Commentary

Personalizing Torah for Today’s Student: Lessons from Israel

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Jay Goldmintz

Recent articles in this forum have addressed a so-called crisis in the Talmud curriculum in modern Orthodox day schools, harking back to a debate that came to the fore more than a decade ago. That discussion was rooted primarily in the dati-leumi community in Israel, but carried familiar echoes for educators on this side of the Atlantic. I’m not sure that we are at a point of crisis, so I would instead talk in terms of curricular needs. Thankful for David Stein’s caveat that each community commonplace is different, I would like to share a sense of my own.

A mentor of mine, Michael Rosenak z”l, once identified two different typologies when speaking of the goals of Jewish education. The first, which he referred to as normative-ideational, is the one that is primarily concerned with the norms of tradition. It is rooted in the texts and culture of Judaism. The normative-ideational educator sees it as his task to get students to “know” Judaism better, for they will thereby be helped to become the kind of people demanded by tradition. “In concrete terms, the normative educator sees the solution to the problem of Jewish education in the successful molding of pupils by Jewish subject matter that is represented and adequately transmitted by good teachers.” [1]

The other type of educator is referred to as the deliberative-inductive. The point of departure for educational deliberation in this school of thought is not what is demanded of people as they stand under a roof of imposed values, but how they will interact with other people, how they will understand themselves and solve the problems that obstruct proper “creative” functioning and well-being. The starting point here is the child: his problems and the sanctity of his soul. The goal is to help him find answers within tradition, even if those answers need not necessarily be ones which compel acceptance.

Any Orthodox Jewish educator worthy of the name will surely lean toward the normative. “Torah is our life and the length of our days,” and forms the crux of our being, both personal and professional. At the same time, we must ask ourselves, what of the deliberative side of our undertaking? What is it that our students need and want at this particular point in time and place?

There is woefully little social science research to rely upon, so we are left with the unscientific option of actually asking our students. Depending on whom one talks to, one can surely hear from kids (and parents) who want to improve their skills working toward the year in Israel or life-long self-sufficiency; there are those who want knowledge, and those who want an appreciation for the underlying values of Jewish commandments and texts. But the answer I seem to have gotten the most these past number of years, is that students want connection. They want to feel close to the material, they want it to matter, they want it to be relevant to their lives and, most of all, they want a relationship with God. They simply don’t always know how to get there. Alternatively, they long for the innocence of their youth, and struggle, in a developmentally appropriate fashion, to move on to the next stage of their commitments. But many can’t seem to find a way to make that transition.

We have students who thankfully are great at learning Gemara, but they don’t see the point. There are students who know an impressive amount of Tanakh and commentaries, but they often have trouble trying to figure out how it is different from studying for any other subject, how it is supposed to impact their commitment to Torah, or how it should inform their daily lives and connect them to God. Too often, we used to assume that if we taught Torah, students would understand what the purpose was. That doesn’t always seem to be the case, and there is much to be gained, I think, from making this more explicit, especially if we wish to be both normative and deliberative.

The question is, how?

First, a caveat or two. I know that there are lots of teachers out there who already do this (and some who claim they do), but most do so by dint of their compelling personalities, something which will not help train other teachers in this. There are also teachers who see this as their main calling, but as someone who is committed to the normative goal played out through rigorous textual analysis, I cannot abide turning the classroom into a kiruv seminar, hyperbolic as that may sound.[2] Nor do I aspire to inspire every day; except for the most committed of us, our own learning (and teaching) are not necessarily a daily exercise in inspiration. Instead, I seek to find ways to enable students to find personal connection and personal meaning from within the texts that we learn together.

Personal connection in this context does not mean just learning a piece of Navi and asking the question of what it means for us in America today. It surely may involve that, but I am less interested in solving society’s problems in that way than I am in exploring how what we are learning impacts our students’ inner lives. What does this mean to you? How can it change the way that you relate to the people in your life, today? How does this material make you feel? Whose opinion in this mahloket speaks to you the most? How can it impact your relationship with God? What, in fact, is your relationship with God? These kinds of questions are not meant to be theoretical. They are meant to be answered and discussed, sometimes in self-reflection, sometimes in papers, and most often in class, in discussion with other people, especially with fellow students and the teacher, all of whom are working on their own connection at the same time.

