Bringing Talmud Study to Life: Inspiration, Authenticity and Torah Lishmah

At the Fuchs Mizrachi School in Cleveland, our annual high school retreat is one of the highlights of the school year. In addition to the community building that comes through bonding and fun activities, spending an extended weekend together as a school community provides many opportunities for experiential learning and moments of inspiration. This year, the theme for the weekend was deveikut, literally “cleaving to God,” exploring different ways we find religious meaning and connection. In one of the conversations that I facilitated, I asked students to share what they feel is the ideal way to connect to God. Involvement in chesed, activities of kindness, as well as tefillah, prayer, were high on their lists. While the discussion of philosophical or ethical texts made the cut for some students, the careful analysis of Talmudic or Tanakh texts that covers most of their Judaic learning time in schools was totally absent.


What prevents students from finding meaning and inspiration in their regular Torah study? To be sure, there are structural factors inherent in classic school design and formal education that play a role. It is difficult to find inspiration when exams and grades loom large. In addition, in a dual curriculum school day with up to nine or 10 periods of 40 minutes each, students must quickly transition, for example, to solving math problems, before they have time to reflect on the essential questions or inspirational message that just emerged in their Talmud class. It is telling that students who do ultimately develop a passionate connection to Torah study often find that passion in the learning that takes place in the focused environment of a summer program or a gap-year yeshiva or seminary.


Tackling these issues and rethinking the way we structure time and accountability in Jewish schools is critical and may even be a precondition for successfully implementing some of the suggestions below. At the same time, we must also consider the implicit messages that we send students about the value of Talmud study and what could or should make it inspirational. Even if students may not walk out of every high school Talmud class inspired, how we hope to inspire them and what we hope they are inspired by must play a role in the pedagogies we use, questions we raise and roles we ask our students to play as learners.


Talmud and the “Real World”

In his thought-provoking work BeTorato Yehegeh, the late Religious Zionist thinker Rabbi Shimon Gershon Rosenberg (better known as Rav Shagar) analyzed various methodologies of Talmud study in an attempt to explain the disconnect many Religious Zionist/Modern Orthodox students feel with Talmud study. He posits that the foreign world and foreign language of Talmud is too distant from the lives of students for them to connect with. Since these students actively participate in a secular world and culture that is not soaked with the language and assumptions of Torah and Halakhah, they don’t inherently view its world as their own. Rav Shagar, therefore, argues that more explicit connections must be made to connect learning to students’ lives. This can be achieved by more consistently asking the “why” questions and searching for the values that legal and conceptual categories represent.


In the world of general education, the growing prominence and success of Project-Based Learning (PBL) has also focused teachers’ attention on the “why” of learning. Through an emphasis on compelling driving questions, authentic products and presentations, PBL frames learning in a way that helps students see the “real world” application and value of their learning. When successfully designed, PBL answers the classic “why do we need to know this” question and helps motivate students to develop the skills and knowledge they need to successfully solve the problem or create the product. Carefully reading complex texts become a necessary and valuable resource in helping students solve real problems. The process teaches student to inquire, research, revise and reflect on different iterations of their learning as they move towards the final product. Applying elements of the PBL framework to how Talmud is studied can help bridge the divide and provide students with the ability to appreciate how Talmudic analysis and values can help them navigate issue in their lives.


What could this look like? Below are two different examples from my own classes of how a “real world” frame can change the type of products and role we give students in the learning process.


Making Mitzvah Performance Meaningful: The Sukkah Journal and Reflection

When studying Masechet Sukkah, students may study the scope of the obligation to live in the Sukkah. They likely will learn about the concept of teishvu k’ein taduru, living in the Sukkah as if it were one’s home, and be tested on the various ways that concept impacts the laws. Unfortunately, even if a student studies all the information and successfully answers questions on a traditional exam, their experience on the holiday of Sukkot may remain unchanged.


This past year, after spending six weeks studying various sections of Masechet Sukkah, students in my Talmud class were asked to journal over the Sukkot break. They recorded decisions they made about what to eat in or outside of the sukkah, as well as other activities they chose to engage in during the holiday. Students were then asked to explain several of their choices, using talmudic sources and commentary. Following the holiday, students brought their work to class and were asked to reflect on a number of questions (see sidebar 1 below).


