A Systematic Inquiry into the Task of Enabling the Teaching of Jewish Texts





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Over the past 25 years, there have been a number of attempts, both commercial and institutional, to develop and disseminate methods and curricula for the teaching of Jewish texts in non-intensive instructional settings. For all intents and purposes, they have failed both in dissemination and in implementation. This paper is the description of an attempt to evolve a model and technology of text teaching, specifically the study of Torah, which has the potential to be effective in a majority of Jewish instructional settings.

The paper is presented in five sections. The first deals with the dissonance between those settings where such Jewish texts were classically studied and normative western, secular learning environments on which most Jewish schools are modeled. It suggests that lernen, the authentic Jewish meaning-making process of textual exegesis, cannot be directly transplanted into today’s classroom through a simple editing and sequencing process. Rather, a complete translation of methodology must take place

In the second section, we examine a set of criteria that serve to define the “essence of the authentic lernen experience. These serve as tests of the authenticity of our translation.

In the third section, we present and explicate a working definition of the lernen experience.

In the fourth section, a technology built of three elements (a developmental matrix, a conceptual frame, and the manipulation of translations) is presented.

In the last section, a summary of our classroom experience is presented, showing such translations in process.

Based on 80 years of reflection, observation, and experimental curriculum design, this paper suggests that it is possible to enable the act of making meaning through the study of Jewish sources in most Jewish learning environments.

Part One


Since the first decade of the twentieth century, beginning with the renewal of Jewish learning championed by Samson S. Benderly, most North American Jewish classrooms have emulated on the models evolved by American public (and more recently private secular) education. Benderly (1910) wrote: “As the great public school system is the rock bottom upon which the country is rearing its institutions, so we Jews must evolve here a system of Jewish education that shall be complementary to and harmonious with the public school system.” Likewise, Rabbi Louis Grossman (1919), in the first book written to instruct North American Jewish teachers, proclaims, “The Religious Schools should be conducted on the plan of the public schools, and superintendents and teachers should familiarize themselves with the methods of teaching and discipline, which obtain there.”

Consistently since then, the design of most Jewish classrooms, the regiments of instruction, the instructional materials and methodologies, the expectations of parents, students, and teachers, and even the educational language we use to describe, prescribe and proscribe Jewish learning are derived almost entirely from secular norms. The same is true of our curricular decisions and emphasizes.

Our work began with the assumption that the dissonance between text-centered instructional environments and the “normative” Western classroom is one factor that has made it difficult for many Jewish schools to make a text study process part of their core curricula.

Heilman (1983), a participant-observer who has looked into the dynamic of Jewish text study, defines the lernen process as having four steps or moves, recitationtranslationexplanation, and discussion. He explains:

The first of these consists of an oral reading of the text, usually by one person who is cued or echoed by the others who are with him...Translation, the second step, became necessary when Jews no longer were fluent in the primary languages...but it was always part of the necessary expansion of the sketchy text...Explanation, the third move, is the effort to briefly clarify the meaning of implications of what has been recited. During the explanation, learners define questions and refine answers. They organize a text, determining where one object or inyan ends and another begins. They frame matters, detailing what the Talmud (text) is trying to do. Finally, they provide short glosses or footnotes to what they have just recited... Discussion, the last move, allows for the broadest possible consideration of the text. Mirroring the give-and-take of the sages... (they) evaluate the significance of what they have read and debate its conclusions, digress to tell stories or ask and answer questions... The students’ concerns and words merge with the issues and language of the Talmud (text) they reviewed. This the ultimate step of the process, the point at which life and lernen become one.

In Classroom Teaching Skills, a leading “secular” teacher training text (also utilized as a resource at several leading Jewish teacher- training institutions), Shostak (1986), describes the traditional “secular” lesson in very different terms:

Educators have developed elaborate schemes for classifying and analyzing techniques and their underlying concepts. Although recent research has identified 25 lesson presentation skills that are considered part of the classroom recitation process, the most frequently researched ones were found to be (1) introducing the lesson, or set induction, (2) retaining student attention throughout the lesson, or stimulus variation, (3) explaining; and (4) providing reinforcement through planned summarization procedures, or closure.

