In this article, I examine a major shortcoming
in the approach to Bible education in Orthodox day schools, both in
Israel and abroad. I believe that this shortcoming is attributable
not only to the professional or pedagogic weaknesses of a
particular teachers or schools. It reflects, rather, a pervasive
tendency of the milieu in which the schools operate to avoid
meta-questions when studying and teaching Bible.
The article is divided into three parts: In
part one I describe the specific shortcoming that is the main
subject of this paper. I rely mainly on my experiences in teaching
Bible to all grade levels, to different populations in several
countries. In part two, I briefly attempt to analyze why this
problem exists and why it is so pervasive. In part three, I propose
a pedagogic typology of value-informed extensive reading skills,
intended to develop in teachers and students alike a "deep and
flexible understanding''1 of the Bible. I believe that a
skilled use of this typology by teachers and students can redress
many weaknesses in Bible education.
I have chosen to develop an inventory of
extensive reading skills, rather than intensive reading skills,
since much has been written on the latter and very little on the
former. In addition, even those teachers willing to "try"
close reading (or lit
erary analysis), are reticent about in-depth
extensive reading. They might feel comfortable asking their
students to divide the chapter or unit according to the story line
and title each section—a more superficial form of extensive
reading. Yet they hesitate to ask students how different
perspectives can be brought to bear upon a particular text, which
is extensive reading of a more in-depth and adventurous form.
I. Stating the
A yeshivah high school student can graduate from day school
after spending many years immersed in the study of Tanakh, and have no clue
as to the most basic intentions, meanings, and messages of the
biblical books that he has studied.
Teachers avoid or waffle over meta-questions,
meta-themes, and overviews when teaching the Bible. They may devote
many hours to in-depth analysis of each verse and its multiple
commentaries, but shy away from questions like: "What is this
book about?" "What are its messages?" "Why was
this book written?" "Whom was it written for?"
The following two stories, spanning two
generations of Bible students and two continents, illustrate the
deeply entrenched nature of this phe
1971 and the Book of Job
As a high school student, I attended a Modern
Orthodox day school highly esteemed for both its Jewish and general
studies education. In eleventh grade, we studied the Book of Job,
closely accompanied by major medieval commentaries. I recall
devoting many hours to studying Job, particularly before exams and
being rewarded in the end by a satisfactory, even pleasing, final
grade. In a graduate course on Jewish thought at Brandeis
University several years later, Professor Nahum Glatzer alluded to,
"the Book of Job and the problem of evil." I was a bit
perplexed, but said nothing. A day or two later, he made a similar
allusion, this time to "the Book of Job and the question of
reward and punishment." By now I was completely confounded.
Turning to a classmate, I asked, "Job is about the problem of
evil? Job is about reward and punishment?"
I went home and reread Job, stunned to find a
complex and fascinating book dealing with the nature of the
universe, questions of good and evil, and the manifestations of
divine providence, among other things. I could have recited verse
and commentary almost by heart, but had no idea that the Book of
Job was about the problem of evil.
I had been starved for discussions on these
topics throughout my high school career, and forever begged the
administration and teachers for courses in Jewish philosophy.
Sadly, they never materialized. In truth, there was no need to
introduce new courses in order to discuss "ideas"; we had
Jewish thought right in front of us—Isaiah, Jeremiah,
EzekieI, Genesis, Esther. Had the essential questions of the
biblical books been raised, the themes they put forth and the
insights they offered would have kept our minds racing for months.
2001 and the Book of Genesis
Thirty years later, my eleventh-grade
daughter, a student at a "dati-le'umi" high school, not very different from the one
I attended thirty years ago, asked me to "do Rashi" with
her. She had a comprehensive ("beqi`ut") matriculation
exam for which she had to prepare all of Rashi's commentaries on
the first eleven chapters of Genesis.
I cut a deal with her: I would give her all
the time she needed for Rashi, in exchange for ten minutes of
questioning. (Of course, I was trying to forestall the inevitable
lament, "Can't we just do the Rashis!") I asked my
daughter if she knew what the first eleven chapters of Genesis were
"Which chapter?" she wanted to know.
"All of them," I insisted. "Can
you detect a common idea or theme running through all or most of
"Not really. Beri`at
ha-olam?" she guessed.
"OK," I said. "But that's only
chapter one and a bit of chapter two. How about all
"Qayin and Hevel?"
"Fine, but that's chapter four. Can you
think of anything that's true for the entire unit?"
I began to explain to her about universal
history and patriarchal history, about God's original intention to
establish His covenant with all of humankind, of human envy of
God's power and the consequent attempt to reach the heavens.
"This how we might understand the consistent sinning
throughout chapters 1-11," I explained. Listening with
interest, the student became thoughtful.
"Is that why God approached Abraham? Why
He chose one individual?" she asked.
