Curriculum, Crisis, and Change: Towards a Talmud Curriculum Grounded in Educational Theory

Curriculum, Crisis, and Change: Towards a Talmud Curriculum Grounded in Educational Theory

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David Stein

On October 4, 1957, the American public awoke to a crisis that would shape world history and redefine human achievement. Audible to anyone with a ham radio, and easily visible at sunset through a pair of binoculars, the steady signals and regular orbit of Sputnik-1 were on display for the entire world. The Soviet Union had launched the world’s first manmade satellite, and for Americans, the implications of mankind’s initial thrust into the cosmos were unmistakable: the technological prowess of an archenemy now loomed on the horizon, and the Cold War’s Space Race was officially underway. The scientific, military, technological, and economic response mounted by the US would alter the course of history, and within a little more than a decade, America would land the first man on the moon. There is one chapter in the Sputnik story, however, that is occasionally overlooked that I wish to examine here: the revolution in educational thought that resulted from this crisis—and its implications for Jewish education today.

The events of 1957 sparked an effort that would forever shape the study of learning and cognition. Officials at the National Academy of Sciences wanted to know how America had fallen behind in the race to conquer the final frontier—and, more importantly, what changes were needed to regain our footing. Recognizing that recovery from this failure would require far-reaching educational changes, the officials turned to one man, Jerome S. Bruner, and asked him to examine the fundamental “problem of improving dissemination of scientific knowledge in America.”[1] By 1959, almost exactly two years after Sputnik’s launch, Bruner convened a meeting in Wood’s Hole, Massachusetts, of thirty-five scientists, educators, and psychologists to examine the fields of curriculum, motivation, and cognition. The results of this conference, published by Bruner in 1961 under the title “The Process of Education,” remain to this day one of the cornerstones of modern educational theory. This article will survey the historical impact of crisis upon Jewish education, review the ideas developed by Bruner and others, and use these educational principles to suggest a path forward for Talmud education.

Jewish Education in Crisis: A Brief History
The fact that curricular change can be sparked by existential threat should come as no surprise to any student of Jewish intellectual history. Indeed, from the moment that Rabbi Yohanan b. Zakai requested to save “Yavneh and its sages” from Roman conquest, educational responses to crisis have shaped the course of Jewish tradition (Gittin 56b). Consider, for example, Rambam’s well-known introduction to his Mishneh Torah:

And now the calamities are many and frequent, and the harsh times destroyed everything. The wisdom of our sages has been lost, and the intelligence of our scholars has collapsed. Therefore, those explanations, responses, and laws written by the Geonim have become hard to decipher, and there are only few who can fully comprehend their contents. Needless to say, even fewer comprehend the Talmud itself…Because of all that I, Moshe son of Rabbi Maimon of Sefarad, have decided to take action … to write the conclusions which are derived from all these works…so that all people will be well versed in the totality of the Oral Law.

Rambam’s comments, along with numerous parallel examples from the ancient to modern period leave no doubt that revolt, destruction, crisis, and challenge have often served as the catalysts for pedagogic and educational change across Jewish history—much in the same way that Sputnik spurred the curricular changes of Bruner and his contemporaries.[2]

Moreover, it almost goes without saying that each moment of curricular change was met with significant opposition and criticism. From Rabbi Eliezer’s opposition to the rabbinic use of majority rule in decision making, to public burnings of the Mishneh Torah, educational change is often accompanied by a fundamental tension between tradition and innovation.[3] Even today, despite all the advances in learning and cognition that have been wrought from Bruner’s landmark work, there remains significant gaps in educational practice between traditional pedagogy and progressive, learner-centered approaches.

