Translating Theory into Practice to Revolutionize the Teaching of Talmud

Translating Theory into Practice to Revolutionize the Teaching of Talmud

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Yaakov Bieler

As a Jewish educator and communal Rabbi who has taught Talmud in varied settings over the years, I welcomed Rabbi David Stein’s article. I have long believed that radical changes were in order, at least for those students and adults to whom traditional Talmud study not only does not appeal, but even acts as a figurative “black hole,” draining enthusiasm and commitment for Torah learning from so many of the privileged few that are beneficiaries of the type of Jewish education that includes significant exposure to Talmud. I would only add, that even among those who enjoy Talmud study, the many lapses in moral judgment on the part of ostensibly “learned” individuals that have recently been discussed in the Jewish media, serve as another indication that Jewish education in general and Talmud study in particular, deserves considerable “rethinking,” analogous to the process that general education has undergone since the late 1950s, documented by Rabbi Stein.

The idea of a “spiraled curriculum,” which seems to me to be a refinement of nomenclature that is suggestive of “vertical articulation,” i.e., building one year’s studies on the previous one in order to create a unified and sophisticated whole, rather than constantly revisiting the same material without assuring that it is age-appropriate, is certainly in order.

But as the old adage maintains, “the devil is in the details,” and the very broad description of presenting “general principles, values and questions” followed by applications to specific contemporary issues that are facing the observant Jewish community, is tantalizing, but, at least in my view, lacks the type of detail that would allow for appropriate analysis, conversation and emulation.

How exactly are these principles to be acquired and these issues studied? To what extent are students expected to utilize primary as opposed to secondary sources? Are any and all solutions to the problems dealt with in the upper grades acceptable, or is there an attempt to demonstrate why certain approaches have been adopted while others are rejected? Finally, what sort of data can be provided to demonstrate that this approach is “more effective”—however that is defined—than more traditional approaches?

The action research protocol that was advanced several years ago by the Principals’ Seminar organized by the Lookstein Center of Jewish Education of Bar Ilan’s School of Education, would seem to be a likely methodology for the school’s faculty to investigate whether this approach is actually making a difference in students’ attitudes to Talmud.

The process of action research entails first defining a problem that the school wishes to endeavor to solve, designing an intervention that is intended to address the problem, figuring out a methodology by which to evaluate the impact of the intervention, and then to tweak the intervention in order to produce even more desirable results. The ideal is to enlist as many staff members as possible in the research process, resulting not only in an enlightened approach to improving some part of the educational experience, but also causing everyone involved to become more reflective about what they are doing. In this immediate context, the problem is a general malaise that has been detected regarding Talmud study, and the intervention is the “spiraled curriculum.” What remains to be done is to determine how data could be gathered to reflect whether significant improvement has been achieved utilizing this fresh approach, and how it might be further improved.

I think that the individuals who will be most interested in this project are those who themselves write Talmud curricula and teach the subject, and in order to engage them in the conversation which will hopefully lead to a reevaluation of the Talmud programs in their own respective schools, wherever on the spectrum of observance they may find themselves, as Rabbi Stein notes, this project should be fleshed out to a greater degree.

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