Torah-Centered Judaism and the Rabbinics Classroom

by Rabbi Joshua Cahan

If you are a Jewish educator looking to teach Talmud outside of the Orthodox world, you will probably end up teaching high school. Outside of seminaries, high school students spend more hours a week studying Jewish texts, and are more likely to study them in the original, than any other group in the US. This makes the Jewish high school an ideal setting for a rich conversation about what in-depth Jewish learning should look like in the non-Orthodox world. It is a setting that demands real answers to the question that bedevils visions of our communal future: what precisely is the Jewish content that should fill in our vague dedication to Jewish Continuity?

The most important conversation, I would argue, centers around the teaching of Rabbinics. In a Jewish day school, there are three main formal contexts in which Jewish content is taught. One is tefilla, prayer; the second is Bible; and the third is Rabbinics. For our purposes, I will define Rabbinics as the study of the texts and ideas of the Rabbinic tradition. Rabbinics as a discipline is unique to day schools – it is not taught in Hebrew schools because of its breadth and complexity. Only day schools can devote the time necessary to penetrate it.

Rabbinics is key to every aspect of Judaism as we know and live it. While prayer is an essential component of religious experience, and Bible is the starting point of Jewish study, the Judaism that we have inherited and that we live today is Rabbinic Judaism. It is the product of rabbinic categories, modes of thought, and methods of interpretation. It is a reflection of the rabbinic vision of a robust life lived in the service of God. Any serious discussion of Jewish Continuity must begin with immersion in the debates and deliberations of generations of rabbinic writing – that is the history which we are continuing! Thus, how we teach our students to situate themselves in Jewish tradition is largely a function of how we choose to teach Rabbinics.

Our Rabbinics curriculum should press us to ask crucial questions about what it means to cultivate Jewish identity in the 21st century. What types of encounter with Torah should we be creating for our students? What exactly will inspire young adults to make a passionate and long-term commitment to Torah and to the community that is its steward? In the vast world of Rabbinic tradition, what types of content should we prioritize? How do we define our main objectives?

There are, of course, no singular answers to these questions. Part of the reason that Jewish Continuity has remained undefined is that it is the only thing people from all segments of the Jewish world can agree on. But avoiding these questions has been a real mistake. We are immeasurably enriched by open dialogue between educators with differing values and goals. We better articulate our own views, are challenged to consider new approaches, and are able to find common ground. Most of all, the process of debating Torah’s many meanings together itself creates a shared communal identity, despite, or even because of, our diversity.

Unfortunately, in the real world of Jewish high schools, Rabbinics has been less the defining element of the Judaics curriculum than its most ill-defined part. Prayer and Bible are reasonably well-defined areas of study, though there are certainly major variations in practice. We know more or less what content is being taught and to some degree why. Rabbinics, on the other hand, has always been the great Black Hole of the day school curriculum. There is not even consensus on the very basic question of what type of material such a course should cover. Is it a Talmud class or an overview of Judaism and Jewish values? Does it focus on rabbinic texts, or is it a catch-all that brings in Jewish philosophy and literature?

Rabbinics teaching in non-Orthodox schools has, as a consequence, often been disorderly and haphazard. Material was often chosen with no careful reflection on the overall goals for a Rabbinics curriculum. Each teacher in a school would teach material they liked or were comfortable with, with little coordination of methods or approaches. Teachers within a single department often taught entirely different subjects under the common rubric of “Rabbinics”.

There are many reasons for this. First, In the vast world of rabbinic literature, there are no obvious choices. Unlike Bible, Rabbinic Literature offers no clear storyline or progression, leaving teachers to select material based solely on personal preference. Second, Rabbinic texts are more foreign and less accessible to our students than biblical or liturgical texts. Many Rabbinics teachers have tended to focus either on making Rabbinics enjoyable or on teaching basic language skills, losing sight of longer-term curricular concerns. Third, what is being taught has been influenced by who has been asked to do the teaching. It takes years of intensive work to develop real facility in Talmud, and generally few of those who do so have looked to teach outside of the Orthodox world. With limited access to that level of expertise, schools turned to educators with more general Jewish knowledge to fill the gap, reducing the amount and/or the depth of the rabbinic texts being taught.

Moreover, many of today’s non-Orthodox Jewish high schools are less than 10 years old. They began without clear models of what teaching Rabbinics should look like, and have been trying to make decisions on the fly. There are many different perspectives on what should be taught – parents, administrators, and teachers often have widely diverging ideas about how much and what types of rabbinic material is worth teaching. Even determining who makes such decisions is a complex process.