Talmud Education and the Present Crisis

As to the question of whether or not we are currently facing a “crisis” in contemporary Talmud education, one does not need to spend very much time in the field to get the sense that “out of a thousand who enter upon the study of Scripture, a hundred are successful … out of these, ten proceed to the study of Talmud, and one emerges who is fit to render legal decisions.”[4] Indeed, while more research is needed on the effectiveness of contemporary Talmud education, one landmark study found Talmud to be the subject that students liked least in Israeli religious high schools.[5] Here in the US, as one Head of School at a Yeshiva high school put it to me several years ago, “we know our students aren’t going to care about learning gemara here. Our goal is just to get them to spend a year in Israel in the hopes that they’ll be inspired there.” Somehow, though, while we hear much in the Jewish news and at our Shabbat tables about the “tuition crisis,” little is spoken about the “curriculum crisis” and the questions that it requires us to ask: what are our goals for the masses of students entrusted to us, what are we teaching them in our schools, and is it working?

These questions were addressed several years ago by Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein zt”l in a public exchange with Rabbi Yehuda Brandes, head of the Beit Midrash at Beit Morasha, and a senior lecturer in Talmud and Education at Herzog College in Israel.[6] In this passionate examination of educational values and realities, Rabbi Lichtenstein issued a clarion call to reexamine our Talmud curriculum, and, when necessary, adopt radical strategies to address the challenges that we face. Written with “a sorrowful heart and a trembling hand,” Rabbi Lichtenstein offers a proposal in response to “a real fear of a real crisis landing on a substantial portion of yeshiva high school students.”[7] His suggestion envisioned the development of a parallel educational track focused upon study of Mishnah as an alternative to “traditional” gemara learning in order to meet the needs of vast numbers of student who fail to connect to the enterprise of intensive gemara study.[8]

The specifics of Rabbi Lichtenstein’s proposal aside, his admonition that “minimal educational responsibility dictates that we not amuse ourselves with illusions or nostalgia” demands that we engage in serious examination of our goals and means in Talmud education.[9] If our emphasis upon traditional gemara study is guided by unrealistic longing for the grandeur of European yeshivot, a rigid elitism, or deliberate ignorance of the social, developmental, religious, and intellectual needs of our students, then we cannot rightly claim to be engaged in the work of heaven—we are instead committing a grave injustice to the students and communities who have entrusted us with a sacred responsibility.[10]

Rabbi Lichtenstein’s words were met with strident opposition from Rabbi Brandes, who attacked the proposed reorientation as a dangerous shift away from Jewish tradition rooted both in elitism and shortsighted sacrifice of the sophistication of Jewish thought. While both authors admit to areas of overlap and agreement in their positions, their exchange seems to leave us with a stark binary choice: either adapt and sacrifice in the face of crisis, or stand fast and rearticulate the depth of the status quo.

In many ways, however, their argument represents a false dichotomy. In facing the crisis before us, I argue that we do not confront a simple binary choice between Talmud and Mishnah, between two tracks that will remain forever separate. Rather, on the basis of the principles developed by Bruner, I’d like to present here a path forward rooted within the fundamentals of educational and curricular theory.


The Spiraled Curriculum

The challenges we face demand examination of how best to inspire our students to lead rich, meaningful, and informed Jewish lives involving serious and sustained engagement with Torah learning. And here Bruner’s groundbreaking work is most helpful. Beginning with the thesis that “any subject can be taught effectively in some intellectually honest form to any child in any stage of development,” the researchers who gathered at Woods Hole developed a theory of curriculum design that focused on the structure of curricular content and the recognition that advanced subjects must be taught differently at different stages of student development, an approach they termed the “spiraled curriculum.”[11]

Bruner’s spiraled curriculum structure dictated that content must “consist of learning initially not a skill but a general idea, which can then be used as a basis for recognizing subsequent problems as special cases of the idea originally mastered.”[12] In other words, to build a sturdy tower, one first needs to have mastery of the foundational building blocks. Likewise, a student should not be thrown blindly into learning advanced physics or AP math when they reach high school age. Instead, beginning at an appropriate developmental stage, Bruner called for a process of learning in which general ideas could be introduced and then gradually broadened and deepened throughout the curriculum.

