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New York - Teaching Tanach To Today's Students

Published on: February 25, 2009 12:48 PM
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New York - From time to time I read various polemical articles concerning the problems with Jewish education in today’s school system. These are usually written by educators or those aspiring to be educators, though some are vastly more qualified than others. Some of them argue that traditional methods of studying texts need to be taught more vigorously, while others insist that newer approaches need to be taken.
I am no teacher, but from talking to youngsters in religious elementary and high schools it seems to me the problem across the board isn’t the specific structure in which Jewish texts are taught or the methods of analysis used to explore them, but rather the way their very essence is presented.
Take Tanach, for example. What is Tanach? Rashi’s first comment on the Torah makes it clear that it is not meant to be a mere history book. It is not, however, just a book of laws either, as a cursory reading of that particular Rashi might lead us to believe. It contains much more than that.
And yet it seems that teachers who opt for the more traditional teaching approach view Tanach as a compilation of statements and commentaries on those statements that must be memorized for the purpose of testing.

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At the other end of the spectrum, teachers who opt for more modern approaches - including many in my age range who study in seminaries with impressive names and supplement the lessons they learn there with courses (and, in some cases, degrees) from impressive-sounding universities - Tanach is fodder for intellectual games in which its beautiful prose and poetry are cut apart and put back together again to prove a trivial case.
Not too long ago I was invited by friends for a Shabbos meal attended by several teachers in religious schools - or what I thought were religious schools. During the course of the meal I heard the terms “chiastic structure,” “criticism,” “analysis” and other words not ordinarily used in everyday speech. In fact, I heard them so often I felt dizzy by the time I left.
Neither group transmits to students the simple reality of what Tanach is: the Living Word of the Living God, who revealed it to us in order to teach us about ourselves and the best way to live our lives.
Today’s teachers fail to teach Tanach in a way that encourages students to apply its lessons and insights to their own lives. Instead, students are taught to memorize what others read into its words. But even these lessons tend to lose all relevance for students when conveyed in a narrowly rigid manner.
When teaching the story of Gan Eden, for example, students are virtually never asked to really think about the story and answer questions like the following:
Why did Adam and Eve disobey Hashem’s command? Why were they tempted to do so? Have you ever been in a similar circumstance? What is the relationship between that story to the story about Cain and Abel that follows it? What does it teach us about the nature of people?
        Why would people trade eternal life for knowledge? What is immortality? Are Adam and Eve immortal in the sense that everyone remembers them, even though they died? Are they immortal because they have over six billion descendants running around the world today? Are their descendants repeating their mistakes or rectifying them? What can we do to rectify them?
What is the existential human condition? What is human destiny? How do the commentaries on the story reveal their perspectives on these issues?
        These questions cannot be found in books. They, and their answers, must be generated from the minds of students engaged in vigorous discussion and guided by teachers who are God-fearing and whose experience with life amounts to more than one or two years of post-high school education.
        Unfortunately, teachers often don’t have this maturity (and in too many cases their higher education consists of a few years in a seminary that is more like a continuation of high school). Thus, students can’t help but view Gan Eden as a quasi-mythological place that only two people ever saw, and that the events in the story surrounding it occurred so many years ago that they have no way of being replicated today. In short, students are taught to think of the story as having no relevance to anything in today’s world.
(There are, of course, teachers who approach their task with a considerably greater degree of sophistication, but more often than not they utilize methods of “analysis” that “our forebears did not know” and that are, to paraphrase Rava’s words in Bava Basra (111b), like “a sharp knife that chops up the text.” These teachers often ask their students to compare Tanach with other tales of antiquity such as the Epic of Gilgamesh.)
Tanach needs to be presented to students in a way that will enable them to understand the relevance it has to their lives - a way that will whet their appetites to study it further. Ideally, this should be done by posing questions designed to stimulate discussion and instill a desire to understand how the classic commentators - scholars whose depth of knowledge we cannot even begin to fathom - dealt with these very problems.

But the main idea must be to encourage students to think about the foundational literature of the Jewish nation rather than simply recite back by rote the teacher’s lessons.

Barry Verstaendig is an engineer who currently lives and works in Israel.


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1

 Feb 25, 2009 at 12:00 PM Great Says:

Great essay.

2

 Feb 25, 2009 at 12:04 PM Anonymous Says:

the yeshivishe velt has abadoned teaching tanach to kids inthe worst way possible its a boosha shanda of modern american frummish judaism

3

 Feb 25, 2009 at 12:12 PM A Litvak who now studies Chassidus Says:

I agree that most Yeshivahs do not make the connection between what they are learning and their reality. But, have you ever learned Chabad Chassidus in particular? Have you ever learned the sefer Likutei Sichos on how the Rebbe takes every verse in Torah or Tnach, every Rashi, every concept in Gemorrah or Rambam etc, and shows how it applies to ones persnal life?