While these settings have much in common, there are two major distinctions, which create a large gap. The first is a question of focus. Heilman, operating from the social context, defines the stages of learning from the learner’s perspective. Shostak, correctly perceiving classroom realities, defines lessons in terms of teacher behaviors. The differing focus isn’t merely an expression of the observer’s objectivity; rather, it is a reflection of one essential difference between these two environments. Second, Shostak’s classroom works on predetermined outcomes. While learners may influence the dynamics of the lesson, and personalize outcomes, the pace of learning here is carefully directed to ensure levels of mastery. Heilman’s Torah-Circle has a differing dynamic. Its outcomes are more flexible. While the rebbe or teacher will exert influence over that which is learned, it is the text itself that controls the flow. Simply put, Shostak’s classroom, the normative Western classroom, is structured to achieve specific outcomes in fixed amounts of time. In contradistinction, Heilman’s Torah-Circle, the normative Jewish learning setting, works it way through texts, finding and making meaning, taking as much time as necessary.

Ordinary lessons are like meetings: They have beginnings, middles, and ends. Text lessons are more like conversations: They have a tendency to wander and grow with the relationships which evolve. As the designers of materials that enable classroom text experiences, we have taken as our goal finding a way to go from set induction to “the broadest possible consideration of the text...the point at which life and lernen become one” in 55 minutes.

Part Two


Based on this analysis of classroom environments, we realized we could not create an easy-to-disseminate and an easy-to-implement Torah curriculum by merely editing the text experience, excerpting a 55-minute segment, and then packaging it properly; rather, it mandated “translation” into a process that would meet the expectations of teachers and learners who were influenced by secular models. Rabbi Joel (Yosi) Gordon (1987) comments, “For me, in a real text lesson, set induction consists only of ‘Please open your Humashim to...’” His comment reveals something about the intrinsic motivations and expectations of Torah-Circle members. They are from the start, co-partners in an experience they value and support. They share responsibility. What in older educational jargon was called “motivation” takes place spontaneously?

From the beginning, we have assumed that it is far more realistic to translate the lernen experience into the tightly-paced, objective-managed world of the “ordinary” classroom than it is to try to equip teachers and learners to spontaneously recreate the dynamics of the Torah-Circle or yeshiva. To this end, in order to effect such a translation, it has been necessary to search for those “essences” of the “authentic” text experience. These essences were critical to our work, for they provide not only guidelines but a clear set of criteria by which success could be measured. To find such essences we enriched our own reflection upon lernen experiences with the collection of literature about the process of Jewish text study. The three statements that follow serve both to define some dynamics of this text-process and as focal metaphors in our work--and each of them ultimately found its own expression within the techniques manifest in our materials.

Robert Alter (1985) explains, “The texts, after all, are not fixed propositions to be learned, once and for all, like The principles of geometry, but are rather speaking, shifting voices that tease us, address us, challenge us; and if we respond to them actively, they may, in the slow course of experience, unexpectedly reveal to us some of their hidden truth.’ Alter understands that text study is more than an exercise in data entry--it involves a dynamic that transcends the information mastered  and the principles expressed.

In a shiur given on his birthday, Rabbi Joseph Soleveichik (1985) explained this dynamic in another way:

Whenever I enter the classroom...I ask myself, ‘Can there be a dialogue between young students and an old teacher--between a rebbe in Indian summer and boys enjoying the spring of their lives?’ Whenever I start the shiur, the door opens up and another old man comes in and sits down. He is older than I am. He is my grandfather--his name is Reb Chaim Brisker. Without him, I cannot say my shiur. Then more visitors show up. Some of the visitors lived in the eleventh century and some lived in the twelfth century; some lived in the thirteenth century and some even lived in antiquity: Rashi, Rabbenu Tam, Ravad, Rashba...

What do I do? I introduce them to my pupils and the dialogue commences. The Rambam says something and the Ravad disagrees. A boy jumps up--he has another idea. The Rashba smiles gently. I try to analyze what the young boy meant--another boy intervenes. We call upon Rabbenu Tam to express his opinion and suddenly a symposium of generations comes into existence. We all speak one language. We all chat. We speak together. We discuss. We enjoy each other’s company. We all pursue one goal. We are all committed to a common vision and we all operate under the same categories. There is a Masorah collegiality, a friendship, a comradeship between young and old, between antiquity and Middle Ages and modern times.

Rabbi Soleveichek’s dream-like, metaphoric, explanation of the process of text study reveals another dimension. Text study is all about dialogue. It has to do with problem-solving. Texts are trails we follow; challenges followed by successive generations of learners. In our struggle with them, we find both the need and the ability to talk together.

Saul Wachs (1986), a teacher-trainer who devotes much of his efforts to enabling text experiences, regularly challenge teachers, “When you are teaching a class and students are expressing their opinions, and all of a sudden one student asks another student a question about his opinion--that’s the moment you can retire as a successful Jewish teacher. That’s what it is all about.”