The following exceptional student response to one of the reflection questions highlights the potential value of the assignment: “My knowledge affected my feelings because I was able to feel very proud for what I learned and how I applied it to certain instances. For example, when I derived an answer to a problem that I had from my own knowledge, I felt that I had actually accomplished something in my learning. I was very happy whenever I knew something more relating to Sukkot and Torah in general.”


The juxtaposition of our learning in class and their actual observance of the holiday helped students see the way that their learning could enhance their focus and appreciation of the mitzvah of sukkah. They felt empowered to apply their learning to personal decision-making and to raise questions when they were not sure what to do. Sharing my own journal and my answers to reflection questions also provided student with a model for discussing personal experiences with certain dilemmas, highlighting a type of thinking they were not accustomed to.


Social and Communal Issues: Masechet Sanhedrin and Rabbinic Leadership

Perhaps one of the most controversial and critical issues in many Jewish communities today revolve around the role, authority and requirement for religious communal leadership. What role should a rabbi play? What qualities make an ideal candidate, and what can legitimately disqualify them? If our goal is not only to educate the next generation of Jewish practitioners but also those who will build and shape Jewish communal life, we want students to grapple with these questions and recognize the role that talmudic text, commentaries and precedent can play in these complex issues. While we may differ on the level of independence we want students to have in reaching conclusions, we at least want them to recognize that careful Talmud study and broad knowledge of halakhic literature are necessary preconditions for a meaningful discussion.


When teaching the beginning of Masechet Sanhedrin, I framed our learning of the talmudic passages relating to rabbinic authority by telling students they would need to apply their learning to developing a proposal for a new community’s rabbinic leadership (see sidebar 2 below). As we delved into deep textual study, learning was supplemented by regular visits or skypes with local or national leaders who helped share differing perspectives from the front lines. Students developed proposals for the mock communal board and were required to justify their suggestions by combining their analysis of talmudic sources and their understanding of communal needs.


These two examples can serve as paradigms for different ways to think about Talmud units. Similar type of projects have been applied to the study of Tanakh: asking students to solve problems of anti-Semitism based on Megillat Esther, develop proposals for more welcoming and inclusive communities based on Megillat Ruth, or design change initiatives and anticipate resistance to change based on Shemot or Yirmiyahu. Thinking about curriculum design and implementing projects like these over the past five years has reinforced for me their benefit and the way, with consistent exposure, they can impact how the values of the Talmud (or Tanakh) can inform real world issues.


At the same time, the level of self-directed learning, higher-order thinking and time needed to complete projects like these have presented challenges in the high school setting. Introducing such projects often initially meet with resistance from students who prefer less open-ended, more comfortable learning environments and assessments. If the goal is to develop in students a mindset and connections-oriented approach towards Talmud study, scaffolding demands and thinking more broadly about a department or school culture that supports such goals is critical.


Reservations: Authenticity and Torah Lishmah

Besides some of the practical issues of implementation, more fundamental questions remain about the desirability of implementing PBL units and an approach to Talmud study that emphasizes relevancy and real-world impact. One of the tenets of PBL is the importance of having students engage in creating authentic products. They should be performing scientific investigations whose results can inform their communities or using history and literature to understand social issues and propose solutions. These goals make learning more meaningful for students and help them appreciate the “why” and “what for.” The assumption of projects like those outlined above is that the meaning and sense of authenticity comes from the ability to extract values or behaviors from the text and apply to the “real world” of the student. But this view bumps up against traditional Jewish views of the purpose of study. Is this really what authentic Torah learning is all about?


If we define authenticity based on the way that adults interact with the subject area in a non-school setting, most adults who continue learning Talmud on a regular basis do not engage in projects or research of talmudic topics to inform communal or personal decisions. They are much more likely to either (a) sit with a chavruta pair in their home or a local beit midrash and study a chosen tractate, one page after another, or (b) attend a shiur, lecture, where an expert analyzes and discusses a text with them.


Consider, for example, the powerful words of Rav Aharon Lichtenstein:

The knowledge we can acquire of God’s will increases our conscious, and subconscious, awareness of Him; the very act of weighing His words or of analyzing His laws draws us imperceptibly nearer to Him and to them. She-ma’or she-bah machziran le-mutav: The light of Torah returns us to Him. It matters not what segment of Torah we study. Provided that we approach it with an awareness of its true character, Bava Mezia will do as well as Berakhot, and Hallah will affect us no less than Avot. … Torah study leaves an indelible imprint upon our total personality and, in the process, transforms it.


