What are the Essential Questions and Structures of Talmud Study?

What are the Essential Questions and Structures of Talmud Study?

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Yaakov Jaffe

Recently, Rabbi David Stein authored a programmatic essay on the way Talmud should be taught in American Modern Orthodox High Schools. The major contribution of the article is to shift the teaching and learning of Talmud from being just the study of text, into being the study of a discipline or subject with a “structure” of essential questions and key ideas. I had previously addressed the curriculum question in regard to Halakhah education in a different forum,[1] and the importance of focusing on the essential questions of the discipline is critical for Talmud study as well; I agree with the point of departure that educational best practices require attending and focusing  lessons around the structures of a discipline.

In this response, I am prepared to agree with Rabbi Stein that best practices of Talmud instruction would suggest a focus on essential questions; yet, I would disagree with him on what those essential questions are. His essay ends with a stark dichotomy: either we accept the new model in his school with its unique conception of the essential questions and structures of Talmud, or we are guilty of rejecting the scientifically modeled best practice of Schwab and Bruner. But from my perspective, a third possibility remains open: even schools with more traditional curricula can still use an essential questions approach—just with different essential questions—and are still following the science of education even without copying the authors’ new model.

I serve as a Talmud teacher in the same type of schools that Rabbi Stein writes about, namely, the Maimonides School in Brookline, Massachusetts, a flagship institution for Modern Orthodox education founded by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik in 1937. Though it is a fallacy to lump all forty-five US Modern Orthodox high schools into one group, I think that Maimonides reflects fairly broadly on these schools as a whole. We are coeducational, and passionately committed to Halakhah; located in Boston, we are neither tiny nor huge in size. And we reflect the general ethos of Modern Orthodox Jewish education: our students go on to be students and scholars of Talmud in their year of study of Israel, in college, and beyond, while engaging with the wider world in citizenship, career, and community.


The Magic Behind Essential Questions

Rabbi Stein focuses on one of Bruner’s most important contributions to the field of education: the realization that the most important aspect of the learning of any discipline is the key structure or essential questions of the subject, and not the texts, textbooks, or units which are used as manifestations or illustrations of those essential questions. Essential questions can be taught at all ages and all grade levels, and recur throughout the curriculum in each semester of each year. Like any curriculum, Talmud curricula should be focused on essential questions at the core, and schools should be open to make all sorts of adjustments and changes to topics of Jewish Law and Tractates of Talmud studied, so long as the essential questions and structures remain constant. A curriculum might adjust (1) the selection of topics and tractates, (2) languages used in instruction (Hebrew or English) and text-reading (Aramaic or English), (3) the difficulty of language in the text studied (Talmudic sections written in Hebrew to complex Aramaic), (4) the focus on Practical Law, or Talmud alone, or Talmud and commentary—but these shifts only change the externalities of the program and not the core: the essential questions which remain the same.

Rabbi Stein quotes extensively from a thin booklet penned by Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein in which the late Har Etzion rosh yeshiva discusses the issues confronting Talmud study in yeshiva high schools today.[2] Throughout his essay, Rabbi Lichtenstein returns to the same basic essential questions and themes of Talmud study such as “command and limit,” normative message, of “He who commands and obligates,” “normative consciousness of the Torah’s authority”, “authority and logic,” “conservatism and momentum,” a normative system.[3] Not surprisingly, Rabbi Lichtenstein considers these themes essential to Talmud study in other essays as well, such as the earlier “Why Learn Gemara.”[4]

Accordingly, it is noteworthy that Rabbi Lichtenstein agrees methodologically with Rabbi Stein in his openness to changing curricula while maintaining essential questions and structures, but disagrees with Rabbi Stein in establishing what those essential questions are. For Rabbi Lichtenstein, a possible shift to the conventional way Talmud is studied is to maintain the original essential questions of normative command - which for him are the essential themes of Talmud study - while changing only the texts that are studied (dimension #3 above), focusing more on the easier Hebrew in the Mishnah or Mishneh Torah instead of on the more complex Aramaic of the Talmud.

In addition, Rabbi Lichtenstein unequivocally indicates that, in his vision, the overwhelming majority of yeshiva high school students should continue intensive study of Talmud as has been the case until now; no major change is needed for this group of students who are not presently in crisis. A new curriculum which sacrifices the development of text-study skills by shifting the text that is studied is appropriate for some students, but the majority should study in accordance with past curricula. Yet, the Shalhevet program appears to suggest a change to be made for all students, and therein lies a risk in making a change for students for whom no change was necessary.

