Students' Understandings of Rabbinics: Final Report

April, 2020

Source: Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education 


This report shares findings from interviews with students and educators conducted between January 2017 and June 2018. The student interviews were conducted with current high school students from three Jewish day schools. Additionally, educators in a wider range of Jewish day schools were interviewed. While the material below focuses primarily on the students’ perspectives, we use the interviews with educators to add more dimension to our portrait of the teaching and learning of rabbinics at the high school level. The interviews with teachers provide texture and context for the student accounts and help enrich our understanding of how Talmud is presented in Jewish day school classrooms.

Major Findings

  1. The teaching of rabbinics in Jewish day schools at the high school level usually focuses on halakhic material excerpted from the Talmud. Both students and educators rarely mention midrash or aggadah in their accounts of how the legacy of the rabbis is presented in the Jewish day schools.
  2. The teaching of rabbinics in Jewish communal day schools is primarily shaped by how it is taught in the yeshiva or seminary world, rather than university. Furthermore, teachers tend to connect rabbinic texts to the development of halakha, rather than (e.g.) the study of history, the study of ancient cultures, or the study of literature.
  3. Despite the absence of common curricula or centralized authority, educators often prioritize the same set of objectives for their students’ learning across schools. Educators often have been trained in the same institutions, admire the same approaches, have similar goals, and even typically teach the same passages.
  4. Educators, in search of relevance, prioritize understandings of rabbinics that emphasize rabbinic literature as a model for ethical decision making.
  5. In explaining their attitudes toward the study of rabbinics in school, students use several categories by which they assessed their relationship with the subject matter.
  6. Students share an implicit hierarchy that they use to assess their own learning of rabbinic literature. The first and most basic level is translation and decoding. The second, more advanced level is following the logic of Talmudic arguments. The third and highest level is making meaning of the texts.
  7. Students who study rabbinic texts in translation (in a “standard” or non-advanced track) are more satisfied with their engagement with the text than students who study the texts in their original languages (in an “advanced” track, where they typically spend more time decoding).
  8. Students look to English and Tanakh classes as models for the kinds of insight that the study of rabbinics texts should (but did not usually) produce.
  9. Students believe that an encounter with canonical text should shine a lens on the human experience and the nature of existence, yield insight into one’s self and relationships, and connect one with a sense of the sacred. They tend to use these standards to assess their experiences with Talmud study. They do not often have an alternative model of textual engagement that would allow them to appreciate the approaches most frequently presented in their classes.
  10. Students understand that the Talmud has important historical value to the Jewish people over the centuries. However, generally, students do not see that the study of rabbinic texts matters to adults in their communities.
Updated: Sep. 10, 2020