From those sources and others, we reached some basic conclusions: We knew that each text had a “voice that would tell secrets,” that texts created “a dialogue between the generations,” and that they are the enablers of “classroom community...” All of these are interesting, important dynamics, but none of them held the “essence” we were seeking. none of these could provide the behavioral focus needed for structuring an individual text lesson. Instead, they provided us with a key acid test--that is if, after translation into our kind of lesson process, the experience still fulfills these dynamic conditions...then it would have remained an “authentic” text experience.

Part Three


To form the behavioral center of our translation, we evolved the following definition of the text experience. it is a definition that grew from both classroom observation and private reflection, and one that we have tested through the application of countless generations of prototypical text study materials.

1.      Texts are made up of word-clusters that are both familiar and confusing. Texts are always in need of explanation; that is their nature. Sometimes, this is merely an act of translation, the application of connotative or denotative meaning. In other cases, the text stands in need of completion. Here the actual meaning must be provided by the learner. It is through the latter kind of text issue that the real dynamic of text study comes alive.

2.      In reading the text, those places that are in need of explanation make themselves manifest (though, perceiving them is a trainable skill). It is the role of both learner and teacher to isolate and clarify “the problem.”

3.      Dialogue begins. The learner must attempt to supply an answer. The problem must be resolved. Answers come from many sources. They emerge from the text itself, the result of comparative and analytical close-reading. They flow from the learners, an extension of their own perceptions and imaginations. They echo from the answers found by those who have struggled with these problems previously, for we are a people that relish and gather our collective insights.

4.      It is the nature of these texts, and perhaps their profound magic, that many workable answers suggest themselves. In the end, the learner is forced to choose. It is this very act of choosing what the text means, of making it have meaning, which ferments the dialogue, forms the essence of the secrets revealed by the voice, and actualizes the drama of the experience.

Most simply put, the act of text study is that of (1) isolating the places where the text is difficult to understand, (2) clarifying the difficulty, (3) projecting and collecting possible solutions/explanations and (4) having each learner choose the solution that “works” for him/her.

To clarify, let us work from an example. In the story of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 5) God’s actions are clear. The people build a tower and city, explaining themselves: “Let us build a city and a tower with its tips in the sky. let us make a name for ourselves, to keep us from being scattered over the face of the earth.” God stops their construction and the Torah explains, “So the Lord scattered them from there over the face of the earth and they stopped building the city.” What they set out to do is undone. That much is clear. What is totally unclear is the reason for God’s intervention. In the text, God explains the action: “This is only the beginning of what they will do. From now on, they will be able to do whatever they feel like doing.” That response is problematic. On the surface, there seem to be only two possibilities: either (1) God is capricious or (2) there is something evil about the act of building to tower. Therefore, the story demands explanation--because a learner working within the Jewish context can’t settle for a capricious Deity. We return to the text to find out what was wrong with building a tower.

In the Talmud, Sanhedrin 109a, we find two explanations that “reaching heaven” is the problem. Rabbi Shila suggests that people intended to cut a hole in the sky and cause a flood, just like God. Similarly, Jeremiah ben Eliezer suggests that people wanted to reach heaven and then fight with God. In both explanations, humanity misunderstands what it means to be “like God.” created in “God’s image.” Both commentators see “reaching heaven” as the beginning of acts of violence.

In Pirke D’Rabbi Eleazer 24, Rabbi Pinchas suggests the explanation later popularized by Rashi. Rooting himself in the phrase “make a name,” he portrays the process of building the tower as one which the workers, making bricks more important than people.

Cassuto, in Noah to Abraham, p. 227, draws on the literal command to “spread out and fill the earth.”

Our experiences in many classrooms have shown that children (and adults) working within the biblical context regularly retrace these classic solutions. In presenting classes of 8- to 12-year-olds with this problem, we find that they tend to focus on three verses:

1.      Let us build a tower with its top in the sky meaning they wanted to reach God.

2.      Let us make a name for ourselves meaning that they were only concerned with themselves, not others.

3.      To keep us from being scattered over the face of all the earth showing that they violated the command/blessing that God gave to both Adam and Eve and to Noah and his family, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth.”

It is possible to see that all of these potential meanings are actually embedded in the biblical text, while their expansion and expression is an act of innovative Midrash-making. What emerges from this lesson is Soloveichik’s “dialogue between the generations.”

