Museum Learning: Entering Torah through Pictures

Children, as the four sons of Passover teach us, learn in multiple ways. Any of the five senses that we can stimulate in our teaching methodology of Chumash is worth exploring and developing.

Rabbi Ian Silverman has spent many years drawing 53 paintings, each depicting a verse from one of the parshiot of the Torah. When these paintings were first displayed at The Jewish Academy, an elementary school in Suffolk County, it became apparent what an amazing tool this can be for “museum learning.” Students can be divided into small groups, or they can walk around alone, and are given open-ended tasks involving writing and/or drawing inspired by the paintings in front of them.

The beauty of Torah text is that one comes in direct contact with the proverbial content of the sacred tradition. Whether one focuses on the text or the commentaries that have filtered through the understanding of Jews through the ages, it is all holy content. But sometimes for many students the sheer quantity of information and amount of words begins to overwhelm.

A vibrant illustration of a scene from the Torah portion featuring a central text can sometimes focus the mind and ignite the imagination in a child. Thus he or she has gained a portal into the text. (The choice of design of the images as a circle surrounded by a circular mat seeks to create this effect.)

The passages chosen often have ethical ramifications. For instance Aaron’s silence at the time of his mourning the loss of his sons (Shmini) and Joseph’s fleeing from the advances of Potiphar’s wife (Veyeishev) are designed to challenge the viewer to formulate some of their own thinking on these dilemmas and difficulties. Other illustrations endeavor to capture certain faith orientations elicited by a sedra (i.e., starting from scratch after the Flood…Creation moving from a point of color and light to a far more complex reality of intelligent life) or intriguing questions the portion asks (why is it that Moses is chosen to show Aaron how to sacrifice (Tzav) or how can a house get tzara’at and what can that teach? (Metzora).

It is hoped too, that the children seeing the vibrant colorful depictions will themselves be spurred to develop some of their own artistic renderings of other evocative passages in the text. Studies in art therapy have established that art is sometimes far more effective in expressing deeper emotional and broader understandings than verbal expression. Perhaps this portal into the parashah can begin a process of a deeper and more penetrating interaction with the holy text.

These illustrations, although they affirm the ultimate meaning of Scripture and its truths, are not attempts to document historic or scientifically precise truth for the children. Nor do they necessarily fully agree or disagree with certain traditional renderings and conceptions. These scenes are the artist’s alone; he has enlisted poetic license, midrashic interpretations and some arbitrary design and color decisions to create a vivid running display of the 53 portions of the Torah.

Students are asked to choose one of the paintings and then given such tasks as the following:

How does this painting depict the verse chosen by the artist?

In your opinion, does the painting portray the meaning of the verse accurately and why?

If you were the artist, how would you depict this verse?

Describe a midrash or commentary associated with this verse that is or isn’t included in this painting.

Which verse would you have chosen from this parashah to be your central painting, and why?

One may choose the D E A L approach (which is often used in science) to explore ideas about what is seen, develop the thinking and analyses of what is seen, make links with previous learning, cultivate the ability to apply what has been learnt, and forge connections with other areas of previous learning.

These works of art are not just beautiful and Judaically enriching. They are also an educational tool to be used in the hands of talented teachers. Educators who seek to provide students with multiple modalities of instruction have here a perfect tool to teach Chumash in a visual versus textual way. Some teachers use it as an assessment tool, while others use it as a way to introduce a parashah. All in all, Chumash education has taken on a whole new approach at the Jewish Academy thanks to these 53 works of art.♦

Rabbi Ian Silverman DJS, is rabbi of the E. Northport Jewish Center, a Conservative synagogue on Long Island, New York. He can be reached at

Rabbi Michael Druin is the head of school of The Jewish Academy of Suffolk County, the only day school serving a county with 90,000 Jews. He can be reached at

Ian Silverman and Michael Druin
Teaching Tanakh
Knowledge Topics
Teaching and Learning
Published: Summer 2012