What are the Essential Questions of Talmud Study?

It is important to determine what the essential questions are, because in a context of limited time, schools will spend more time and focus on the essential questions and less on secondary aspects of the subject. Though unstated in their piece, one gets the impression from Rabbi Stein that a majority of “traditional” Talmud programs spend more time on the development of textual-skills, and the major change of the Shalhevet program is devoting more time to the essential structure of underlying philosophy, at the expense of less time to textual-skills.

For Rabbi Stein, the essential core or structure of Talmud study relates to the philosophical basics and “fundamental principles, values, and questions” of Jewish law; the major movement of their curriculum is to liberate the essential philosophical questions from being weighed down by intensive textual study, enabling students to focus on the central ideas (Rabbinic Authority, law and logic, diversity and unity in law, flexibility and democracy, Rabbinical and Biblical law). Yet, the essential questions in skill-based classes are usually phrased not as underlying philosophical issues, but as the skills-to-be-acquired. The essential questions of a math class do not relate to the philosophy of math, but to the way students approach math problems.[5] And so, a different educator might argue that even one adapting Bruner’s approach to Talmud study might focus on a different set of essential questions which are skill-focused.

In my view, the essential questions of Talmud study are different, and are formulated as skill or methodology based, and not as underlying philosophical questions. Dr. Yael Jaffe (full disclosure, my wife), recently suggested in her doctoral dissertation on Talmud study that one of the key essential questions in Talmud study is learning how to process the unique recurring text-structures of Talmud study, involving question & answer, attack & response, proof & disproof. Other Talmud teachers would similarly grant that understanding and identifying the modes commentaries operate in (translation & interpretation, filling in lacuna in the argument, or independent questioning), or the distinction between fundamental and peripheral debates is a similar skills-based essential question of the discipline. And so, even were we to shift Talmud study to a new focus revolving around educational best-practices, the result is probably not the Shalhevet curriculum: it is instead a curriculum that is more attendant to the transparent identification, instruction, practice, and scaffolding of text-analysis skills.

Textually Literate or Philosophically Aware?

From my vantage point, the key essential structures relate to the skills of understanding the text, more than the ideas and theoretical underpinnings of Halakhic Jurisprudence. Moreover, skill development must be undertaken at the earlier grades, because though students can pick up the philosophic principles as they mature, the hours and years needed to attain strong skills do not happen overnight, and so skills must be introduced early and spiraled around numerous times in middle school and high school.


Our current curricular approach produces a large cadre of students each year who can be independent Talmud studiers and who can be empowered consumers of our tradition. We are able to achieve the ideal result: men and women who can —to borrow from Rabbi Lichtenstein again—have a primary engagement with primary texts, and thereby become “insiders” in the unfolding of Halakhah and Jewish tradition. A turn towards philosophy might help our students understand what they observe as new questions are raised and addressed in modernity (and also across the generations of Jewish history) —but it comes at the risk of relegating our students to the role of “outsiders,” those who watch and can make suggestions about the evolution of Jewish law but never have enough mastery of the texts to be able to hold their own in the details of the debate.

Issues of Rabbinic Authority, law and logic, diversity and unity in law, flexibility and democracy, etc., often stand behind the curtain of Halakhic jurisprudence, but in Orthodoxy new decisions are based on the precise understanding of Talmudic texts, and not the background principles alone. We risk doing our students a disservice if we explain to them the background principles, but don’t spent the hours (some might say 10,000 hours) necessary to give them the keys to precise and nuanced understanding of the foundational texts. In the end, continued literacy in our texts is what will perpetuate our mesorah, more than discussions about Jewish thought might without a prior foundation in text study; and middle and high schools must prepare their students for that kind of textual literacy as they go through school.

Defining Crisis, and Understanding Possible Responses to it

Rabbi Stein’s argument begins with the identification of a crisis in current Talmud study across Modern Orthodox high schools in the United States. Much has been written about this topic in the sources Rabbi Stein cites, in further sources cited in the above referenced dissertation, and in numerous other forums. And much as we might agree with the old adage in politics that a serious crisis provides a resounding call to action that cannot be wasted, the diagnosis of the precise nature of the crisis and the appropriate solutions for it remains a needed first step.  As many writers note, this question is a deeply subjective one, and a question which might carry a different response in different communities, and so one school’s specific crisis or challenge might differ from the ones in a different community.