It is important to understand what is actually being resolved through this text. The question at stake here is a major theological issue--it is literally earthshaking. We are not merely playing games with words; rather, we are deciding what we believe God is like. The resolution of the text demands that we choose between the literal suggestion that “God limits people on purpose,” or the evolved possibilities that God intervened in history to (a) stop the misdirection of human activity, to (b) prevent cruelty, or to (c) enhance the development of diversity and individuality. Making meaning of this passage demands that the learner articulate and apply his/her belief about the nature of God.

Ironically, we have found that this simple model of (1) text, (2) text-problem, (3) possible solutions, and (4) the making of meaning breaks down in some settings where intensive text study is a norm, in settings when traditional sources have been (by our standards) misstate. This most often is the result of teaching Rashi as a translation. We have encountered many learners who after exposure to this text (with Rashi’s commentary) believe that the Torah clearly teaches “that people who built the tower believed that bricks were more important than people.” For them, the entire sense of a text-problem is lost. It has become merely a pre-text for Midrash. The result is that the entire panorama of possible meanings has been hidden behind the assured knowledge that “God wants people to treat each other well.” The sermon is complete; the opportunity to encounter the text is lost.

Part Four


Methodologies and Technologies

Everett Fox (1971), one of today’s leading biblical translators, writes, “There is really no “final” translation of a biblical text, but only one’s current understanding that must inevitably change. It might, therefore, be useful to think of my renditions as performances, rather than as fixed, petrified works.” While Fox is speaking literally of translation, of the matching of words and clauses, the same holds true for our pedagogic renditions. The remainder of this paper will chronicle our efforts to enact the meaning-making process of authentic text study. In our sense, translation is a substitution of methodologies and a re-expression of the learning process.

In the first part of this paper we traced our understanding of two key insights, which shaped our development of text materials:

1.      Texts can be viewed as a series of problems of meaning. The act of text study can be defined as a collective process of resolving these questions. Some of these “problems” can be precisely resolved through the application of comparative or analytic skills; others involve the learners in “making meaning,” in the formulation of an assertive statement about “what the text means to them.”

2.      The pacing and structure of “traditional” Jewish text study is intrinsic to the process, dependent on the nature of the dynamics within a group and between the group and the text. This is not an organizational framework that is readily transferable to a normative “western” classroom where the teacher is responsible for planning and implementing time-fixed instruction.

The fusion of these two insights creates the model vector used in each of our text experiences. In creating a hybrid experience, a “translation,” we look to isolate a single issue of making meaning in a text. While this may involve the resolution of several issues of meaning (along with the way), we define as the prime objective of any given text lesson this active meaning-making behavior. All of our work will revolve around the enabling of this act of making meaning.

In shaping such text experiences, we employ three tools: a developmental matrix, conceptual frames, and the manipulation of translations. Let us briefly explore each of these.

The Developmental Matrix

Over a series of years, we have evolved a taxonomy of Torah learning. Similar work has been done on a halakhic framework, but it has not yet coalesced. In building a dynamic relationship with the text of the Torah, a learner should progress through four developmental relationships. None of these relationships is ever outgrown, none is ever “mastered.” Rather, new insights and skills add additional layers of relationship. it is very much like the deepening of friendships. This progression of relationships begins with BEDTIME STORIES, evolves into a basic understanding of THE BIBLE AS TEXT, is further evolved by the development of ATTACK SKILLS, and culminates in an ability to integrate individual insights into a sense of META-TEXT.

Because of the limited context of this paper, we will direct our attention to a single example that functions on the second level of this taxonomy. (See the appendix for the complete sequence).

BIBLICAL TEXTS (Ages 7-11) While, the first relationship with the Torah was based on hearing Bible stories. This second relationship begins with the ability to read the biblical text. The skill of reading brings great power. What we are seeking here are two ingredients: the first is an appreciation of the Torah as a unique book that demands special kinds of reading skills and the second is the actual development of the first layer of these close-reading skills. We are teaching learners to look beyond the tale and towards the text; to see that meaning can be built on the number of times a word is repeated; the echoing of certain phrases; symmetrical patterns, the power of a missing word or phrase, etc. While isolating these elements may sound complex and difficult, it is indeed just the perception of basic concrete patterns.

The Conceptual Frame

In our work on Torah materials for the second level of this taxonomy, the “Reading Relationship,” we define and train the students in the identification of five basic patterns in the biblical text. These operations (literary elements) become a framework for analysis. While they are prompted by the translation text and by the accompanying workbook materials they are also trained and assimilated as “meaning-making” operations. They are:

[T-WORD] The identification of a “theme-word” (what Buber and Rosenzweig identify as a ‘leading Word”), which is repeated in the text.