The Zohar says: Zeh Sefer Toldos Adam means that the Torah is the make up of who you are. Meaning every word and letter of the Torah is your DNA.

The Litvish world stopped what was normal practice for years to study how the Neshama and Torah relates to you. Maybe if most of the Litvish world stop being a HISNAGDUS to Chassidus, (as I opened my eyes too), maybe such articles would never be seen.

Before you bash Chabad or other Chassidus with the Rebbe and Yechi.... not everyone subscribes to such practices. I study Chassidus with many who have become chassidim, without going through the antics of the yechinicks. Don't throw away the baby with the bath water.

As the Baal Hatanya said in the early days "Tamoo R'oo Kee Tov Hashem" Taste Chassidus and you will see how Good Hashem is!

4

 Feb 25, 2009 at 12:54 PM Cute Says:

Reply to #3  
A Litvak who now studies Chassidus Says:

I agree that most Yeshivahs do not make the connection between what they are learning and their reality. But, have you ever learned Chabad Chassidus in particular? Have you ever learned the sefer Likutei Sichos on how the Rebbe takes every verse in Torah or Tnach, every Rashi, every concept in Gemorrah or Rambam etc, and shows how it applies to ones persnal life?

The Zohar says: Zeh Sefer Toldos Adam means that the Torah is the make up of who you are. Meaning every word and letter of the Torah is your DNA.

The Litvish world stopped what was normal practice for years to study how the Neshama and Torah relates to you. Maybe if most of the Litvish world stop being a HISNAGDUS to Chassidus, (as I opened my eyes too), maybe such articles would never be seen.

Before you bash Chabad or other Chassidus with the Rebbe and Yechi.... not everyone subscribes to such practices. I study Chassidus with many who have become chassidim, without going through the antics of the yechinicks. Don't throw away the baby with the bath water.

As the Baal Hatanya said in the early days "Tamoo R'oo Kee Tov Hashem" Taste Chassidus and you will see how Good Hashem is!

Very cute:)

5

 Feb 25, 2009 at 12:33 PM 1084 Says:

Reply to #2  
Anonymous Says:

the yeshivishe velt has abadoned teaching tanach to kids inthe worst way possible its a boosha shanda of modern american frummish judaism

thats not true were more into halacha then tanach

6

 Feb 25, 2009 at 01:17 PM I am serious Says:

Reply to #5  
1084 Says:

thats not true were more into halacha then tanach

that is definitely not true! most yeshiva guys - including kollel yungerleit - don't have the foggiest notion when it comes to halacha lemaysa. Unfortunately a lot of guys think if you open a mishna berurah for 15-30 minutes a day you have learned halacha. However, when they get married it turns out that the wives are better informed in most areas of halacha.

7

 Feb 25, 2009 at 01:16 PM Jimmy37 Says:

Hindsight is 20/20.

Maybe what I am saying is blasphemous, but it is easy to map the Torah to anything if you try hard enough. Just like gematriah, you need consistent rules otherwise you are literally left to your imagination.

It would be more instructive to show older students how to question what they are reading and ask themselves: "Why the Torah is written the way it is?" Why does it state its information the way it does? Why does it go into detail in some cases, and others not? Why does it associate different pesukim and ideas together? Why is it repetitive or redundant? Why is the wording changed from place to place?

This would provide them with tools beyond Sh'nayim Mikarah V'echad Targum

8

 Feb 25, 2009 at 01:54 PM Anonymous Says:

Reply to #7  
Jimmy37 Says:

Hindsight is 20/20.

Maybe what I am saying is blasphemous, but it is easy to map the Torah to anything if you try hard enough. Just like gematriah, you need consistent rules otherwise you are literally left to your imagination.

It would be more instructive to show older students how to question what they are reading and ask themselves: "Why the Torah is written the way it is?" Why does it state its information the way it does? Why does it go into detail in some cases, and others not? Why does it associate different pesukim and ideas together? Why is it repetitive or redundant? Why is the wording changed from place to place?

This would provide them with tools beyond Sh'nayim Mikarah V'echad Targum

Its not blasphemous at all. You make a very good point regarding the need to make the study of Torah more relevant to contemporary life. The Torah and halacha can easily become irrelevant to the lives of most yidden unless we can find ways to connect daas torah to the basic functions of our lives and the midos we rely upon to make our daily decisions.

