HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

Listening to Student Voice: The Batsheva-David Story

by Philip Dickstein Issue: The Whole Student

Dickstein, an experienced Jewish studies teacher and administrator, describes a method for using the exploration of challenging biblical stories to cultivate students’ Jewish identity.

Student voice is crucial in any effort to raise our students from passive, on-the-sidelines observers to active, engaged participants in the ongoing conversation of teaching and learning. Indeed, we need to welcome student voice to center stage. We must solicit student voice in every aspect of our work, from student participation in teacher evaluation (who better to identify teacher success?) to helping achieve a deep understanding of text—after all, they are the next, essential link in the chain. I am suggesting that we need our students to bring us their voices—raising them loud and strong!

Giving priority to student voice immeasurably enhances the students’ learning experience, helps create more fully democratic schools and gives purpose to their learning. Opening our classroom doors to student voice empowers students when they construct meaning and solve real problems. It gives truth to the cliché “putting students first.” No longer is the education about the teacher teaching; it’s about the student learning.

When encouraging students to use their voice, we legitimize their insights and validate their opinions. We make students the essential element in the learning process; we give students the capacity to create meaning and effect change. Student voice is the active expression of student ideas and beliefs, and the listening to them. Student contributions make the difference, all the difference. How right are those who say that teaching occurs only when students learn!

In teaching the David-Batsheva story (II Samuel 11, 12) to middle school students recently, I welcomed student voice to inform all the commonplaces, to help us arrive at a point of understanding and appreciation when studying this difficult text. Student voice, I came to learn, identified the “big questions” and was essential in offering some tentative answers. Challenges arrived very quickly. How “open” should we be? Is any negative criticism of the biblical hero allowed? Should it, in fact, be encouraged? And, whose voice would be central in this journey? The choices were many—My voice? The rabbis of the Talmud? The commentators? Present-day historians? The students?

It is the hope of all middle school teachers that they might somehow make a difference in the lives of the children they teach. To meet the challenge of adolescence is to wrestle with the essential questions of “Who am I?” and “What do I believe?” “What is my voice?” Particularly in this volatile, unpredictable stage of life, a time of struggle and bewilderment, a teacher needs to listen carefully to student voice. Combining this biblical text with my stated desire to listen carefully to adolescent student voice certainly posed its challenges.

During the beginning weeks of my teaching, my students and I briefly explored some of the archeological evidence for the existence of King David, eventually leading to one student’s question, the raising of his voice, “Did King David really exist?” To which, I added, “And, does it even make any difference?” We discussed the discoveries of the Israeli archeologist Eilat Mazar who, using a careful reading of the biblical text, claimed she found remnants of David’s royal palace. The students offered a wide range of opinion about the historicity of her claim. For those who think students today simply accept all they see and hear as truth, rest assured—they don’t. When considering the truth of the story, they carefully weighed the evidence and added their own cynicism.

As we explored the story together, I reflectively asked myself many questions, each of which originated in the students’ voices and rely on student voice for an answer. How could we read the text in a way that insists on intellectual integrity and, at the same time, nourishes sacred reverence? How might I consider the influence a biblical text has on its reader and how the reader’s perspectives influence the text? In other words, whose voice will, in the end, speak and which will be heard?

Alongside the evident sexual challenges posed by the story, we spoke about issues of moral culpability—most significantly in the subsequent cover-up that culminated in Uriah’s death in battle. The students all had something important to say; they freely added their voices to the conversation. The moral challenges that occupied the story’s author still occupy us today. The Tanakh shares our dilemmas and wrestles with our quandaries, as it also helps us resolve them.

I wanted the students to learn from the story, to appreciate their responsibility for their own conduct and choices. I wanted their voice to be heard, both in understanding the story and in their attempts to fashion standards for their own conduct. One girl, commenting on David’s relationship with Batsheva, emphatically announced to the class that no one, David included, has the right to take advantage of another. Another girl wrote, with both a style and maturity that belies her age, “Though it was rather suspect for Batsheva to be bathing naked in public, she probably felt she couldn’t possibly refuse the advances of a King without causing harm to herself.”

