Putting Students Front and Center in the Hebrew Bible Classroom: Inquiry-Oriented Pedagogy in the Orthodox and Liberal Classroom

March 2018

Source: Journal of Jewish Education, 84:1, 4-31


Inquiry-oriented pedagogy is a difficult pedagogy to enact in the classroom. By placing students’ questions and textual ideas at the center, the teacher opens the door to unanticipated and sometimes off-the-wall comments in text discussion. And yet, research has shown that it is exactly this type of pedagogy that leads to increased engagement and comprehension. This study examines two elementary school Hebrew Bible teachers’ enactment of inquiry-oriented pedagogy. It explores how one pedagogy can look very different in different contexts and the contrasting motivations teachers hold.

Rabbi Goldman teaches fourth grade in an Orthodox day school located in the metropolitan area of a West Coast city. His colleague, Yonatan, teaches second grade at a liberal day school across town. Although these two teachers have never met, and would disagree profoundly about how to practice Judaism, their classrooms share some striking similarities. Even a casual visitor would notice that these classrooms are not the stereotypical religious school classroom where students read a verse and memorize Rashi’s answers to the questions he poses. In both of these classes, student excitement is palpable. The students generate their own questions about the biblical text, bat around conflicting interpretations, and work together to build a compelling understanding of the text.

The case of Rabbi Goldman and Yonatan shows that a pedagogy based in student inquiry is possible across denominational settings. These teachers adopted the same pedagogy for teaching Hebrew Bible to young students, but they talked about their teaching in very different terms and articulated very different goals. The comparison of their teaching and their reflections on their teaching sheds light on how an inquiry-oriented pedagogy can serve many different Jewish educational visions.

This article aims to address two questions:

  • What rationale do Jewish studies teachers with different religious beliefs offer in explaining their use of an inquiry-oriented pedagogy? 
  • How does an inquiry-oriented pedagogy manifest itself in the very different settings of an Orthodox and a liberal day school?

This article offers an in-depth comparison of two teachers who took the road less traveled. These two teachers adopted an inquiry-oriented pedagogy while teaching Hebrew Bible. Rabbi Goldman, an ultra-Orthodox fourth grade teacher in an Orthodox day school and Yonatan, a liberal second-grade teacher in a liberal day school, taught Hebrew Bible in a remarkably similar manner. Comparing these two teachers, their teaching and their reflections on their teaching, will shed light on how an inquiry-oriented pedagogy can serve many different Jewish educational visions.


I have outlined in this article two teachers’ motivations for, and implementation of, an inquiry-oriented pedagogy for the teaching of biblical texts. Rabbi Goldman and Yonatan understand their reasoning for using this pedagogy differently and engage their students in two different interpretive activities through this pedagogy. Rabbi Goldman’s class is constrained by interpretive assumptions that characterize traditional Jewish approaches to text (Kugel, 2007). Yonatan rejects these assumptions in favor of those characteristic of secular literature study.

I want to conclude with a strong and clear message: the findings of this research serve as a proof text. They suggest that any assumption that religious ideology maps onto pedagogy in a simple and straightforward way is wrong. The existence of two distinct models and applications of an inquiry-oriented pedagogy in the teaching of sacred texts is evidence that student-centered text instruction is not only for some Jewish contexts. When Devra Lehmann (2008) explains the use of the pedagogy of transmission in the Orthodox Jewish studies classroom as inevitable, a necessity for developing Jews “who were committed to their tradition” (p. 312); or Katzin (2015) explains it as the logical pedagogy for a “religious stance toward knowledge, which accords it sacrosanct attributes” (p. 292), they miss what Rabbi Goldman sees as the religious stance toward text. When they talk about the teaching of sacred texts as necessarily being about traditional interpretation, they miss the alternative vision Yonatan holds for how Jewish students might relate to the biblical text. We cannot conflate context or ideology with pedagogical approach. It is a mistake to assume that most liberal teachers are inquiry-oriented or that no Yeshiva-trained rabbi can be inquiry-oriented. This is rare in both contexts, but compatible with a range of religious ideologies.

Moreover, it is important not to equate inquiry-oriented pedagogy with a practice of text-lite, self-exploration. This equation misses the textual rigor that is possible when this pedagogy is adopted in a thoughtful manner. For some, inquiry-oriented pedagogy, in its emphasis on students’ thoughts and questions, fits a caricature of certain Jewish environments, where the text is simply a canvas for personal meaning making and even the most nascent readers of sacred texts are prized because they themselves are fascinating enigmas whose every comment is an insight into their own narrative history. In Yonatan and Rabbi Goldman’s hands, however, an inquiry-oriented pedagogy is much more than this: it is a rigorous process of text study, cultivating a hard-nosed discipline toward the text. Each teacher is developing a slightly different discipline toward the biblical text, but a close, careful, and thoughtful engagement with the text itself is the signature feature of both. These teachers demonstrate that letting students ask their own questions does not mean “letting go” of the text.

This study looked at only two teachers. In this way, it is akin to the sighting of a rare bird. These are two classrooms where students, even in these early grades, are able to become the type of engaged and informed readers of sacred texts that we hope adults will be. Though it is only two classrooms, the mere fact of their existence, one in an Orthodox school one in a liberal school, shows us a path forward for text education in Jewish studies. Bekerman and Rosenfeld (2011) offer a bleak diagnosis of Jewish education and specifically the role of text study in Jewish education: “Less threatening but just as conducive to creating failure is Jewish education’s emphasis on texts that are- as currently taught- neither accessible nor relevant to the students’ lives.” They go on, “We need to search for ways to adapt the [textual] knowledge Jews value to make it relevant in present contexts . . . in which students live” (p. 49–57). Inquiry-oriented pedagogy, as Rabbi Goldman, Yonatan, and a growing consensus in literacy education has shown, is the way. It serves as an antidote to the suggested irrelevance of classical Jewish text study precisely because it creates a bridge between the text and the learner’s imagination and mind.

Updated: Mar. 13, 2018