In describing the ability of Torah, in general, and Talmud study in particular, to “leave an indelible imprint upon our total personality,” Rav Lichtenstein specifically de-emphasizes the role that content or what we can extract from it plays. For him, it is the encounter with text itself—an attempt to understand and analyze it—that serves as the ultimate goal. This is one way to understand the idea of “Torah lishmah,” that Torah should be studied for its own sake, a lynchpin of the thought of Rav Chaim of Volhzin who emphasized the primary role of Torah study in a Jew’s life.


If we follow Rav Lichtenstein’s approach then, our pedagogy should focus on helping students engage and interact with the text as much as possible. Curriculum choices are much less significant than the attitude and environment within which teacher and students learn. Inspiration and meaning does not come from connecting the Talmud to “real life,” but rather from an almost opposite approach. The teacher’s focus should be to frame the learning as something different and separate from other types of learning and other classes. Instead of teaching students how to bring Talmud to their lives, a “Torah lishmah” approach requires asking students to engage in study with the attitude that they are taking a break from the mundane “real world” to become a part of something holier and greater.


My own experience, as a student and teacher, pulls me towards each of these somewhat contradictory approaches. Perhaps, our goal should be to expose students to both approaches. Perhaps, the viability on either approach depends on the culture of the school and community within which Talmud is being studied. Hazeman katzar, vehamelachah merubah (The time is short and the work is great—Avot 2:20): Our educational goals and aspirations are indeed many, and the time we have to shape experiences for students, even those who attend day school through twelfth grade and move on to gap-year programs, is quite limited. Hopefully, some of the questions and suggestions raised in the article will both broaden and further future conversations as we look to inspire the next generation of Torah learners.


Sidebar 1: Sukkah Project Reflection Questions

Did your learning and knowledge of Masechet Sukkah impact or play any role in your actions—the decisions you made over Sukkot to do things in- or outside the sukkah?

If it did:

Clearly explain how it did, with at least one or two specific examples.

Reflect on that experience. How did using your knowledge to make decisions make you feel about the mitzvah? About learning Torah/Gemara?

To what extent did your choices impact your regular routine? Do you think that helped or hurt your connection to the mitzvah of sukkah?

If it did not:

What did impact your choices/decision-making over Sukkot?

Reflect on the experience: Why do you think our learning did not play a role?

To what extent did your choices (whatever they were motivated by) impact your regular routine? Do you think they helped or hurt your connection to the mitzvah of sukkah?

Did your learning and knowledge of Masechet Sukkah impact or play any role in your feelings/experience: your appreciation of the mitzvah of sukkah and the values it is meant to encourage you to think about?

To what extent do you think our Torah learning in school should impact the way we live our lives outside of school? What can you/we do differently to better help the Torah learning we do in school impact our lives outside of school?


Sidebar 2: Sanhedrin Rabbinic and Communal Leadership Project

Your Job:

As members of a newly established Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn, Ohio, you are on a committee of leaders working together to determine the ideal makeup of the religious leadership for the community. The community has already made significant profits off those who assumed its products were from Brooklyn, New York, and is not concerned about budgets in its decision-making process.

Some members of the community are arguing that there’s no need to hire a rabbi, others are looking for someone who can answer all of their halakhic questions and give high-level shiurim, while a third group of members are more concerned about the rabbi’s pastoral skills. The new community also contains a number of men and women who are vocal about the importance of being sensitive to needs of the women in the community and would be happy to see some role for women in the rabbinic leadership.

The tentative date for the general membership of the community has been set for when your committee will present its conclusions, including job descriptions for any position and a source sheet/annotated bibliography with key sources that back up its conclusions. While you are presenting the proposal you believe to be ideal, you must also take into account and be able to respond to the various constituents in the community described above.

At that meeting, the community (potentially including parents, students, teachers and rabbinic personalities) will vote on which committee’s proposal to accept. Until that point, the committee will be responsible for periodically sharing notes from its meetings and initial conclusions/findings with the shul’s executive board.

Your research/learning will come from five basic areas outlined here and described in detail below:

  • Learning the relevant texts in Masechet Sanhedrin.
  • Individually researching at least one topic and sharing and learning from classmates about their research (in teams).
  • At least one individual interview with an out-of-school adult (preferably a parent), sharing and learning from classmates’ interviews.
  • Interacting with and reflecting on guest personalities brought to discuss issues with the shiur as a whole.
Rabbi Yehuda Chanales
Jewish Inspiration
Knowledge Topics
Teaching and Learning