What Happens in Text Discussion

By Ziva R. Hassenfeld

In her recent piece on Mechon Hadar’s new Standards for Fluency in Jewish Text and Practice, Lisa Exler advocates for an approach that emphasizes student collaboration when studying Jewish texts in havruta. She suggests that the standards, alongside appropriate teaching techniques, “can transform classrooms and schools, empowering students to own their relationships to Jewish texts and to one another.” This is a powerful and compelling vision of successful Jewish text education, but even as Exler emphasizes the importance of collaboration, she ultimately treats the process of textual interpretation as an individual project. In her view, havruta is a sounding board one uses to clarify one’s own ideas.

But discussing texts with peers is not simply an opportunity to exchange interpretations, rather it is an opportunity to construct interpretations. Ideas about text come into being through talk, contingent on the dialogue that unfolds, and collectively constructed and reconstructed in the course of discussion (Aukerman, 2015).

I saw this in action in a second grade classroom I observed recently. The students were studying Genesis 39, when Potiphar puts Joseph in charge of everything in his house except for the “food (literally: bread) that he ate.” The students were taken by the word lehem (bread) and why this is withheld from Joseph’s charge. Adin commented, “Speaking of bread, I think it connects to the (Joseph’s) brothers. They sit to eat bread after they throw him in the pit. It could be that Potiphar knows his brothers or something.” Rachel jumped in: “Potiphar may have been the guy in the grass.” Gabe went on, “That’s why he (Potiphar) came so quickly to the place. Potiphar could have come all the way from there knowing Yoseph was thrown into the pit. So he probably was the man.” Amy jumped in to explain Gabe’s point, “HE was the guy that the Ishmaelites sold Yoseph to.” She concluded, “So it might mean something bad for Yoseph. His brothers ate bread after throwing him in the pit so maybe Potiphar saving the bread means something bad will happen to Yoseph.”

In the course of four talk turns these students pulled together disparate characters, plot lines and motivations. But whose interpretation was it? Whose ideas were clarified? The interpretation does not belong to any single student. It emerged collaboratively. Adin contributed Joseph’s brothers, Rachel contributed the man in the grass, Gabe connected him to Potiphar and Amy resolved the significance of bread. This co-construction of interpretation shows the true potential of collaborative text interpretation.

The difference between exchanging interpretations and constructing them may seem like a distinction without a difference. After all, one might say, the important thing is that students are engaged in text discussion at all. But our conception of the value of text discussion shapes the importance we place on it when planning our curricula and articulating our educational visions. We choose whether we see text discussion as an opportunity to share the interpretations we have already reached or whether we see it as the very space in which interpretations are constructed for the first time. If collaboration is the essential skill for textual interpretation, then our classrooms must be organized to support it from the bottom up.

Ziva R. Hassenfeld is a post-doctoral fellow at the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education at Brandeis University. Some of the ideas in this piece are an outgrowth of work done at the Mandel Center’s recent Learning to Read in Jewish Education conference.