By Susanne Shavelson

In its simplest and most straightforward sense, learning to read means learning to decode. It involves learning to assemble letters into words, words into sentences, and sentences into paragraphs. Of course, this understanding of reading is far too narrow. First, it ignores the importance of sense-making, of forming some kind of coherent understanding of these different words, sentences, and paragraphs. Second, it elides the fact that learning to read is not a linear process.

For some, the ability to decode precedes the ability to make sense of the words, sentences, and paragraphs one decodes. For others, sense-making is primary: An ability to articulate ideas about a book precedes the reader’s ability to decode the book’s words on his or her own. Certainly, learning to read the Babylonian Talmud involves both learning to decode and learning to engage in the process of sense-making, and the development of these two skills does not proceed in a linear fashion. A person may, for example, articulate a “reading” that captures an important idea within a sugya (a unit of Talmudic discourse), without being fully able to explain the argument. Or vice versa: A person may be able to explain the intricate steps within a talmudic dialectical argument but be unable to articulate much beyond who proposes a question and who a response.

At a recent workshop at Brandeis’s Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education, where a group of scholars in the field of rabbinic literature discussed how we teach students to read rabbinic texts, we certainly discussed these two components of reading: decoding and sense-making. But a third component of reading emerged as well: learning to read Talmud as cultivating specific dispositions in its readers. While one might suppose that this view of reading Talmud might apply only to those of us teaching in seminary contexts, where the Talmud is explicitly positioned as having personal and professional relevance, this idea of reading as cultivating dispositions was more far-reaching in our discussions. As Martha Nussbaum has written about the importance of the humanities, “narrative imagination is an essential preparation for moral interaction” (Nussbaum: 1997). Our forthcoming book, Learning to Read Talmud: What it Looks Like and How it Happens (Academic Studies Press, forthcoming later this year), explores these ideas further..

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