All of this has begun to change. Rabbinics faculties at schools around the country are starting to think seriously about these challenges. Individual educators are examining Rabbinics teaching through the lens of curricular design. Experienced educators have also been joined by an influx of new teachers with deeper expertise in Rabbinic Literature. In addition to the established seminaries and education schools, there is a network of new institutions that offer extensive Talmud training in a progressive framework. For alumni of the Pardes Educators’ Program, the Conservative Yeshiva, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, and other programs, pluralistic schools are a natural home.

Moreover, as several of the newer high schools grow into maturity, teachers who move between schools have begun to share methods, materials, and philosophies of teaching Rabbinics. Academic work from Jon Levisohn and colleagues at the Mandel Center at Brandeis University, especially the work of “The Initiative on Bridging Scholarship and Pedagogy in Jewish Studies”, have begun to more clearly define the competing goals and concerns that Rabbinics teachers balance and to challenge some of our assumptions about how to reach those goals. We are in a position to have a richer community-wide conversation about what it means to teach Rabbinics, and thus to shape a concept of “Judaism” for our students, than we could ever have had before.

Rabbinics educators should seize this moment to start treating Rabbinics as a discipline. We must start talking about these big picture questions not only within schools, but across schools as well. We need to discuss what the study of Rabbinics should be in our schools and how we get there. To do that, we need to start to develop clear language in which to describe both our goals and our methods. A common language will allow us to have a real conversation about the merits and challenges of different orientations toward rabbinic texts, in Levisohn’s language. We need to challenge ourselves to more carefully define our goals; to more precisely pair methods with goals; and to look together for effective ways to test our methods and assess whether and to what extent we have achieved those goals.

The product of such a dialogue will not be a single set of guidelines for what specific content schools should be teaching or which goals are most valuable. Articulating and teaching a Judaism worth upholding is not about choosing a single truth – we know that there is no such thing.

Rather, such a dialogue can clarify the bases and challenges of different approaches, so that curricular decisions reflect a school’s values and vision. It can challenge us to continuously question and refine our practice and to consider different approaches to both understanding and teaching this material. Most of all, it would be the beginning of a profoundly important conversation about what rabbinic texts should mean in a non-Orthodox context. This is a conversation that needs multiple voices and perspectives, experienced educators who are prepared to learn from each other.

The lessons we learn from such a dialogue have the potential to transform how we think about the challenge of building the Jewish future. They can help us to recover the core values that should animate our work. Our Rabbinics classrooms, like our communities, should be constantly engaged with a principle that, despite its importance, is too easily sidelined: the belief that a serious and expansive conversation about the many different ways to approach our texts and tradition can itself serve as the core around which a truly modern Judaism can flourish.

Rabbi Joshua Cahan has taught Rabbinics at the Schechter Westchester High School since receiving his Ph.D. in Talmud from JTS. He founded and directed the Northwoods Kollel at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin for 8 years.

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  1. Arnee Winshall says

    Rabbi Cahan’s comments and insights reinforce the distinctive benefits of Jewish day school education. While there are many outstanding and engaging Jewish learning experiences that are increasingly being made available through innovative complementary programs and camp experiences, currently day schools are essentially the only context in which the opportunity for this level of Jewish literacy and engagement is and can be truly realized.

  2. Sara Greenberg says

    “Rabbinics” neglects one component that, to me, is the “sine qua non”: the rabbis!! For many of us, even in the Orthodox world, like myself, there was a missing, elusive element – the human touch. Who wrote these arguments, conversations, discussions? Who were the people behind the mysterious names? Students, especially teenagers, need context in order to identify with their learning. It his hard to equate real people with moldy words on dry paper (or screens, etc.). I strongly encourage my fellow educators to include elements of history and biography into teaching the catch-all concept of “Rabbinics.” Make it come alive!! You might even see the students engaging their illustrious predecessors in dialogue!

  3. Yehudah Mirsky says

    A very good new collection of articles on how to teach rabbinical texts is ‘Turn It and Turn It Again,’ coedited by Sue Fendrick and Jon Levisohn, recently published by Academic Studies Press.