The student was beginning to discern a big
picture, to make connections. She was beginning to think. And yet,
I had not introduced any lofty terminology or extraneous ideas. I
had only asked an essential question about the big picture. We had
looked at the whole, and it helped us understand the parts.
These two stories span the course of three
decades. During those years, teachers of Jewish subjects have
integrated new concepts and pedagogies into their professional
repertoire, particularly in the areas of multiple intelligences and
special needs. Yet, in most classrooms the pedagogy of teaching Tanakh remains remarkably
static. While the subject matter may change from year to year, the
level of our questions, and thus our understanding, does not
advance beyond kitah daled (fourth grade).
To test this point, I decided to conduct some
soft research of my own. I "interrogated" several
American and Israeli day school graduates from excellent schools.
"What is the outstanding message of the prophets?" I
asked. "What were Yeshayahu, Yirmiyahu, and Amos railing
against?" Most answered: "Avodah
a safe guess) or "Not keeping the mitsvot."
"Which mitsvot?" I persisted.
After much coaching and many hints, some
students were able to recall, "Oh, right, miszvot bein adam le-havero (interpersonal
commandments)." But they were remembering and reciting, not
understanding.2 Few of the fourteen students I quizzed could
articulate that the great prophets of Israel were pleading for a
just society for all, particularly for the disadvantaged and
downtrodden, for those outside the protection of the law. They
remembered, but did not understand that the prophets of God were
bitterly criticizing the spiritual decay of the Temple service and
the numbing effects of too much teqess (ceremony) 3. If teachers are reluctant to
highlight those abuses upon which the prophets truly vented their
anger, they will be unable to conduct "constructivist''4
conversations with their students about similar abuses in our own
societies and in our own institutions.
High-school-age students are excruciatingly
concerned with questions of fairness, for themselves as well as for
others. Suppose, for example, that in the midst of studying a
chapter in Amos we were to generate a discussion with our students
about how the prophet would have reacted to the allocation of
millions of shekels to the Ministry of Religious Affairs when the
coffers of Ministry of Social Welfare are empty, or under what
circumstances the prophet Amos might have approved of such an
allocation. Not only would students better understand the
uniqueness of the prophetic texts and hopefully identify with the
messages, they might even begin to enjoy studying them.
Teachers of Bible in day schools and yeshivot rarely step
back and ask meta-questions about the books they teach. When
teaching the Book of Judges, they do not ask: "How can we
understand this book as a whole? What are its messages? Is there a
unified message, or is it merely a collection of unrelated
The Book of Judges does indeed have a unified
message concerning the consequences of a nation's not having an
organized, stable, and consistent way of choosing its leaders. The
Israelites go from crisis to crisis, and by the end of the book, we
find them on the brink of anarchy. The Book of Judges is intended
as a segue to
the book of Samuel. Its aim is to prepare the reader for the
introduction of monarchy in Israel.
Why is this well-kept secret in our schools?
Do we fear that by acknowledging this, we open doors to criticism
of the Judges? But isn't that precisely what the book itself does?
To read Judges without assessing the behavior of the individual
judges is not to read the book at all. When teaching the books of
Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings, how often do we ask:
"What are the purposes of the historical
"Why were they written?"
"Are the historical accounts accurate, or
are they meant to be read as teaching stories?"
"If so, what do they teach?"
"Why are they often referred to as 'the historiography
Like the Bible as a whole, the Book of
Leviticus is replete with complex and esoteric concepts. Throughout
primary school, teachers spend years teaching verse after verse
about qedushah (holiness), tumah (ritual defilement) and tahorah (ritual purity), but they do not step back and
ask themselves, "What do these terms mean? What did they mean
then? What do they mean today?" If we don't ask these
questions of ourselves, we certainly cannot ask them of our
What accounts for this problem? Why do our Tanakh teachers
avoid asking essential questions? Overview questions may be divided
into two categories:
1. Questions having to do with origins, such
as: "For whom was this book written, by whom, when?"
2. Questions that have to do with intentions
and purposes, such as: "Why was this book written?"
"What does it what to say?" "Does it have one
unified message or several messages?"
Teachers tend to avoid questions of both
types. I will attempt to explain why based on my observations of
teachers in practice, on conversations that I have had with student
teachers, and on my experience in the classroom.
1. Teachers Simply Don't Know:
Teachers don't ask essential questions because
they themselves don't know the answers. They don't know the answers
because they were never taught. Teachers tend to teach the way they
2. The Answers are not Obvious:
The messages of the Biblical books are rarely
transparent; on the contrary, they are opaque. The intentions of
the narratives are embedded in the words, in the sentences, and in
the structures. The stories need to be read and reread, examined
and excavated, in order for the reader to arrive at their meanings.
