reconceptualizing the teaching of rabbinic literature
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RECONCEPTUALIZING THE TEACHING OF RABBINICLITERATUREDavid Zisenwine aa Tel Aviv University , IsraelPublished online: 10 Jul 2006.
To cite this article: David Zisenwine (1989) RECONCEPTUALIZING THE TEACHING OF RABBINIC LITERATURE, ReligiousEducation: The official journal of the Religious Education Association, 84:4, 584-588, DOI: 10.1080/0034408890840410
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/0034408890840410
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RECONCEPTUALIZING THE TEACHINGOF RABBINIC LITERATURE
Tel Aviv UniversityIsrael
The teaching of rabbinic literature and Jewish thought in thejunior-high and high school grades has not been fully discussed ineducational circles. We do have many examples of Talmud studyunits that contain instructional and curricular assumptions, butthese do not present a conceptual framework for teaching thissubject matter.
An analysis of the existing study materials shows that theprimary goal of Talmud instruction is the mastery of the "Sugya"or talmudic dialectic on its own terms. The student is assisted inmastering the actual language of the text and the unique form oftalmudic dialectic. The better materials, developed in the UnitedStates and Israel, present the material in a sequential manner withextensive explanations of the text and the translation of words andphrases. The talmudic argument is well outlined, and its resultsare analyzed and discussed. Following the accepted norms ofstudy units in general, attention is paid to graphics, color, andformat that help the student master the written text. In unitswhere the legal decision is important, this is emphasized and high-lighted. There is an attempt at relevance or "translation" of thecase into contemporary terms; e.g., the case of depositing a cowwith an unpaid watchman is translated into a bicycle with a will-ing neighbor. Such examples are seen as moving from the worldof the Talmud to contemporary culture. The examples of transla-tion are often banal and obvious to the high schooler who studiesliterary criticism and analysis on the one hand and aspects of nu-clear physics on the other. The high school student who is not part
Religious Education Vol 84 No 1 Winter 1989
DAVID ZISENWINE 585
of the Yeshiva world, where the talmudic dialectic has conse-quences for daily living and implications for advanced study, seesthis material and approach as intellectually unexciting and almosttotally irrelevant to his or her life.
In response to this situation, a curriculum and instructionproject was developed in the Masorti High School in Jerusalem,Israel. This high school is part of the general or secular as opposedto religious stream of the Israeli school system. The school's majorgoal is to introduce the Israeli-Jewish child to Judaic studies froma positive, critical perspective and provide Jewish religious expe-riences within the school framework without demanding reli-gious observance in the home.
A survey of existing Israeli materials in the Talmud area re-sulted in the feeling among the school staff that these units wereeither contextually irrelevant or inappropriate to the non-Ortho-dox student. A curriculum team set about to write materials thatwould reflect the intellectual world of the Masorti High Schoolstudent. A look at the schools' curriculum and its instructionalstrategies showed that the humanities curricula promoted criticalthinking and literary analysis as well as an emphasis on historicaldevelopment; economic, political, and social influences on ideas;and literary works. The general aim of these curricula is to pro-duce a student who is capable of analyzing ideas and texts andable to generalize about the value of the works in their culturalsetting and to understand their role in the contemporary world.The tools of historical inquiry, literary criticism and analysis, aswell as the emphasis on conceptualizing the materials and form-ing opinions, are the tools of the general humanities curriculum.The instructional strategies in this particular school range fromlecture to inquiry-guided learning. The Masorti High School-rabbinic literature curriculum team decided that rabbinic litera-ture should not be seen as curricularly separate from other hu-manities subjects studied in the school, and that the tools availableand used in the general school curriculum must be employed inthis area as well. This decision was, in fact, a reconceptualizationof the place of rabbinic literature in the high school curriculum. Itis no longer a unique religious subject matter area where the un-derstanding of the internal dialectic is the educational objective.Rabbinic literature is now an integral part of the general humani-ties curriculum and therefore defined as part of the cultural heri-tage necessary for a student to come to terms with and understandhis or her own growth and development within Israeli-Jewish so-
586 TEACHING AND RABBINIC LITERATURE
ciety. This curricular formulation led to a decision to employ thesame tools of analysis and criticism used in the other humanitiessubject areas and to expect the same level of conceptualization asin those areas.
What does this mean in practical terms? The relationship ofthe text studied to the historical period, the place of the talmudicdiscussion in its social, economic, and religious context, and theunderstanding of the dialectic is a primary goal of this curriculum.This formulation also requires a working relationship and coordi-nated program among the various subject matter areas. Rabbinicliterature is now a "curricular piece" of a larger integrated human-ities program. The placing of this subject matter area moves itfrom a unique "religious" topic to a part of the developingcultural-religious tradition of the Jewish people.
The curriculum team began its reconceptualization process ofthe 10th, 11th, and 12th grades by working with existing highschool curricula. The history department, under state mandate,divides the curriculum chronologically into the second common-wealth (grade 10), middle ages (grade 11), and modern period(grade 12). In the second commonwealth curriculum, the empha-sis is on the Hellenistic world; its specific cultural, political, andeconomic role in Israel; and the coping strategies of Jewish Pales-tine within the Hellenistic world. A decision was made to teachTalmud, the literary creation of this period, and to focus on issuesand problems raised and dealt with in the history curriculum. Thecurriculum team decided that the 10th grade geography studiesshould concentrate on the Hellenistic period and utilize the ar-chaeological excavations and findings available to the students inthis Jerusalem high school.
This integrated curriculum was first tested in 1986-87. Anevaluation of students' attitudes toward this integrated programwas conducted at the end of the school year. Students were askeda series of questions about their attitudes toward the integratedprogram. Several questions were directly aimed at the students'grasp of the relationship between the disciplines. These responseswere taped and provided the curriculum team with very positiveresponses. The children do see the connection between the disci-plines, appreciate the different perspectives, and understand thesignificance of the talmudic text. The integrated curriculum didraise the intellectual challenge of Judaic studies by offering thehigh school student a forum for comparison and generalizationseen in good humanities programs. The Jewish text