I watched one of our eighth graders read Torah today during our morning service. Each time I watch this, I notice how all the students – from the youngest to the oldest are silent and respectful. And I notice how the child who reads walks back to his/her seat with a new confidence. I realized today how this simple ritual links to a much bigger story. It is about the centrality of text study in a Jewish school.
When deciding the topics for the two classes that I would teach in the Judaism 101 course offered at the PJCC, I chose to teach a class that I entitled “Digging into Texts”. I did that because I believe that the Jewish approach to text study is a defining characteristic of Jewish tradition and practice. In planning this class, it became really clear to me why the Torah Standards and Benchmark project in which our Judaic Studies staff is engaged this year is so critically important to who we are as a Jewish day school, and I understood well why our older Torah reader students command such respect. I’ll try to unpack my thoughts about this here.
The study of texts (Torah texts and all the subsequent commentaries) is central to keeping Judaism alive throughout the centuries, and it is a major differentiator for Judaism as a religion and as a culture. The study of texts creates engagement across centuries and across social class and geographic boundaries. In this, it is the original “crowdsourcing” – obtaining information from large groups of people from all over the world.
A traditional text study session often begins with a Biblical text and with the task of understanding the very spare language on its own terms. This is followed by a look into commentaries - the product of centuries and of a wide array of people – to elucidate the text. To understand the commentaries, one needs also to understand the context in which the commentator lived. How were his (traditional commentators were men) insights about the text a product of his time and place. Finally, the student of text would ask of the text “what is this text saying to me about how I might approach life?”
Traditional text study invites anyone to enter the conversation anywhere and to add one’s voice. With this, the reader enters into an ongoing conversation. Sometimes the conversation is noisy and messy. Sometimes it becomes a debate. People who have great knowledge about different texts and about historical trends have an advantage in understanding texts and commentaries. Yet text study is a democratic process wherein anyone can join the conversation.
What skills and dispositions do our students get during Jewish text study?
- Critical thinking skill of perspective-taking – identifying different perspectives.
- Critical thinking skill of identifying context – how context shapes ideas.
- Critical thinking skill of analyzing and evaluating various positions.
- The importance of a close, careful reading – the attention to detail.
- Resilience or grit – the habit of “digging” and of persistence in problem-solving.
- The understanding that translation is interpretative – for example, there really isn’t a suitable translation for a word like “tohu vavohu” (translated as chaos or void) in Genesis.
- Engagement around “meaning-of-life” questions – students get to ask “how do I account for good and evil?” “what is the purpose of life?”
It is so clear that Jewish text study is a value-added part of our education. Beyond everything listed above, the centrality of this sort of text study inculcates for our students the centrality of learning. If you would like the chance to enter into this sort of study, check out the new application sefaria.org. You will find an endless array of texts and commentaries available in Hebrew and in English. If you are more adventuresome join an adult learning group.