An outspoken student wrote, “Of all the guilty people in this story, I think that David is the most guilty. I believe so because he knew she was a married woman, and knowingly committed adultery. He also abused his power as king, because he knew Bat-Sheva could not refuse the king without punishment.” A quote from one girl’s homework: “In my opinion, Batsheva is an absolute victim. She probably slept with David only to preserve her own safety. She should not have been punished for the terrible deeds of the King. To call her a villain in this story would be truly ridiculous.” These voices, the voices of strong, young women and men, rang out loud and clear.

The school’s administration was hesitant when I expressed interest in exploring the consequences of the student voice in accusing David of unacceptable conduct. I wanted to compare Yoav’s willingness to follow David’s orders in battle to the agonizing, irresolvable moral choices forced on Israel’s soldiers today, and, in a much smaller, much less significant, way, to the relationships they form every day. I wanted the students to know—and to believe—in Israel’s doctrine of tohar neshek (purity of arms).

Yet I also wanted to teach with what I, a lover of Israel from the comfort and distance of galut, felt was moral integrity. Was I but one more victim of the current thinking that if we teach an unreal, idealized picture of Israel today, they will run away from Israel tomorrow? Could student voices sing out in love for Israel and, at the same time, be true to their internal moral compass? Which were more important: honesty and integrity or faith and innocence?

Returning to the cover-up initiated by David, almost all students felt that Yoav should not have “simply followed orders.” Their voices rose in indignant criticism. A representative response from one student: “I believe that Yoav is the person who is to blame in this story… [He] knew what David was going to do, but he never made any motion to stop him from killing Uriah.” Another student comments, “Of David, Yoav, and Batsheva, I believe that David is by far the most guilty for Uriah’s death. … As for Yoav, while what he did was atrocious, to a man accustomed to seeing his men die on a regular basis, one more dead soldier must not have meant a lot. David, with his shady, cruel, and selfish deed, is the most guilty.” No equivocation or hesitation in these voices!

We spoke about making “good” choices in their relationships, at least better than David’s choices. And, here, yet again, the same dilemma, phrased a bit differently, returned to haunt me. How could I expect these students to joyfully sing David’s psalms, and yet, later in the day, use their same voice when reading that David “took” a married woman and then had her husband killed to cover his guilt? How would they connect the tehillah leDavid of the Ashrei to “our” David? Could their voices somehow combine both “songs”?

One of the central challenges of teaching this text is, of course, to confront the reality of David as he is portrayed in the text and yet yearn for his eternal kingship, realized eventually in the messiah. When faced with this challenge, the students themselves pointed to two answers, both similar to our tradition’s response; their voices seemed to echo across time. First, they saw that the text itself makes clear that David repented, he realized he had sinned. David responds to Natan, ”Chatati—I sinned.” Truth does speak to power. Unlike Amnon’s rejection of Tamar after his crime, David continues to love Batsheva, indeed, to comfort her. Second, the students saw in David’s multifaceted portrayal a realism that makes David a hero. They appreciated and loved David in, perhaps even because of, his complexity and his humanity. Might this complexity and ambiguity mirror their own lives? Might this story give their own voices comfort and reassurance?

I would like to end this brief reflection by sharing one student’s voice, the voice of David melech Yisrael, chai, chai ve-kayam!—David King of Israel lives! She wrote, “I personally have no problem combining David of the Psalms with David of the Bible, because people of the Bible are multifaceted and I doubt there is anyone alive who is all good or all bad. I appreciate that the ‘stars’ of Jewish history are real people, in all their greatness and their awfulness.”♦

Philip Dickstein has served in leadership positions in different day schools for over thirty years. He can be reached at pdickstein@aol.com.

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The Whole Student

One way that day schools stand out is the attention they can provide to each and every student, as expressed in the classic line from Proverbs, “Educate the youth according to his or her path.” Authors here offer numerous ways for schools to address the multi-faceted student to ensure that s/he is nurtured academically, spiritually, creatively and socially. 

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