[#-WORD] The identification of a word that is repeated a fixed number of times (Usually 5, 7, 10, or 12 times). For example: the word “good” appears 7 times in the first story of creation, the word “brother” appears 7 times in the story of Cain and Abel, the word “covenant” appears 7 times at the culmination of the Noah story, and the word “land” appears 7 times in chapter 12 of Genesis, the story where Abram comes to Canaan. Each of these defines the essence of its story.

[RE-RUN] [+] or [-} the repetition of a passage with an addition or deletion. We learn from experience that the key message is usually in the change. For example, in Genesis 1, God blesses people: “Be fruitful, become many, fill the earth, and master it.” At the end of the Noah story, God repeats this blessing as: “Be fruitful, become many, and fill the earth.” The missing clause “and master it” explains the change in humanity’s relationship with God after the flood.

[ECHO] The Torah often ‘echoes” certain words or phrases to help connect two situations or ideas. This we will see in the example that follows:

[MISSING INFORMATION - M.I.] Places where we are required to complete the text (such as in the TOWER OF BABEL story).

Together these five operations become a framework for reading a biblical story. They make the words important. They define a process of “close-reading” and become a framework students can use as “biblical detectives” when they search for “clues” in the text.

The Manipulation of Translations

The third of our technological tools was the careful crafting of appropriate translations. (Here, we do literally mean translations in the linguistic sense.) Our experiences in the classroom have shown us that such graphic elements as blank-verse line breaks, phrases and words set in bold or italic type, and clean separation of text segments can all enhance the learner’s perception of patterns and forms in the text. In other words, it is possible to “tune-up’ or down the elements in the text, thereby aiding their perception.

The same is true actual language of the translation. For example: While the NJV, the so called JPS “New Torah Translation” is highly readable and good for facilitating the comprehension of the plot and the perception of general themes, its commitment to the vernacular unintentionally buries the Hebraic nature of the narrative. This can be seen in a comparison with the SJV, the older JPS translation. Here are both renditions of Genesis 12.1:

SJV:    Get thee out of thy country, (2) and from thy kindred), (3) and from their father’s house unto the land that I will show you.

NJV:   Go forth (1) from your native land, (2) and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.

While the second rendition is more readable, dealing with “you” and not “thee,” going “to” and not “unto;” its readability also sacrifices a large portion of the text’s potential meaning. In deciding that the two phrases moladikha and beit avikha are an hendiadys (a pair of synonymous phrases that are redoubled for emphasis), the three-part formula has been lost in translation. Lost with it is an important series of Midrashim as well as established a parallel with Genesis 22, the Akedah. Thus, choosing and shaping translation can greatly affect the ability of students to perceive textual problems, break them open, and then create solutions. In the next section of this paper, you will see one of our trial translations in action.

Part Five


What follows is a very brief summary of the state of our development, the application of these three tools to a set of specific classroom materials known as Being Torah. While we have logged a large number of hours observing in classrooms, collected many anecdotes, and filled our files with various indications of student learning (photocopies of their workbooks), we have not systematically researched the classroom applications. Nevertheless, our evidence leads us to suspect that in some settings, the process indeed works.

The passage that follows is drawn from chapter 24 of the book of Genesis. It is the story of how Abraham’s servant chose Rebekah to be Isaac’s wife. in it, our central question is: “What made Rebekah the right woman to be the second mother of Israel (and how can we be like her)?” Two literary clues will provide our answer. The first is a [RE-RUN] [[+] and the second is an [ECHO].

1.      In the story, the servant imagines a test of the women he will meet. He says to God “Let it be that when I say to a woman ‘Please--may I drink from your jar?’ one will answer ‘Drink and I will also draw water for your camels’--she will be the one that You have chosen for Isaac.” Here, the woman is expected to do more than she was asked, to perceive the camels’ need for water. we only learn this by finding the extra words added to the repetition. When we get to meet Rebekah, she adds further to the repetition stating, “I will also draw water for your camels--until they have finished drinking.”

2.      In chapter 18 of Genesis, the story where Abraham welcomes three visitors, the text uses the word “please” three times, and “run’ twice. “Run,” “hurry,” and “please” become the essence of his hospitality. All three of these words [ECHO] in this passage, suggesting that Rebekah was, like Abraham, concerned with hospitality.

The translation we created, a word-sensitive translation in the tradition of both Buber-Rosenzweig and Fox, captures each of these nuances and uses graphic techniques like line breaks and boldface passages to prompt their discovery. (NOTE: we have further shortened the text for presentation here.)

