Resources of Jewish Culture: A Case Study of Two Talmud Teachers


Source: Religions 9(7), 221 


This article offers a conceptual framework for understanding the diversity of pedagogies found in Talmud classrooms. It looks at how two different Orthodox Talmud teachers responded to an academic article about constructivist learning practices in the context of a professional development program.

The case study presented in this article helps to illuminate Lev Vygotsky’s theory of learning. Ultimately, this article argues that whether Jewish studies teachers are open or resistant to constructivist learning practices depends less on their particular theory of teaching and learning than on their understanding of Jewish culture.

The Jewish tradition contains voices that conceive of the central activity of Jewish life as the recitation of authoritative positions as well as those that conceive of the central activity of Jewish life as the autonomous interpretation of text. How do Jewish studies teachers in Jewish day schools negotiate between these conceptions? This study sought to explore how K-12 Jewish studies teachers reflect on their approaches to pedagogy as they encounter contemporary scholarship in education.
Specifically, I wanted to know:

  • How do Jewish studies teachers describe their own pedagogy with respect to direct instruction and student inquiry?
  • How do Jewish studies teachers respond to a scholarly article promoting a constructivist pedagogy that emphasizes student inquiry over direct instruction?

This study examined the reactions of seven exemplary Jewish studies teachers to a contemporary article in educational research that advocates for a constructivist pedagogy that places student inquiry at the center. Eliciting teachers’ own accounts of their teaching has its limitations. Misalignment between teachers’ descriptions of their teaching and their actual classroom teaching is well documented. Nonetheless, if we hope to help teachers reflect on and adjust their teaching, we need to understand how they respond to new pedagogies. Where are they likely to feel resistant? Inspired? This study focuses on what may have been their first encounter with constructivist pedagogy precisely to get insight into the nature of Jewish studies teachers’ experiences of that encounter.

In this study, teachers disagreed about whether this constructivist pedagogy was right for the Jewish studies classroom, and they framed their reactions not in general educational terms but in religious terms. They grounded their stances in their conceptions of successful Jewish education. Two very similar teachers, who shared a gender, a school setting, and a denominational identity, had different conceptions. One saw the essential goal of Jewish education as learning the authoritative rabbinic interpretations of Jewish texts. The other saw the essential goal of Jewish education as learning how to make sense of Jewish texts independently. How can two teachers, who live very similar Jewish lives, arrive at such different conceptions of Jewish education? That is, how can one see student inquiry as a potential obstacle to effective Jewish education, while the other sees it as the very essence of Jewish education? Why is it that religious denominational affiliation does not, as previously suggested, determine pedagogy?

Shimon and David, two Orthodox Jews, fundamentally disagree about the “resources of the [Jewish] culture”. Of course, David agrees that following Jewish law is important, and Shimon accepts that participating in the dialogism and the discussion of questions that goes on in Talmud is appropriate (at least for advanced students). But they disagree about the core cultural resource of Judaism. For Shimon, mastering the performance of Jewish observance is the key to living Jewishly, for David, participating in the activity of Jewish learning is the key.

This study suggests that the ways teachers talk about pedagogy are deeply shaped by their own vision of legitimate participation in adult community (Lave and Wenger 1991). In this study, two teachers, who taught the same subject and identified as members of the same religious community, nonetheless, had different visions of what legitimate adult participation in that community looks like. Each made explicit reference to the ways he hoped his students would participate in Jewish communal life as adults. And each saw his approach as the only authentic one.

But there is no reason that this should be the case. We could ask Jewish studies teachers to explicitly reflect on their conception of legitimate adult participation. Teacher education for Jewish studies teachers, and all religious educators, could facilitate teacher candidates through a process that would encourage them to articulate, and ultimately, interrogate their vision of who their students will be once they have completed their education. In asking these questions, teacher candidates would be pushed to consider a much broader range of pedagogical approaches.

The focus on a particular religious community in this study illuminates an aspect of Vygotsky’s argument that often goes unnoticed. Many researchers hold Vygotsky up as a champion of student inquiry in the classroom (see e.g., Alexander et al. 2002; Alvermann et al. 1990; Blanton et al. 2001; Shargel 2013). But Vygotsky himself is explicit that the balance between teaching mechanics and teaching self-expression in writing is relative to what constitutes adult writing. As sociocultural conceptions of adult writing change, the balance between mechanics and self-expression in education will also change. Neither student inquiry nor direct instruction is a good in and of itself. Rather, they are approaches designed to produce adults with certain capacities. In Vygotsky’s sociocultural context, everyone wrote by hand. Vygotsky, therefore, spent a lot of time talking about tracing letters. For Vygotsky, mechanically fluent handwriting was an essential adult skill. At the same time, he feared that teachers, in overemphasizing mechanics, were giving short shrift to expression. Today, more and more children grow up as digital natives, typing on computers from an early age. No doubt, Vygotsky would acknowledge that for adults today, the mechanics of handwriting may have reduced importance.

The teachers in this study, driven by different conceptions of legitimate adult participation, unsurprisingly, differed in their approaches to pedagogy. This phenomenon is a clear case of the very process Vygotsky tried to articulate. In all education, religious or otherwise, the pedagogical choices teachers make cannot be determined solely by a general list of best practices for teaching across the curriculum, or by a subject specific pedagogy. Ultimately, teachers and teacher educators must consider the conceptions of adult activity for which they hope to prepare these students. These considerations form an essential, and perhaps underemphasized, dimension of pedagogical decision making.

Description of the Program

In the winter of 2014, I led a professional development program titled, Pedagogy Lishma, through the Jack, Joseph, and Morton Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education at Brandeis University. The program brought together seven experienced Jewish studies teachers from Orthodox and Community Jewish day schools, who had been teaching for at least three years. The program consisted of six one-hour online (videoconference) study sessions. Each session centered on discussion of an article on pedagogy that the participants prepared (and wrote about) in advance. Four of the articles discussed pedagogy specifically as it related to the teaching of Jewish texts, and two of the articles discussed pedagogy in the context of general education (one from math education and one from literacy education). Four of the articles were empirical, while two were conceptual. All of the articles modeled pedagogical investigation and pushed teachers to think about how they teach and how their students learn. As a small study group, the seven teachers engaged in discussion of the six articles and their application to their teaching of Jewish studies. I facilitated the online sessions, corresponding with the teachers between sessions, reading their responses and sending excerpts from each response to the group. Professor Jon Levisohn served as an advisor and participated in the sessions as well.

Updated: Oct. 08, 2018