Learning How Jews Think: How Educators Conceptualize the Study of Rabbinics

April 20, 2017

Source: Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education, Brandeis University


As part of a larger study of student understandings of rabbinics what it is, how it is learned, and what it’s for—it was clear to the research team that it would be important to include the voices of day school educators who teach rabbinics. We interviewed ten educators, including those who teach rabbinics and those who supervise its teaching. We sought diversity by denomination (of the school and its students), geography, perceived sophistication of the school’s curricular approach by the standards and benchmarks team, and the educator’s pre-service preparation (rabbinic ordination, graduate level study of education, academic study of rabbinic text). We asked them how they conceptualized rabbinics and what understandings they wanted to develop in their students.

The educators we spoke with respected the complexity of rabbinic texts and the possibility that one could teach for a multiplicity of understandings. Yet when asked what understandings they themselves prioritized in their teaching, almost everyone emphasized inculcating in students an understanding of rabbinics as a model for reasoning and ethical decision making.
Through this lens, rabbinic texts are primarily a body of legal codes that explain how a person should act, or that lay out the process through which a person should decide how to act (often, and importantly, in discussion with others). This approach is only one way to think about what learning rabbinics is for and what modes of thinking an engagement with rabbinic texts provokes. We did not hear much about reading rabbinic texts as a source for personal theology, or as historical documents that illuminate the periods over which they emerged. One educator discussed the possibility of teaching of aggadic and midrashic rabbinic texts through the arts—an approach that would seem to be a fairly atypical presentation of the legacy of the rabbis in most day schools.

Understanding rabbinic texts as a model for ethical decision making and problem solving has important ramifications for the way rabbinics are presented in Jewish day schools. It can lead to a multitude of educator choices, from the selection of texts to the activities for learning in the classroom, all of which shape students’ experiences of this vast, diverse, and complex body of literature. As we begin a series of interviews with current day school students in the next few weeks about their own conceptions of rabbinics: what it is, how it is studied, and to what purpose, it remains to be seen to what extent students will echo the understandings of their teachers.

Read the entire article at the Mandel Center's blog.

Updated: May. 03, 2017