The servant took ten camels and some of his master’s most precious things.
He got up and went to the land of Aram between the two rivers...
He said: Lord, God of my master Abraham...
I am standing here by the well
and young women are going out to draw water.
Let it be that when I say to a woman
“Please--may I drink from your jar?”
One will answer, “Drink and I will also draw water for your camels.”
She will be the one that You have chosen for Isaac...
Almost before he could finish speaking
there came Rebekah, Abraham’s niece...
The servant ran to meet her.
He said: “Please--let me drink a little water from your jar.”
She said: “Drink my master.”
She hurried...
When he had finished drinking she said:
I will also draw water for your camels--until they have finished drinking.”
, she emptied her jar into the drinking trough.
Again she ran to the well to draw water.
She brought enough water for all the camels.

In the above example, the translation has been “tuned” to reveal our clues. In using it, students are encouraged to discover some of the “secret voices,” which Alter describes the reward in the text experience. In the student materials that accompany the text, we ask students to complete a “fill-in-the-blanks” commentary, share their comments with the rest of the class, and then record the comment of one other student. This technique is not only an act of closure but also the direct implementation of Saul Wachs’ model of classroom Torah community. Here are some of the results from a fourth-grade class.

SONDRA: Rebekah was the perfect bride for Isaac because she was just like Abraham. Both of them hurried and hurried to make strangers welcome. Just like Abraham, she cared about the “mitzvah” of hospitality. This made her the right woman to be the next mother of the Jewish people because she was kind, generous, and a great hostess.

(Sondra on Jonathan) He thought that Rebekah was the right woman to be the next mother of the Jewish people because she did hew.

SH’MUEL: Rebekah was the perfect bride for Isaac because she was just like Abraham. Both of them hurried and ran to make strangers welcome. Just like Abraham, she cared about the “mitzvah” of hospitality. This made her the right woman to be the next mother of the Jewish people because she was generous and did more than necessary.

(Sh’muel on Ashley): Ashley thought that Rebekah was the right woman to be the next mother of the Jewish people because she has a lot of confidence in herself.

Discernible in these written records of that text experience are three strands of influence. The teacher’s voice and the materials “prompting” of the right answer are obvious (a bow to necessities of the supplemental classroom). So is the effect of the Torah-Circle in which it was learned. We also believe one can detect a personal moment with the text, a place where “the broadest possible consideration of the text...the point at which life and lernen become one.”


My teacher, Dr. William Cutter, taught us about closure. He explained that in the early 1960s a great deal of research was done in the persistence of vision. One of the conclusions reached was that a broken circle was one of the images most readily perceived by the human eye. The broken circle could be perceived as it was flashed at rates far faster than those at which a complete circle could be perceived. Yet, ironically, the more easily perceived broken circle was “seen” by subjects as a whole circle. Somehow, the act of completion aided the perception.

It is our belief that Jewish texts work in much the same way. Because we are forced to complete them, our perception of them has greater persistence. This is the essence of the true text experience: the alternation of analytic finding of meaning with the synthetic making of meaning. This is what makes the experience more than the sum of the words.

While text study is a complex, dynamic process that works best in very special environments, it is possible to extract the essence of this process and translate it into instructional modalities that work in the normative supplemental classroom. A combination of three techniques seems to have the greatest success at actualizing this transfer: (1) the application of a developmental sequence, (2) the creation of a conceptual framework for each text, and (3) the careful tuning of each text’s presentation (and translation).

It has been our experience that these texts can be readily taught by semi-trained teachers in non-intensive settings. While the glories of text study are often the subject of metaphors and meta-language, they can also be understood and actualized on behavioral terms. Such has been our effort.

In order to systematically establish the impact of our models and techniques, further study is warranted. This descriptive and reflective paper has done no more than provide a foundation for more analytic research. Both careful, extended, observation of the materials at work in the classroom and a more extensive analysis of the second-hand indications provided by completed workbook activities could tell us much more about these materials’ actual impact.


Alter, Robert B. The Challenge of the Texts, Los Angeles: Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion Commencement Addresses, May 1985

Benderly, Samson S. “The Jewish Community of New York City,” New York: Bureau of Jewish Education Bulletin No. 1, March 9, 1910

Fox, Everett “Toward A new Translation of the Bible,” Response number 12, Winter 1971-72, Waltham

Gordon, Rabbi Joel. A comment made in his review of the first draft of this document.