Is the crisis that students feel like the topics they study in Talmud are not relevant to their daily lives? That the goring ox Rabbi Stein speaks of cannot relate to modern realities? If so, a possible solution is more careful selection of tractates of Talmud study, focusing on practical and day-to-day topics, as has been the practice in Maimonides for generations, which has chosen to study topics like Shabbat, Prayer, and Kashrut as the building blocks of its Talmud curriculum.[6]

Or perhaps the crisis is that students beginning Talmud lack the Hebrew language skills needed to crack the challenging language of Talmudic texts? This might lead to an entirely different solution related to how we teach Hebrew, or related to the difficulty of Talmudic language used (à la Rabbi Lichtenstein).

Is it that students are no longer captivated by the content? To be sure, student investment and zeal in a discipline is a key predictor of outcomes in that discipline, but it is only a partial measure.[7] We should acknowledge, that like in regard to math or the hard sciences, schools and the adults therein sometimes make choices in light of long-term payout for students and not short-term student gratification. Students might care less or like a discipline less in the here-and-now, but schools still teach the building blocks of the discipline in order to reach the long-term payout. In America, students routinely prefer the stimulating discussions of History and English over Math and Physics, but few would argue—especially in our STEM-steeped culture—that the solution is to teach less of math and the sciences. Many subjects take years of introductory level study before reaching the final payout, but the crisis of captivation in the present should not lessen our zeal to undertake the study of these subjects for the sake of the future.

And perhaps, the problem is not rooted in curriculum, as much as it is rooted in teacher training. Perhaps teachers lack subject-matter expertise (their own 10,000 hours of prior Talmud study) or the didactic expertise (as in the aforementioned dissertation) to give first-rate and well rounded classes? If so, the solution to the crisis is improving teacher training—either in teacher training programs or in the early years of teaching; changing the curriculum fails to address the central issue.


Or perhaps there is no crisis at all. We cannot generalize to all communities, and whether it is indeed true across the country and in each and every school. My hope and sense is that in at least some schools Talmud is not the least-liked of all Judaic subjects, although perhaps I am mistaken.

In the end, Rabbi Stein’s essay raises some important questions about the need for and value in rethinking the way Talmud is taught and studied. But as a next step, we probably need major nation-wide empirical research about what distinguishes successful schools and classrooms in Talmud from those in despair and crisis. Such data can help reassure us whether the solution lies in curricular change, didactic approaches, teacher training, topic selection, language, or some of the above.

Until then, perhaps the solution of refocusing on essential structures and questions is the way to start. In my mind, though, the essential structure of “Talmud” is the structure of the Talmud: understanding the ebb and flow, rhythm, and key words and phrases that make the Talmud buzz and sing.

[1] See Yaakov Jaffe “Towards a New Paradigm for the Study of Halakhah,” Ten Da’at 20 (October 2009): 75-90.

[2] Aharon Lichtenstein and Yehuda Brandes Notes from Atid: Talmud Study in Yeshiva High Schools (Jerusalem: Atid, 2007), 7-28. Brandes also recently discussed his views on Talmud study in more detail in his own programmatic essay “Talmud Study: From Proficiency to Meaning” Hakirah 21 (2016): 81-112. Rabbi Stein is not focused on Brandes’s views per se, and they are also outside the scope of this paper, but a fuller treatment of his views can be found in that article, accessible here.

[3] Ibid. 8, 9, 10, 11, 18, 20, 21, and 21; respectively.

[4] Aharon Lichtenstein “Why Learn Gemara” in Leaves of Faith Volume One (Jersey City: Ktav, 2003), 1-18.

[5] See Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins, Essential Questions: Opening Doors to Student Understanding (Alexandria, VA: ASCD, 2013).

[6] See Seth Farber, An American Orthodox Dreamer: Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik and Boston’s Maimonides School (Brandeis University Press, 2004), 82.

[7] See Thomas J. Kane and Douglas O. Staiger, Learning about Teaching: Initial Findings from the Measures of Effective Teaching Project (Seattle: Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, 2010), 23-25. The authors indicate that in Math and ELA, classroom management and the setting of high standards are greater predictors of student outcomes than the ability to captivate or interest the student in the material. Out of seven measures of teaching studied there, captivation has third lowest predictive power in both ELA and Math.

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