  4. Dan Ab says

    There is a serious problem in stating that “Rabbinics is key to every aspect of Judaism as we know and live it.” and that “Rabbinics as a discipline is unique to day schools”. Taking these both as true is a failure of imagination and a failure of Jewish continuity. The vast majority of Jewish children aren’t in Jewish high schools. Even in the Orthodox world, Jewish high school isn’t universal and the current Orthodox percentages probably aren’t sustainable.

    Given Rabbinics is so central, instead of merely tweaking how to best teach it to the minority of kids in Jewish high schools, why are you dismissing teaching Rabbinics to non-day school students off hand? If you’re pushing for a discussion of what high students are supposed to learn about Rabbinics, those same broad goals can be applied to other formats.

    I agree that no one is going to become a Talmud scholar by age 18 by studying a couple of evenings a week, but they can still work towards the same knowledge goals. If they leave high school with the fundamentals of how to study rabbinical texts and the enthusiasm to learn more, they are better off than a day school student who took rabbinics for several years and never saw it as more than a grade in a class. More generally, there needs to be a discussion of what other formats of non-day school rabbinic learning can be. What can be taught to non-day school students in primary grades that best allow them to start engaging with Talmud later? How do you teach Talmud to more kids and in more formats? More focus in Summer camps? More chevruta study outside of formal schools? Nothing is perfect, but to shut down the option of serious Talmud study outside of day schools is not an acceptable option.

  5. Joshua Cahan says

    Sara: Certainly figuring out what we can say about who the Rabbis were, how they thought, etc., is crucial to any conversation about what we want our students to learn. It’s precisely the element that requires some abstraction – we as educators need to step back and look at how a picture of a group of people emerges from these texts so that we can find ways of inserting that human element into our teaching.
    Dan: You are absolutely correct that teaching Rabbinic texts can’t remain within one specific venue. High schools just have the most time and resources for developing a sophisticated approach to them. The larger point is that what I want us to do with high school Rabbinics teaching is really what the whole community needs to be doing – finding ways to build our education experiences around the goal of developing a sophisticated relationship with Rabbinic Judaism. The original (far too long) version of this article argued more fully that we should be thinking of what we are doing as creating a blueprint for a community-wide return to “Torah-centered Judaism”. That phrase itself, BTW, is taken from Elie Kaunfer talking about the larger issue of the content of our work for Jewish Continuity.

  6. Jeffrey Spitzer says

    Years ago while I was running the Rabbinics Lab at Solomon Schechter Day School of Greater Boston, I coined the translation of Torah she’b’al Peh as “Conversational Torah”. As a participant in the Mandel Center’s Bridging initiative and a contributor to Turn It and Turn It Again, I was pushed to think even more carefully about what it means to treat the conversations that happen in the classroom as Torah, and what it takes to make sure that those conversations are indeed part of Torah.
    First and foremost, the conversation needs to emulate the Talmud’s intergenerational conversation by making sure that the rabbis of Yavneh and Usha and Sura and Pumbedita and Troyes are all at the table along with the budding scholars of Boston. I also learned that by focusing on the acquisition of skills including a strong emphasis on the student learning to identify the evidence inside the text that justifies his/her claims, we can indeed trust our students to be responsible readers. Responsible reading and responsible conversation will diverge from traditional readings, but a critical community of readers, such as the ones I’ve had and trained over the past nine years at Gann Academy, will put the most “unexpected” claims to the test. As Boyarin interprets R. Yirmiah’s gloss on R. Yehoshua’s claim in the famous story of Tanuro shel Akhnai, “it is not in heaven” does not allow R. Yehoshua to make any reading he wants. As R. Yirmiah glosses the comment, the legitimacy of a reading is determined by the majority of the community. And so I’ve found in my classes: conversational Torah can indeed be revealed when people allow their readings to be judged in a sympathetic but critically minded community of responsible readers. And of course, even within that community, the minority readings can be preserved (cf. mEdduyot ch. 1: either to be reclaimed or to be rejected), keeping all members of the community at the table by showing kavod (dignity) to the rejected approaches by attributing to those readings a particular sage’s name.
    I am very glad that Rabbi Cahan has made this overture to restart a conversation about our discipline. I hope that that conversation also bears the hallmarks of authentic conversational Torah.

  7. Andy says

    I think it is important to mention here the work done by and through the Hartman Institute’s “Tichon” Program. I think an approach to teaching Rabbinics really began to form there, and yielded mulstiple curricular units that many schools have adapted and continue to teach to this day.