Rashi and Executive Function

Joel Lurie Grishaver

This article is the logical extension of the work we have done with executive function. We want people in Jewish education to say that “Going to Hebrew School will make your child into a better student.” And, we want to suggest that “brain science” can help us to create more successful and impactful Jewish education.”


We started with Adele Diamond and her work on the prefrontal cortex. This is the part of the brain that is involved in mediating conflicting thoughts, making choices between right and wrong or good and bad, predicting future events, and governing social control.

According to Adele Diamond executive function breaks into three key areas:

  • Inhibitory Control. This includes self-control, self-censorship, delayed gratification, impulse control, and the development of discipline. It is the part of the brain that does reflection and evaluation. Its functions include: Being able to think before you act. Being able to learn something new that conflicts with what you usually do. Acting appropriately when tempted to act otherwise. Paying attention despite distractions.
  • Working Memory. This is the manipulation of information. This is imagination, problem solving, creativity and that whole arena. It includes: Being able to consider things from different perspectives. Being able to relate one idea to another. Being able to perform a set of instructions in sequence. Being able to monitor one’s own thinking.
  • Cognitive Flexability. This is the ability to leave one task and focus on a new one. It is all about mental focus. “Mindfulness” is the popular Buddhist term. It includes: Being able to pay more attention when necessary. Being able to think ‘outside the box.’ (Metropolitan State College of Denver Tools of the Mind)

We then met Ellen Galinsky who wrote a book called Mind in the Making: The seven essential life skills every child needs. She takes Neuroscience and breaks it down into material manageable by most parents and most teachers. She takes executive function and breaks it down into seven simple skills. This is pre-frontal cortex stuff that weaves together our social, emotional, and intellectual capacities.

  1. Focus and Self-Control. This is our ability to pay attention, to not be distracted, and it where we remember the rules.
  2. Perspective Taking. This is where we develop empathy and view things from different points-of-view.
  3. Communicating. This involves not only language skills, but our ability to grasp what images, metaphors, points-of-view will best communicate our insights to others.
  4. Making Connections. Making Connections involves figuring out what is similar and what is different. (“One of these things is not like the other.”) Figuring out how one thing connects to another. This is associative and comparative thinking.
  5. Critical Thinking. This is our ability to evaluate and to decide what evidence we are going to use to make decisions.
  6. Taking on Challenges. According to Dr. David Bryfman, challenge is a definitional part of Experiential Education. Here is our ability to tackle the new and the difficult.
  7. Self-Directed. Engaged Learning. Self-Direction is also an element of Experiential Education. It is where that which is demanded is transcended by that which were want to seek.

The Focus

Classical Jewish learning involves pairs of learners (hevrutot) who work with Jewish texts. They rehearse the text in preparation of a class wide lesson. Sam Heilman, a participant observer who has looked into the dynamic of Jewish text study, defines the lernen (classical Jewish text study) process as having four steps or moves, recitation, translation, explanation, and discussion. In his book The People of the Book 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 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 signficance 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 the remainder of this article we want to show how studying Rashi (doing text oriented Jewish study) we expand executive function and increase the learning skills of our students.

The Proof

Here is Rashi’s comment on one verse, Genesis 18.23. Here Abraham is just about to argue with God about the destruction of Sodom. This Rashi is dense and takes a lot of unpacking and decoding.

The Torah says, “And Abraham drew near (Gen. 18.23) Drawing near can mean preparing for battle: “And Joab drew near…” (II Sam. 10.13). Drawing near can mean pleading: “And Judah drew near…” (Gen. 44.18) And drawing near can mean praying: “Elijah drew near…”(I Kings 18.21) Abraham did all of these, he battled, pleaded and prayed.

Before we even begin to work on this Rashi, we need to form a Hevruta to begin work. This process of starting with a partner, begin the reading, and committing to finding a “translation” and working out “a solution”—plus developing personal meaning.

The very act of beginning involves, “focus,” “taking on challenges,” and “self-directed, engaged learning.” We are making two assumptions about this process. First, that the learners have some previous experience with decoding Rashi and working in hevruta. This means that students have already had success and reward from facing the “challenges” involved in this kind of text study.

Students begin to read to each other and decode (translate).the text by expanding it through logic (“critical thinking”) and making using context (“making connections.”)