Take, for example, a high school-level geometry course: it should be obvious that this course can only be successfully understood if a student has had thorough grounding in basic mathematical reasoning, counting, addition, multiplication, balancing of equations, and algebraic theorems—in short, an elementary and middle school mathematics education. And once these fundamentals are mastered, the learner will not just be prepared for geometry. Instead, he or she can go on to study any mathematical problem, from trigonometry to the physics of motion. Bruner proposed that such a structure was essential to any curriculum, arguing that a particular subject simply cannot be understood without a grasp of its fundamental principles. Furthermore, he posited that transfer of one’s learning to new issues and cases—which Susan Ambrose has termed the “central goal of education”—requires a mastery of the foundational concepts of a discipline.[13]

If Bruner’s call to constantly revisit, refine, and build upon material learned at each successive phase of education seems pedagogically and developmentally obvious, then we must be willing to reexamine our basic approach to Talmud study in middle and high schools today. Make no mistake: learning masekhet Berakhot freshman year, Kiddushin sophomore year, followed by Bava Kamma and Bava Metzia in junior and senior year is not a curriculum; it’s an advanced and sacred booklist, and teaching it in high school is the equivalent of asking a ninth grader to learn differential equations before he or she has mastered algebra. As Bruner pointed out, effective curriculum design requires far more structure, planning, and integration than is currently being achieved through the traditional approach.


A Proposed Model for Talmud Education

Together with Noam Weissman, Principal at Shalhevet High School in Los Angeles, and our colleagues on the school’s Judaic studies staff, we have developed a spiraled Talmud curriculum built upon Bruner’s theory. In specific, we propose an approach to gemara instruction that is based, initially, upon a deliberate introduction to the fundamental principles, values, and questions that inform the enterprise of rabbinic jurisprudence and Jewish tradition: Is Jewish law human or Divine? Rigid or flexible? What is the source and scope of Rabbinic authority? Is halakhah a democracy? How do decisions actually get made in Jewish law? Guided by these questions, students are introduced to the sources and nature of rabbinic authority along with the mechanisms by which halakhic decisions are made, including sevara, minhag, majority rule, judicial independence, dissent, diversity, unity, leniency, and the role of precedent in Jewish law.

After introducing these fundamental issues in lower high school grades, students are challenged to transfer this body of knowledge during eleventh and twelfth grade into critical issues facing our contemporary communities. What is the status of women in communal prayer? How do we contextualize the question of ordination of female Orthodox rabbis? What should be done to resolve the agunah crisis? What about the establishment and observance of Yom Ha-azmaut? Are Jews are permitted to negotiate land for peace? How is shemitah to be observed in the modern State of Israel? How does halakhah treat the use of electricity on Shabbat? We suggest that students can be prepared to think critically about these essential questions through an introduction to the fundamentals of halakhic jurisprudence, and that, as Bruner suggested, a spiraled curriculum can provide our students with a much needed “model for understanding other things that one may encounter” within their Jewish and communal experiences.[14]

Despite the pedagogic and curricular changes we’re suggesting, we remain wary of any method that will dilute necessary focus on skills development among our students. Our approach is rooted in the field of halakhic jurisprudence that the Talmud and commentaries themselves have addressed and debated for millennia across many of the sugyot that are classically studied in yeshivot. From the case of shor she-nagach and its articulation of the role of sevara in law—“why do I need a textual source [for this law]? It is logical!” (Bava Kamma 46b), to the grounding of Rabbinic authority in the pasuk of lo tasur within the gemara’s analysis of Hanukkah candles (Shabbat 23a), or an exploration of the scope and nature of mitzvot aseh she-hazman gerama across multiple sugyotwe argue that a focus on the general principles of the halakhic system can and should encompass an introduction to the skills, concepts, and modes of analysis that are traditionally encountered in a gemara classroom. In doing so, we’ve identified and selected hundreds of sources from the Talmud, commentaries, and poskim that weave together advanced textual skills and literacy with enduring understandings to guide the personal identities and future learning experiences of our students.