Grossman, Rabbi Louis. The Aims of Teaching in Jewish Schools, A Handbook for Teachers, Cincinnati: Isaac M. Wise centenary Publication of the Teachers’ Institute of the Hebrew Union College, 1919

Heilman, Samuel C. The People of the Book: Drama, Fellowship and Religion, Chicago: The University of Chicago, 1983

Shostak, Robert. “Lesson Presentation Skills.” From Classroom Teaching Skills, Cooper, James M., General editor. Lexington, MA: D.C. Health and Company, 1986

Soleveichik, Rabbi Joseph. Transcription of a bootleg tape of a talk given at Yeshiva University. 1985.

Wachs, Saul. A paraphrase of a statement this author has heard at a series of teacher-training workshops.

APPENDIX: Torah Taxonomy

The central goal of a Torah curriculum is to facilitate each learner’s development of a dynamic relationship with the biblical text. A relationship goes far beyond the acquisition of basic knowledge, the mastery of basic skills, and the internalization of basic values. A Torah curriculum succeeds when (1) the process of communal Torah study is compelling enough for learners to opt voluntarily to continue participating; and (2) when learners have gathered the ‘critical mass’ of skills and insights necessary to use the Torah as a functional tool...

In-house we have used the metaphor of a ropes-course. A ropes-course is a training technology evolved by Outward Bound in which participants conquer their fears, evolve skills, and develop community process through a series of challenges that include burma-bridges, ziplines, high-wires and lots of other obstacles made of ropes, logs and wire. While safety devices are employed at every step, participation brings a sense of “risk” in every test and “success” at every accomplishment. In many similar ways, Torah study is a Jewish training ground filled with challenges and the need for group involvement.

In building a dynamic relationship with the text of the Torah, a learner should progress through four developmental relationships. None of these relationships are ever outgrown, none is ever ‘mastered,’ rather, new insights and skills add additional layers of relationship. It is very much like the deepening of friendships. This progression of relationships begins with BEDTIME STORIES, evolves into a basic understanding of THE BIBLE AS TEXT, is further evolved by the development of ATTACK SKILLS, and culminates in an ability to integrate individual insights into a sense of META-TEXT.


Bedtime is a magic moment, the boundary between the tangible world and the reality of dreams. It is a time of child-parent bonding, and it is one of the places where family tradition is actualized. At bedtime, the story is the central medium of communication, and it is an act of love that is manifest between good night kisses and glasses of water. It is here that the Torah should first be countered.

Stories have a special magic. For those who know their secret, it is easy to go beyond listening to experiencing adventure. If you are open, stories are filled with people you can actually know and understand, and not just know about. At bedtime, or in a story-circle, stories have the power to conjure settings, situations and people. These three elements form the core of our initial goals.

While we often think of “plot” as the central element in a story, such is not the case in most biblical stories. While the Joseph story and the Davidic cycle are exceptions, the most biblical story is bursts of imagery. When we think of Noah, we relate to the flood, the ark, and the rainbow. These are primal. Only in much later consideration do we understand the Noah story as the destruction of the first creation and the re-establishing of a second creation predicated on the introduction of covenant.

Our goals within this “bedtime” relationship should be (1) awareness of the personality of the story’s characters, (2) a perception of the story’s settings and situations, and (3) because stories are built of words and rhythm, the first level of mastery of key phrases that should become part of an active life vocabulary. It is here that phrases like “brother’s keeper,” “40 days and 40 nights,” “coat of many colors,” and “choose life,” need to develop a special echo.


The first relationship with the Torah was based on hearing Bible stories. This second relationship begins with the ability to read the biblical text. The skill of reading brings great power. While this is true on a symbolic level because it gives the reader access to a vast array of human resources, it is also profoundly true on an experiential level. Think of the transition between being read a bedtime story and then reading your parent a bedtime story. In that act, there are two implications. The first is the exhibition of competence, “look what I can do now.” the second is an act of independence. Implied in that shared experience is the reality that sooner or later that child will wind up with a flashlight, reading under the covers after the lights are out. That independent action is not a rejection of parental bonding, but rather the manifestation of a new skill. Self-enrichment has been added to the active vocabulary.

Our second level of relationship parallels the assertiveness and sense of mastery that comes with learning how to read. Reading becomes the central activity of this new kind of biblical study. What we are seeking here are two ingredients: The first is appreciation of the Torah as a unique book that demands special kinds of reading skills, and the second involves the development of the first layer of these close-reading skills, and the second involves the development of the first layer of these close-reading skills. This layer of relationship is pro-textual and it enables the later development of real textual mastery. It is predicated on making the reading of the biblical story different from hearing the story. We are teaching learners to look beyond the tale and towards the text and to see how the Torah is built on the number of times a word is repeated, the echoing of certain phrases, symmetrical patterns, the power of a missing word or phrase, etc. While these elements may sound complex and difficult, they are indeed just the perception of basic concrete patterns. It is only in their interpretation that advanced conceptual skills are employed. Merely by isolating and identifying these patterns, a beginning Torah reader feels like the child first reading a story to his parent. There is a growing awareness of independence. Within our Outward Bound metaphor, we have moved out of the sandbox and into the playground that is filled with jungle-gyms, climbing ropes, and swinging rings. This is the place to develop strength and coordination.