(1) Let’s look at the beginning of the text. It begins, “And Abraham drew near (Gen. 18.23). The first questions that automatically comes is, “Draw near to what or Who?” The answer comes from reading ahead. Next Abraham is in the middle of an argument with God over saving Sodom. Therefore we know that Abraham drew near to God.

(2) The next question is “How do you draw near to God?” (Here “perspective taking “ comes into play. This question could be one generated by the students, (“self-direction”) or it could be found from reading more of the Rashi.

(3) The first thing you learn about Rashi, that we are not teaching in this lesson, that needs to be part of the back drop to this lesson, is that Rashi is always answering questions, but Rashi rarely verbalizes the question. Rashi is a game of “Jeopardy.”

(4) If we look ahead we see that Rashi gives three answers: (1) “And Joab drew near…” (2) And Judah drew near…” and (3) “Elijah drew near…” Here comes the question, “How does one draw near to God” and Rashi finds the answer by knowing that the Bible gives us three examples of how people draw near to God.

(5) Next “self-direction” is really required. We will not understand this Rashi unless we know what each of the three did to draw near. Rashi (or actually whoever annotated Rashi) gives us the chapter and verse of the three incidents. (Depending on the edition of Rashi, there may also be footnotes or other hints to how the three drew close to God). “Perspective taking” tools have already clued us that Abraham will draw near in all these ways—and that we, too, have the capacity to draw near to God in the same way.

(6) Our research shows us:

  • “And Joab drew near…” shows us that Drawing near can mean preparing for battle. The rest of passage teaches us: (II Sam. 10.13) and then (he) went out and defeated the Syrians.
  • “And Judah drew near…” shows us that Drawing near can mean pleading: The rest of the passage teaches us:” (Gen. 44.18) and then begged for Benjamin’s life.
  • “Elijah drew near…” (I Kings 18.21) just before he out-prayed the priest of Baal on Mt. Carmel.

(7)`Next comes out need for “perspective taking.” We need to understand the connection between these events and Abrahams forthcoming debate with God over Sodom.

Rashi says: Abraham did all of these, he (1) battled, (2) pleaded and (3) prayed.

Next comes the Heilman final stage, the discussion. Here is where we personalize. This is the place we use “communication.” Either with our partner or with the whole class we answer two questions:

  • How did Abraham “draw near” to God in these three ways at this moment.
  • When do we need to battle,  plead and pray to get close to God.

By the time we are done, the passage from Rashi comes out:

We want to know what it means to “draw near to God” if God is everywhere? Obviously, “drawing near” is an emotional or spiritual place, not a physical one. Here are some examples: Drawing near can mean preparing for battle: “And Joab drew near…” (II Sam. 10.13) and then went out and defeated the Syrians. Drawing near can mean pleading: “And Judah drew near. . .” (Gen. 44.18) and then begged for Benjamin’s life. And drawing near can mean praying: “Elijah drew near…”(I Kings 18.21) just before he out-prayed the priest of Baal on Mt. Carmel. Which of these kinds of drawing close was Abraham trying to do? He was prepared to do whatever it took, to speak harshly, to plead, and to pray. There are indeed many ways of reaching God!

We have hit all the elements of executive function in puzzling out this one passage. Students will do as much as she can on her own—then the teacher will help them complete the process.


In a recent NYTimes story “A Silicon Valley School that Doesn’t Compute” there is a focus on the Waldorf school in Silicon Valley. Paul Thomas,  a former teacher and an associate professor of education at Furman University, says:

“Teaching is a human experience. Technology is a distraction when we need literacy, numeracy and critical thinking.”

My friend Idie Benjamin taught me, “I tell a parent that their child has trouble focusing.” They respond, ‘You should see the hours he spends in front of the computer.” The right question is, “Can they focus without the computer.”

Pierre Laurent, 50, who works at a high-tech start-up and formerly worked at Intel and Microsoft. He has three children in Waldorf schools. He says, “Engagement is about human contact, the contact with the teacher, the contact with their peers.”

I will not argue against technology, I am now reading books on my Nook. But, I will argue that somethings are better done in person. Jewish schools can build important learning skills if they focus on being Jewish schools—places that work in Jewish ways to use Jewish texts to explicate the human condition.