Furthermore, we maintain the sanctity and value of tractate-based learning, and see the pursuit of such learning beyond high school as an expected outcome of this proposed curriculum. Within our own school, we’ve found student motivation to pursue traditional learning at earlier stages as well. Several years ago, after introducing the curricular changes described in this paper, we were approached by a group of about ten students asking for more gemara learning. We obviously couldn’t say no, but after consulting our course schedule, found that the only way to accommodate this request would be for the students to show up forty-five minutes early to school for a hashkamah minyan, after which they could attend an optional masekhet-based shiur. To our utter surprise, forty students initially signed up for this elective track, and today, out of a total student population of about two-hundred thirty students, over sixty of them voluntarily show up before school to learn more gemara. While our project is still in its infancy, we’ve begun partnering with schools in New York, Miami, Connecticut, Melbourne, and Israel to explore the opportunities and challenges for a spiraled Talmud curriculum across various institutional and demographic populations.


The Path Forward

Our curriculum will obviously not meet the needs of every educational institution. From populations who wish to remain focused on the traditional approach to those who face the question of whether to study Talmud at all, as well as schools for whom our emphasis on halakhic jurisprudence, Religious Zionism, and women’s issues would be misplaced, this clearly isn’t for everyone. In fact, this too is rooted within the basics of curriculum design as well. Joseph Schwab, a contemporary of Bruner’s whose work is also a cornerstone of educational theory, famously pointed out that effective curriculum development requires consideration of four separate voices and perspectives referred to as “commonplaces.”[15] Among these voices, Schwab argued that the “milieu” of our schools—the culture, priorities, and values of our community—must inform the curriculum content that we teach. It should therefore be emphasized that the issues identified above in our curriculum are expressions of the specific milieu of a Modern Orthodox school and its parent body, including a commitment to openness, critical thinking, the values of gender equality and Zionism, as well as the development of a meaningful relationship with God and Torah learning. As a result, we recognize that our curricular proposal cannot meet the needs of every milieu and community—instead, each school must carefully consider their own goals and commonplaces when thinking critically about curriculum design and content. Whatever the specific solutions may be, however, let us be clear: each school has a fundamental educational responsibility to engage in some form of pedagogically grounded curriculum examination and revision in response to the challenges that we face.

Our research and experience suggests that in considering paths for curricular improvement in Judaic studies, we don’t have to choose between the binaries of “tradition vs. innovation,” “text vs. meaning,” “mishnah vs. gemara,” or “skills vs. understanding.” Instead, following the lead of Bruner, Schwab, and others whose work was spurred by the Sputnik crisis, we can—and must—marshal the foundations of curricular design to improve Talmud education across the field.

[1] Jerome S. Bruner, The Process of Education (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1961), xvii.

[2] See, for example, Temurah 14b for the Talmud’s justification for recording Oral tradition even though doing so would seemingly violate a Biblical prohibition—“it is better for the law to be uprooted than for the Torah to be forgotten entirely.” Similarly, R.J.Z. Werblowsky, Joseph Karo: Lawyer and Mystic (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1962) has argued that Rabbi Yosef Karo was compelled to codify Shulhan Arukh in response to the crisis of the Spanish Expulsion. In the Modern period, Haym Soloveitchik has famously shown us how the crisis of the Holocaust hastened the shift from mimetic tradition to textual emphasis within halakhic practice and decision making. See Haym Soloveitchik, “Rupture and Reconstruction: The Transformation of Contemporary Orthodoxy,” Tradition 28 (Summer 1994): 64-130.