9

 Feb 25, 2009 at 01:45 PM pirkei avos Says:

look at what it says in pirkei avos as to what you should teach at what ages. today, schools start gemarah at age 10! That's crazy! How can you learn gemarah if you don't know mishnayos or niviyum or kisuvim?

10

 Feb 25, 2009 at 01:45 PM It is up to the Parents ! Says:

Also, I have known Yidden who freak out when they learn shtarkeh chassidus. It is very kared and can hurt the neshama of one who is not prepared to absorb it. It takes a strong background of Torah and Yirah to learn what the above commentor is talking about.

11

 Feb 25, 2009 at 01:43 PM It is up to the Parents ! Says:

The hashkafa of the banim is up to the parents, in my opinion. If the Parents loved TANACH they will love teaching it to the children. There are very sensitive parts of Nach though that must only be taught when older and with moral lessons that must be learned by the children about Am Yisrael. Lessons we are living today.

12

 Feb 25, 2009 at 02:15 PM Anonymous Says:

Tanach is probably not learned today because it is too difficult and many of the stories are extremely hard to grasp.

1) Why did Dovid order Shlomo to kill his Rebbe, Shimi ben Gera?

2) Why was Uza punished for trying to help with the Aron Kodesh. Clearly that would not apply today.

3) Why was a Pilegesh chopped up into 12 pieces?

4) Why was Yiftach's daughter brought as a human sacrifice, when that is not what he meant when he said the first that comes out of my house will be a korban?

There are so many examples of difficult stories, that we have much trouble explaining them today. If anybody would do some of those things that were done then, he would be run out of town.

13

 Feb 25, 2009 at 02:20 PM You Have known Yidden Says:

Reply to #10  
It is up to the Parents ! Says:

Also, I have known Yidden who freak out when they learn shtarkeh chassidus. It is very kared and can hurt the neshama of one who is not prepared to absorb it. It takes a strong background of Torah and Yirah to learn what the above commentor is talking about.

You have known Yidden who freak out.. QUESTION: Did you ever learn Chassidus? Who freaks out? Anyone who studies with a good teacher doesn't freak out. Not able to absorb it? What are you talking about? Is is like all good things... study with a good teacher.. and you will find success. But if you say .. I have tried and didn't succeed ... the gemorrah says .. Don't believe him.

14

 Feb 25, 2009 at 02:55 PM Anonymous Says:

This is a ridiculous essay. Mr. Verstandig, you live in Israel. Go listen to a shiur by Rav Yoel Bin Nun or Rav Menachem Liebtag, all of whom use the tools that you refer to-chiastic structure, etc. But their entire derech is based on the idea that you have to look for the message in Tanach, not just read a pasuk with 5 meforshim and figure out the machlokes. I beg you, check them out and you will see that they are doing the opposite of what you are criticizing.

15

 Feb 25, 2009 at 02:53 PM teacher Says:

So true! And half the yeshivish velt DOES learn Tanach. It's called Bais Yaakovs.

16

 Feb 25, 2009 at 03:35 PM micha Says:

Tosafos ask why we learn so much gemara rather than 1/3 miqra (Tanakh), 1/3 mishnah (which probably meant established halakhah) and 1/3 talmud (the halachic process), as per the schedule given by R' Tanchum bar Chanila'i and Rav Safra (and later the Rambam). They answer that it's called Talmud Bavli because it's all mixed into it.

In any case, we see that the neglect of Nakh isn't modern by a long shot, but ancient Ashkenazi norm.

I think that many of the fundamental problems also apply to how we learn gemara. Aggadita is learned as superficial stories rather than life-changing truths, no better than the way Chumash is taught -- if not skipped altogether. Halakhah is taught on a plane that is detached from actual practice.

There are therefore two very distinct issues: the learning of Nakh, and the grounding of our next generation in a kind of learning that will actually make someone more religious.

See my recent essay "Watering our Weeds" on Aspaqlaria:
http://www.aishdas.org/asp/2009/02/watering-weeds.shtml
(The title relates to an idea by the Vilna Gaon, that Torah study without working on one's middos is like watering a garden of weeds.)

-micha

-micha

17

 Feb 25, 2009 at 05:23 PM Anonymous Says:

Reply to #12  
Anonymous Says:

Tanach is probably not learned today because it is too difficult and many of the stories are extremely hard to grasp.

1) Why did Dovid order Shlomo to kill his Rebbe, Shimi ben Gera?

2) Why was Uza punished for trying to help with the Aron Kodesh. Clearly that would not apply today.

3) Why was a Pilegesh chopped up into 12 pieces?

4) Why was Yiftach's daughter brought as a human sacrifice, when that is not what he meant when he said the first that comes out of my house will be a korban?