Having these kinds of discussions calls for a different kind of pedagogy, one which few if any of us were trained for in graduate school, and usually not in yeshiva or seminary either. Those institutions were just promulgating the same kind of elitist education of the past. Instead, I began looking for and experimenting with a framework for this kind of education, one that would permit us to keep doing what we are doing well but begin to practice an additional kind of teaching that would speak to the students who had these unanswered needs.

Along the way, I have been grateful to find some kindred spirits, most recently and particularly at the Fuchs Mizrachi School in Cleveland. Thanks to the vision of its Head of School, Rabbi Avery Joel, and the leadership of Rabbi Yehuda Chanales, Director of Educational Advancement, the school’s Jewish Studies teachers have collectively embarked on a journey toward culture change. Using a grant from  JEIC, the school began a process of working first on the teachers themselves. To make a long story short, they invited Rav Dov Zinger and Rav Ori Lifshitz from Israel to work with the faculty, and help them start thinking about their own postures in the classroom, and how to start crafting their curricula in a slightly different way. Then, this past June, seven teachers traveled to Israel for a week to continue that work with those same people and their related institutions, all under the auspices of Herzog Teachers College.

The focus of that work was threefold – each aspect of which is critical for moving forward, I think, to address this need. First, it meant working on oneself as a teacher and considering what shifts might be necessary in order to create a space where the teacher is not a sage on the stage, nor just a guide on the side, but a fellow learner. In order for students to speak candidly and deeply, there must be a sense that the teacher is willing to do the same. One needs to be prepared, for example, to self-disclose (think Rav Soloveitchik[3]), to become more comfortable with using a language of meaning-making (think Hay and Nye)[4], and to know when to be silent and when to prod students to speak more deeply, if they so choose.

Teachers and students must become much more active listeners than we sometimes are and to create a non-judgmental environment of respect and trust. We need to bring with us a deep sense of caring (think Nel Noddings)[5], which in turn means getting to know our students as well as we can as individuals, not just the details of their external lives but also their inner lives. Above all, it means having the teacher come prepared to accompany students on a journey as a fellow traveler. This is accomplished in no small part by making the text, rather than the personality of the teacher, the focus of the discussion, since it is the roadmap that animates and captures the essence of the discussion. Anyone who has read Parker Palmer’s Courage to Teach, or has done work with Aryeh ben David’s Ayeka, will have a sense of what all of this might mean. The difference is that in Israel there is a methodology and developed framework for its implementation that is also used in training Masters candidates and for teachers’ professional development. Some of its proponents rely heavily on Hasidic texts and concepts to frame their approach, but one need not adopt those or even be proficient in that world in order to adopt the approach.

A second component is looking at Joseph Schwab’s commonplace of the subject matter. Here lies the need to find experts, in this case talmidei hakhamim, who look at Gemara not only for its content but also for its accompanying underlying values. One thinks in this context of the work of Rav Shagar or Chaim Saiman’s recent book on Halakhah.[6] The goal, but as only a first step, is to learn how to identify and translate the contemporary values (or their opposite) which may animate a particular sugya and may speak to the student’s twenty-first century life. The teaching of aspects of Kiddushin, for example, needs to include an underlying appreciation of the marriage relationship in Halakhah and how the underlying values at play there can positively inform marriage today in ways that will be familiar to students. Discussions in Berakhot can be mined not only for their halakhic importance but also for their ongoing underlying spiritual concerns as well. This is not necessarily the focus of every day of teaching, but it is a thread which can tie it all together and, when possible, act like a prism through which to understand the discussion. Of course not every sugya may lend itself to this kind of analysis, but that is why one needs subject matter experts to help with the selection process and to inform when and how such analysis might be utilized.

A third related component is the pedagogic one, namely, how does one teach in such a way that we strive toward the goal of not only getting our students to learn the material but to internalize it as well. In my own school, we have coined the term “personalizing Torah” to convey the sense that we want something more than to “just” study the Torah – we want students to connect to it as well, and we want it to be something of their own making rather than ours. How might this change the essential question and subsequent planning of the lesson? How might it change which material, which sugyot or commentaries I teach? How might it impact the kinds of questions I ask? There is a difference, for example, between asking questions that ask for fact or analysis, and questions that are based on emotion (“How did you feel when you read this?”) or relate to identity or personal connection (“Which opinion speaks to you the most?”). How might it impact the kind of assignments or assessments I give: spitback, reflective or personal, or just learning for its own sake? Anyone familiar with the work of Lev la-da’at, based in part on dialogic teaching as well as Krathwhohl’s and Bloom’s taxonomies, will appreciate what this means.