[3] See, for example, Hagigah 3b for R. Eliezer’s rebuke to the sages of “do not bother with your voting, for have I received the tradition” and his almost sarcastic mocking of their “innovation of the day.” Similar examples abound, from Maharshal’s opposition to the Shulhan Arukh to the critique of the Brisker method cited by Shalom Carmy, “Camino Real and Modern Talmud Study,” in Modern Scholarship in the Study of Torah, ed. Shalom Carmy (New Jersey: Aronson, 1996), 189-96.

[4] Vayikra Rabbah 2, s.v. “daber el,” cited by Avraham Walfish, “Hermeneutics and Values: Issues in Improving Contemporary Talmud Teaching, in Wisdom From All My Teachers, ed. Jeffrey Saks and ‎Susan A. Handelman (Jerusalem: ATID, 2003), 264-85.

[5] Levisohn and Kress have recently pointed out (in Beth Cousens, A Text that is Never Resolved [Boston: Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education, 2016]) the dangerous paucity of reliable and comprehensive data on the subject of contemporary Talmud education. At the same time, however, Walfish (2003) has noted that as “the number of Talmud students in the Jewish community grows in unprecedented fashion, the difficulty with and alienation from Talmudic study increases within major segments of the Orthodox community.” On the latter point, see S. Weiser and M. Bar Lev, “Teaching Talmud in the Yeshiva High School: Difficulties and Dangers” (Hebrew), Nir ha-Midrashiah 8 (1990): 233-56.

[6] Aharon Lichtenstein and Yehudah Brandes, Talmud Study in Yeshiva High Schools (Jerusalem: Academy for Torah Initiatives and Directions, 2007). The original exchange between Rabbis Lichtenstein and Brandes appeared in 2001 in the Hebrew language periodicals Hatzofeh and Shana b’Shana. All references are to the 2007 English publication.

[7] Ibid., 19, 57.

[8] In a private communication, Jon Levisohn recently pointed out to me that the term “traditional” gemara learning itself is quite misleading, given the differing modes of learning and curricular emphases—from philosophy to kabbalah to halakhah—across medieval and modern intellectual history.

[9] Lichtenstein and Brandes, Talmud Study in Yeshiva High Schools, 19.

[10] It should be noted in this context that the sense of “this is how it’s been done” and the nostalgia for the days of Brisk or Mainz is likely rooted in an inaccurate reading of historical reality. Indeed, as Ephraim Kanarfogel, Jewish Education and Society in the High Middle Ages (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1992), has argued, even at the heights of German medieval scholarship, regular, systematic, and intensive study of Talmud was likely restricted to only a tiny segment of society, with the Tosafist yeshivot populated by no more than 60-100 students at a time, and the masses of Jewish students instead supported by a privatized education system that provided for their tutoring as a limited introduction to Torah study. Similarly, Shaul Stampfer, “Heder Study, Knowledge of Torah, and the Maintenance of Social Stratification in Traditional East European Jewish Society,” in Studies in Jewish Education vol. III., ed. Janet Aviad (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1988), 271-89, and others have shown that even the famed yeshivot of Eastern Europe served only small segments of the population—with the vast majority of Jews in Eastern Europe unable to independently study a page of Talmud—leaving us to conclude that the focus on “traditional” gemara learning on a mass scale as the only Talmud option within our day school system today may in fact be rooted in a distorted view of the reality of education and curriculum in medieval and early modern Jewish society. In a sense, then, the failures of contemporary Talmud education to successfully inspire a love of learning within masses of students may not be a “failure” as much as simply par for the course across Jewish history. Nevertheless, we can and must do better, especially given the loss of traditional communal and sociological factors that may have sustained individual Jewish identity and participation in the past.

[11] Bruner, The Process of Education, 33.

[12] Ibid., 17.

[13] Susan A. Ambrose, How Learning Works: Seven Research-based Principles for Smart Teaching (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010), 108.

[14] Bruner, The Process of Education, 35.

[15] Joseph J. Schwab, “The Practical 3: Translation into Curriculum,” The School Review 81 (August 1973): 501–22.

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