By Jane Kanarek and Marjorie Lehman
We are witnessing an intensification of interest in the study of Talmudic literature in North America, not only in the larger Jewish community but also within the academy. Yet, study of what it means to learn to read Talmud – how teachers teach and how students learn to read – lags far behind this growing interest. Recognizing this gap, we gathered together a group of devoted academics who teach Talmud in universities and seminaries and, under the sponsorship of the Jack, Joseph, and Morton Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education at Brandeis University, embarked on a collaborative effort to study what it means to teach our students to read Talmud. Our book, Learning to Read Talmud: What It Looks Like and How It Happens, presents a series of eight focused classroom studies written by professors of talmudic literature who were asked to respond to two questions:
1. What does it mean to read Talmud in your particular classroom?
2. What does this reading look like when it happens?
Grounded in the scholarship of both rabbinic literature and practitioner inquiry, Learning to Read Talmud is a rare undertaking that uniquely bridges the worlds of academic Talmud and the study of pedagogy. It contributes to the growing field of the scholarship of teaching and learning. While most academics spend an enormous amount of time teaching, our institutions do not always recognize that teaching should be – and often is – an academic endeavor that involves critical study and analysis. Much as we write about the Talmud itself, we pay far less attention to the significance and contribution of writing about our teaching. With our book, Learning to Read Talmud, we aim to expand the research agendas of Talmudists to include scholarship on the teaching of rabbinic literature. As academic Talmudists – “insiders” – with a broad and nuanced understanding of both what the Talmud is and the vast range of approaches useful for reading it, we believe that professors of Talmud are uniquely reflective researchers of their teaching and the learning processes of their students. We are well-positioned to contribute both to the field of rabbinics and to the field of pedagogy. As articulated by K. Patricia Cross and Mimi Harris Steadman, “Teachers who know their discipline and the problems of teaching it to others are in the best position to make systematic observations and to conduct ongoing investigations into the nature of learning and the impact of teaching upon it.” Learning to Read Talmud is thus rooted in the many research traditions that define us as Talmudists. The eight case studies included in this book describe the types of teaching and learning that emerge from the very nature of the Talmudic text itself. They not only present examples of an array of teaching techniques but also offer insight into how one teaches for different reading results as dependent on the different contexts in which professors find themselves.
In this vein, these case studies reflect a range of North American contexts, from rabbinical seminaries to secular universities. Together, they reveal that learning to read Talmud is a complex and multivalent endeavor. It involves the mastery of base-line skills: learning the technical terminology and the dialogical style of argument for which the Talmud is well-known. But, learning to read the Talmud – whether in its original language or in translation – also involves competencies in several cognitive processes: breaking a sugya into much smaller units in order to rebuild sense; simultaneously considering multiple answers as possible; viewing problems as integral to the text; integrating the ahistorical with the historical; becoming conscious of and rethinking prior religious, cultural and historical assumptions in the face of new evidence; learning to think with a different mode of reasoning; building bridges between the ancient and the contemporary; and confronting unethical, even unfriendly texts.