None of this is without its challenges. There is no doubt that working with Israeli institutions requires cultural (and literal) translation—their system of education and students are different than ours. But they also have experience and a huge infrastructure that I have always believed we ignore to our detriment. Effecting culture change in a school is no small matter either, but one of the most wonderful parts of accompanying Fuchs Mizrachi on this journey was to watch how a group of teachers who already respected one another transformed into a team. They were suddenly speaking the same language, working toward the same goals, constantly thinking aloud collaboratively, and, thanks in part to the training, with incredible honesty and the intimacy born of trust and common purpose. As I have noted, before we start talking about working with the children, we need to first work on ourselves.

None of this is to suggest that every lesson needs to be taught this way, or that we need to completely upset the applecart. But in the attempt to be deliberate about our students and their education, it seems to me that we need to pay more attention than we sometimes do in our daily lessons to their souls, to their innate desire for meaning and connection through Torah. In this I am reminded of the warning of Rav Soloveitchik ztz”l:

There are two aspects to the religious gesture in Judaism: strict objective discipline and exalted subjective romance. Both are indispensable… Feelings not manifesting themselves in deeds are volatile and transient; deeds not linked with their inner experience are soulless and ritualistic. [7]

We have spent a lot of time and effort in Jewish education teaching about Judaism as a discipline. Many of our students now crave assistance with their inner experience as well.


[1] Michael Rosenak, Commandments and Concerns: Jewish Religious Education in Secular Society (Philadelphia: JPS, 1987), 20.

[2] Ziva Hassenfeld and Jon Levisohn have recently written about the differences between process-based educators and outcomes-based educators and that the professional development for the former will often not work for the latter. I am speaking here, then, about the possibility of a professional development program that speaks to the outcomes-based educator as well. “The Challenge of Professional Development in Jewish Studies: Why the Conventional Wisdom May Not Be Enough,” Journal of Jewish Education 85:1 (2019): 53-75, available at  https://doi.org/10.1080/15244113.2018.1558386.

[3] “In the past, this great experience of the tradition was not handed down from generation to generation through the medium of words. It was absorbed through osmosis; somehow, through silence. We used to observe. Today in America, however, and in the Western world, this is completely lost…Therefore, it is up to the Yeshiva and the teacher to open up the emotional world of Judaism to the student…”

“…I do not believe that we can afford to be as reluctant, modest, and shy today as we were in the past about describing our relationship with the Almighty. If I want to transmit my experiences, I have to transmit myself, my own heart. How can I merge my soul and personality with the students? It is very difficult. Yet it is exactly what is lacking on the American scene.” The Rav: The World of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Vol. 2, ed. R. Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff (Hoboken: Ktav, 1999), 168-169.

[4] For example, “Some children who are familiar with religious language…can use it as a means of detaching themselves from the reality of their own experience. They will discourse in a dispassionate way about religious abstractions or ‘facts about religion’ that they have learned in class. The traditional mode of a pupil in a classroom is one of demonstrating to an adult that you have learned information correctly. It is almost as if shifting into that mode offers a necessary refuge from exposing the vulnerable world of personal relatedness to an outsider. We have seen that the children are already aware that there is a social taboo on speaking about spirituality.” David Hay and Rebecca Nye, The Spirit of the Child (London: Fount, 2006), 132.

[5] “The phenomenological analysis of caring reveals the part each participant plays. The one-caring (or carer) is first of all attentive. This attention, which I called “engrossment”…, is receptive; it receives what the cared-for is feeling and trying to express. It is not merely diagnostic, measuring the cared-for against some preestablished ideal. Rather, it opens the carer to motivational displacement. When I care, my motive energy begins to flow toward the needs and wants of the cared-for. This does not mean that I will always approve of what the other wants, nor does it mean that I will never try to lead him or her to a better set of values, but I must take into account the feelings and desires that are actually there and respond as positively as my values and capacities allow.” Noddings, N. (2005). ‘Caring in education’, the encyclopedia of informal education. [ http://infed.org/mobi/caring-in-education/. Retrieved: June 30, 2019].

[6] See, for example, רב שג”ר, בתורתו יהגה – לימוד גמרא כבקשת אלוקים, הוצאת מכון כתבי הרב שג”ר, תשס”ט and Chaim Saiman, Halakhah: The Rabbinic Idea of Law (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018).

[7] Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Family Redeemed: Essays on Family Relationships, eds. David Shatz and Joel B. Wolowelsky (Hoboken: Ktav, 2002), 40.