There are so many examples of difficult stories, that we have much trouble explaining them today. If anybody would do some of those things that were done then, he would be run out of town.

that is no excuse for not learning it inside with metzudas dovid/tzyion.

what happens when the gemara quotes a pasuk and the bochur's little sister knows it and he is clueless ?

18

 Feb 25, 2009 at 06:56 PM Anonymous Says:

just learn 1 perek a day. JUST learn it!!!! Open it up! No one is stopping you.

19

 Feb 25, 2009 at 10:26 PM T S Says:

But the spinmeisters will have to get busy conjuring politically correct answers for the now-less known parts of the Tanach.

Hard enough to farentfer the five books' radical aspects.

(After reading through Yehoshua and the tale of the trail of "war" (genocide) accomplished during the "cleansing" of eretz yisrael making way for all the yidden - can't you hear " You mean THAT's how the Jews took (er, got) their land?")

20

 Feb 26, 2009 at 01:42 AM Read the first Rashi Bereishis Says:

Hey TS 19 above:

Read the first Rashi in Bereishis. HKBH created the world and Eretz Yisrael is his to give to who ever he wishes. Obviously you are a Communist and only Communists are allowed to purge who they disagree with.

21

 Feb 26, 2009 at 01:38 AM esther Says:

Reply to #12  
Anonymous Says:

Tanach is probably not learned today because it is too difficult and many of the stories are extremely hard to grasp.

1) Why did Dovid order Shlomo to kill his Rebbe, Shimi ben Gera?

2) Why was Uza punished for trying to help with the Aron Kodesh. Clearly that would not apply today.

3) Why was a Pilegesh chopped up into 12 pieces?

4) Why was Yiftach's daughter brought as a human sacrifice, when that is not what he meant when he said the first that comes out of my house will be a korban?

There are so many examples of difficult stories, that we have much trouble explaining them today. If anybody would do some of those things that were done then, he would be run out of town.

there are plenty of astounding stories in the gemorah that don't "make sense".that's why we have meforshim,chasidus.........one needs to know how to teach it.it's a great achrais on anyone who gives over or is a machnech .






22

 Feb 26, 2009 at 08:13 AM Bronxboy Says:

Reply to #16  
micha Says:

Tosafos ask why we learn so much gemara rather than 1/3 miqra (Tanakh), 1/3 mishnah (which probably meant established halakhah) and 1/3 talmud (the halachic process), as per the schedule given by R' Tanchum bar Chanila'i and Rav Safra (and later the Rambam). They answer that it's called Talmud Bavli because it's all mixed into it.

In any case, we see that the neglect of Nakh isn't modern by a long shot, but ancient Ashkenazi norm.

I think that many of the fundamental problems also apply to how we learn gemara. Aggadita is learned as superficial stories rather than life-changing truths, no better than the way Chumash is taught -- if not skipped altogether. Halakhah is taught on a plane that is detached from actual practice.

There are therefore two very distinct issues: the learning of Nakh, and the grounding of our next generation in a kind of learning that will actually make someone more religious.

See my recent essay "Watering our Weeds" on Aspaqlaria:
http://www.aishdas.org/asp/2009/02/watering-weeds.shtml
(The title relates to an idea by the Vilna Gaon, that Torah study without working on one's middos is like watering a garden of weeds.)

-micha

-micha

just looked at your essay. excellent! thank you. once I saw Tosafos instead of Tosfos, I knew I had to pay attention to waht you had to say. and then anything associated with the Vilna gaon has to be five star to this die-hard Misnagid

23

 Feb 26, 2009 at 08:26 AM Tenach for Bochrum? Says:

No. Not because of what it contains, but for what it does not.
There is hardly any of our mitzvohs D'oiraisa mentioned, even just as part of the story: Using Tefillin, Mezuzahs, or a sofer writing them. Counting Sefirah, Learning Torah, Kriyas Shema B'zmanoh, Matzohs, Shofer, Lulav, Getting an Esrog, Writing Sifrei Torahs, Reading every Year Mechias Amolek, etc etc..
When Korbonos are mentioned they are not according to the teachings of the Chumash, Rashi always has to say that it was an Horoahs Shaw.

24

 Feb 27, 2009 at 10:12 AM Anonymous Says:

Does that bother you, #23, that the mitzvos aren't mentioned in the Torah itself? Because it seems a little off to say that we don;t teach Torah because it doesn't have i's own mitzvos in it. Hashem wrote it how He wanted it written, and the whole point of the article is we should learn it and see what's there, not re-form it into something that fits the way we *want* to see it.
We should be able to stand up for our Torah, the way its written.

25

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