ATTACK SKILLS (Ages 12-15)

Becoming an adolescent is a process of boundary formation and the development of rules predicated on the testing of limits and the experimental violation of authority. It is the establishment of a proves of social assimilation characterized by the assertion (often collectively) of individuality. The central issue is one of power and authority, though the final result is usually personal accommodation. In developing an “adolescent” relationship with the text, we are concerned with balancing two needs. The first is a response to the students’ needs to be “empowered” to draw their own meaning and understanding. The second is the assurance that the elements necessary for an adult understanding of the text will be present when they finally reach their own mature gestalt of this material. Fortunately, those two diverse concerns can both be actualized through a single process.

Real Jewish biblical mastery is predicated on the mastery of a complex series of decoding skills. These are both analytical and associative. They include: accessing specific locations in both the biblical text and in rabbinic sources; identifying classical/technical problems and patterns in the text; understanding the solutions proposed in Midrashic and rabbinic commentaries; and associating images and patterns, which various texts have in common. the majority of these “attack skills are complex and abstract. They are reasonably difficult not to master, yet with their mastery comes a sense of accomplishment and ownership. It is here that our Outward Bound metaphor is most helpful. Professionals dealing with “youths in distress” (the latest jargon for delinquents) have found that Outward Bound-style experiences--profound tests with room for both significant success and realistic failure--have the greatest impact in developing self-esteem and pro-social behavior.

The insight is easy to transfer. In this level of relationship, the Torah provides a series of conceptual challenges. Not only is this level of skill development foundational to any adult Jewish understanding of the test, but it is a particularly age-appropriate task, both in its process, which presents a series of puzzles and problems, and in its results that provide a totally new vision of what had been previously seen as mastered material.

META-BIBLE (Ages 14-Adult)

There are many ways of being an adult. Our vision of an adult relationship with the text is nonauthoritarian and functional. We see an interdependent learner (one who still studies with others and from teachers) but one who draws his/her own final working means from a passage. For us, the key sign of this maturity is a sense of ideology--not a mastered or imposed ideology (in a political sense), but a carefully reasoned and systematically evolved sense of idealistic Jewish mission in a pragmatically realistic world. This vision far transcends the “needs” of Jewish identification or affiliation and operates on a self-directed and self-defined manifestation of the Jewish tradition. Our idealized “graduate” expresses a constantly evolving sense of Jewishness in all aspects of his/her lifestyle, and that sense of Jewishness is the result of the dynamic application of Jewish sources to life experience. For him/her, the Torah has become both a tool and a process.

Returning again to our metaphor in Outward Bound, the peak experience is called “soloing.” After a week (or weeks) of training, each participant spends a period of time alone in the wild, surviving on his/her newly acquired skills and sense of self. The latter is the more important resource. While for some, the prospect of a night alone or days alone in the wild (without food, matches, etc.) might be seen as an ordeal, for Outward Bound participants it is a source of ultimate connection. The literature tells us that the time if still with a sense of inner peace and relationship to the world. Our sense of adult Jewish self-actualization is a translation of this experience.

In the previous three layers of relationship, we have seen a narrowing of focus. We moved learners into a closer and closer reading of the text, focusing on single world-problems as a way of conjuring meaning. This fourth relationship is the one that both utilizes and transcends the attack skills that we have worked to develop. It is in this fourth relationship that the collection of specific text insights helps to draw final meaning from a story sequence, and it is in this final relationship that story sequences begin to weave into an ideology/theology of life, built out of a foundation of biblical roots.



Knowledge, application, synthesis
Personalities of Bible characters
Biblical settings (plot items)
Key Biblical vocabulary (quotations)


Identification of the following elements of biblical style:
Leading words (count number of times...)
Small changes in repetition
Word echoes and parallelism


Application of knowledge of the structure and sequence of the Bible
Analysis of a midrash
Identification of problem
Separation of p’shat and drash
Identification of solutions
Identification of message/moral
Isolation of rabbinic problems
Next to...
Extra language


Identification of major biblical themes

Synthesis of Biblical material into personal ideology/theology