The Teaching of Rabbinics Starts Sooner Than You May Think. What Should We do About it?

Screenshot: Rabbinics Standards and Benchmarks: Reaching for a Very High Bar; Solomon Schechter School of Manhattan

By Elliot Goldberg

Virtually all of my colleagues who teach in Early Childhood (EC) or Early Elementary (EE) settings tell me that rabbinics is not a part of the curriculum that they teach.

This is not a surprise. It is a common assumption in Jewish schools that rabbinics is a discipline for the upper grades. In reflecting about the place of rabbinics in their curriculum, educators are likely to identify the starting point as the time in which a book from the rabbinic canon is placed in front of students and/or when students take a course that is named after a rabbinic text.

There is a certain logic to this assumption. Because we encounter the rabbis – and their stories, thoughts, ideas, and values – through texts, we equate the discipline of rabbinics with the study of rabbinic literature. Because rabbinic literature is often complex and, due to its language and logical structure, can be challenging to learn, we wait until students have acquired the appropriate skills and intellectual maturity before we engage them in the study of rabbinic texts.

But the notion that educational experiences must have a text at their center in order for students to be learning rabbinics is not accurate, and it is one that the field of Jewish education should work to change. If we are going to have a principled discussion of when the study of rabbinics should happen, we have to have a better understanding of when it actually does happen. In the earliest years of Jewish education, students are not yet engaged in the formal study of rabbinic texts. But the study of rabbinics actually begins with the youngest learners.

Jewish values, Jewish holidays, the recitation of b’rachot (blessings) and the performance of Jewish rituals are core elements of the curriculum in Jewish EC or EE classrooms, and each of these areas of contemporary Jewish life has been shaped in significant ways by rabbinic Judaism. When we teach our students about them, we are teaching them rabbinics.

This notion is not a radical one for EC or EE education or educators who are used to thinking about other disciplines in this way. Take mathematics, for example. Algebra first appears around grade 6 and becomes a central part of the curriculum through high school and beyond. Yet, the teaching of algebra actually begins in the earliest years of schooling.

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  • as an elem school teacher i fully agree with this article and i actually have developed a curriculum of Aggadot Hazal for grade 1.
    i do believe however that one core element is missing in this article. i assume the writer would agree with this however perhaps it needs to be said outright to the teachers: Judaism as a religion is a product of Rabbinics. tanakh even for those who see it (or parts of it) as divine is inspiring, commanding and beautiful literature and yet it ultimatley is the base for what the Rabbis created. I am not here to downgrade Torah and tanach but to remind ourselves that Judaism in many of its beliefs, actions and community life is a creation of the rabbinic world.
    Perhaps saying this outright to the teachers will prepare them for the mindshift necessary in such a new approach.
    b’hatzlacha

  • Aytan, thanks for the comment. I do agree – Judaism today is a product of the rabbinic endeavor – this is why that I think it is so important for us to be reflective practitioners when it comes to integrating the subject matter into our classrooms. I’d be interested to learn about your grade 1 curriculum!

    Kol tov,
    Elliot Goldberg

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