Imagination and Interpretation

By Ziva R. Hassenfeld

My students and I were in the middle of discussing Genesis 12:10-20, the story in which Abraham asks Sarah to say that she is his sister as they descend to Egypt. The Torah, however, does not record any dialogue when they arrive in Egypt, so that we don’t know what, if anything, Sarah said. Later, when Pharaoh, who took Sarah as his wife, discovers that she is indeed a married woman, he asks Abraham why he said she was his sister.

Saul, a passionate and excited student, raises his hand with a possible resolution.

Saul:  Okay so I think it’s possible that no one said anything and when people saw him–like Avram just walked up to Mitzrayim. And Sarai didn’t introduce herself as his sister and Avram didn’t say anything about that and they just assumed “Okay she’s his sister, let’s take her to Pharaoh.”

Jane calls out: They didn’t lie but they didn’t say anything

Saul: And they didn’t lie but they didn’t correct. And then the courtiers went to Pharaoh and were like, “Oh ya, there’s this girl she’s Avram’s sister.” So then Pharaoh assumed that Avram told them that Sarai was his sister.

Ziva: Love it! Stronger with textual evidence. I think–textual evidence  doesn’t have to be spelling it out for you. This is literature. This is Torah. There can be hints.

There is an interpretive activity that lies at the heart of “advanced” literary analysis as well as rabbinic hermeneutics. It focuses on the details in the text–the words, the syntax, sometimes even the individual letters–in order to make meaning. This privileging of the smallest units of analysis guides new criticism’s close reading and often directs the flow of a daf of Gemara, so that every letter, every seemingly superfluous word, every missing word, teaches us something.

For most of my career as a Jewish studies teacher, I held this type of interpretation up as the gold standard. The value of Saul’s interpretation would stand and fall on whether or not he could make a textual case for it. I wanted to teach this style of interpretation because I believed it prepared my student for both literary and religious text study.  When I was a high school Tanakh teacher, many of my students rose to the challenge and met my expectations. They made meaning out of extra vavs and repeated phrases. They juxtaposed subjects called by proper name and subjects called by pronouns. Some of my other students did not care for it and eventually found themselves utterly uninterested in the study of biblical texts. It was with these students in mind that I entered my doctoral program in curriculum and teacher education.

Five years (and one doctorate) later, I am back in the Tanakh classroom, this time in an elementary school. Immersed in the study of biblical texts with these younger students, I am noticing something I never experienced teaching high school.My current students are neither interested in the interpretive activity of word analysis nor disengaged from the study of the text. They have exposed me to a third path, which, upon reflection, is beautiful and  profoundly new to me: They access the biblical text with their imaginations. Saul’s interpretation above comes not first and foremost from a game of “literary play” with words and phrases as his game pieces, but from a place of imagination. What might have happened?

In my classroom the students spend two weeks “preparing” the text we are studying by working on translation and fluency and understanding commentators. Once the text is prepared, the students have a whole-class discussion where interpretive authority and control are handed over to them. They sit in a circle with only the text in front of them and three to four questions they generate. With the freedom to explore, the students notice the very gaps and inconsistencies in the text that I would have pointed out. They ask the questions that I would have asked. But they employ their imaginations to answer their questions and fill in the gaps in ways that make sense to them.

Karen Gallas is an elementary teacher of over 30 years and a pioneer in teacher research. In her book Imagination and Literacy: A Teacher’s Search for the Heart of Learning (2003), she wrote, “Imagination is the unspoken power of mind that schools do not attend to, except when we sometimes allow it to surface in more marginalized subjects, such as art, and music” (167). Gallas wished to teach her students what my young students have taught me: “Children’s imaginal worlds help bridge the gap between their ‘now’ and the new worlds of texts” (24).

I didn’t see this sort of interpretive work while teaching high school. In part, I believe it’s because students’ comfort with their imaginations has often been extinguished by 9th, 10th, and certainly 11th grade, in favor of formal analysis, procedures, and templates. But this void leaves any student who does not love the game of word analysis with no door into text study. Kant (1969) wrote, “The imagination is a hidden art in the depths of the soul whose true devices, nature will scarcely let us divine” (181). Having seen a glimpse of this hidden art, I feel the need to declare my commitment to kindling it in my students, my classroom, and my students’ relationships with texts.

Ziva Hassenfeld is a post-doctoral fellow at the Mandel Center.

This article is reposted with permission from Learning About Learning, the blog of the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education, at Brandeis University.

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