: Jul. 18, 2021