It much easier for a teacher to ask informational questions such as:
"Where did this happen?" "How
did this happen?" "To whom?" "By
whom"" and even, "Why did this happen?" than to
pose overview questions like, "What does this book want
to say?" It difficult to know the answers to essential
questions, so teachers prefer not to ask them.
3. "Overviewing" Demands More
It takes more time to prepare an overview
lesson than to do a verse-by-verse analysis. Often, we must read
two or three articles, or several introductions, in order or get a
sense of the "the big picture." For most teachers, this
is daunting. It is particularly true for primary school teachers
who may teach Tanakh four to five times a week and believe that they are
expected to teach a chapter a day. They feel that they do not have
the time to do outside reading, and that they need to read a great
deal of material in order to form some perspective or opinion about
Although such reading always enhances and
sharpens our own ideas, it is not a necessary prerequisite for
formulating an overview.
4. Pedagogically, Overviewing is Difficult.
Asking essential and overview-type questions
demands rigorous planning. Unlike the typical introductory lesson
in which information is passed on from teacher to student in a more
or less straightforward manner, overviewing is an interactive
activity. It involves drawing meta-themes out of the students
themselves. The groundwork must be expertly and painstakingly laid
in order for students to make the connections and arrive at a
"big picture" on their own.
5. Overviewing Raises Serious Theological Questions: Overviewing a biblical text often leads to
theological questions. For example, let us refer back to the Book
of Judges and the other books in the Early Prophets. We need to ask
overview questions such as, "What are we meant to learn from
each of the individual judges?" "How are we to understand
the character of Samson?" "Is he a role model, a hero, or
a rogue?" "What of Jephtah, who sacrificed his
If we look at the Book of Samuel, how are we
to understand King David? Can he serve as a role model even though
much of his behavior shocks our sensibilities? What about the
prophet Samuel, who ensnares the well-meaning Saul in order to
bring about his demise?
Is the Book of Kings history or theology, or
both? What does that mean? What of the prophet Elijah? How are we
meant to relate to this zealous avenger of God, this prosecutor of
the Jewish people? Turning to the Torah, we can ask: "What is
the meaning of the sacrifices in the Book of Leviticus?"
"Why the prominence of the Tabernacle?" "Why, in a
terse, concisely written text, are so many chapters devoted to its
What are the themes of The Book of Numbers?
Why the persistent reiteration of Israel's sins? What are we meant
to learn from this, other than that the early Israelites were
always thirsty? Why was an entire nation condemned to wither in the
The list of questions is endless, because the Tanakh is a
collection of books that ask essential questions. By concentrating
solely on a verse-by-verse reading, or on rabbinic commentary
limited to specific words or phrases, the essential questions are
6. Circumventing Biblical Scholarship:
One of the best ways to circumvent knowledge
that has become available to us as a result of biblical scholarship
—a tool that Orthodox teachers are still
reluctant to use—is to avoid asking essential questions.
Several years ago, I observed a young teacher teaching the verses
regarding the rebellious son (ben sorer
u-moreh; Deut. 21:18-21). Although
well-prepared for the class, and well versed in the rabbinic
commentaries, she did not really understand the material, and,
therefore, had great difficulty teaching it. The lesson was not
successful: The students, as well as their teacher left the
classroom frustrated. During our feedback session, I suggested that
she have a look at the interpretation of Olam ha-Tanakh, an encyclopedic
commentary combining scholarly, historical, and archeological
information.5 The teacher read the commentary, told me that
she found it fascinating and illuminating, and thought that her
students would as well. She added that she surmised the
interpretation to be "probably true," but she had no
intention of repeating it to her class. "I can't quote the Olam ha-Tanakh," she
said, "I am not comfortable doing that." She returned to
class the next day, and tried to teach the lesson again. In her own
words, "This wasn't one of my better classes."
I do not blame a teacher for withholding
material from her students that makes her feel spiritually uneasy;
not doing so would probably lead to an educational debacle of a
different nature. It is unfortunate, however, that educators in
Orthodox schools continue to ignore, or circumvent valuable
educational material that is interesting, as well as edifying
because it does not come from "approved" sources. I am
well aware of the educational complexity and possible crises of
faith that may result from the introduction of such this material
into the Bible curriculum of a religious school. But there is much
to gain from the use of these tools, and my experience has shown
that circumventing this knowledge only delays the confrontation; it
does not prevent it. Biblical scholarship is in the air, and in
today's world, where all information is "right out
there," we would do better to discuss than to disregard.
7. Teachers Prefer the "One Book-One
Overviewing and finding meta-themes usually
leads to the conclusion that there is more than one way to read a
text. Looking at the big picture usually suggests that there
may be several big pictures, that the text has many
"voices." While teachers feel comfortable quoting the
rabbinic dictum, "shiv`im panim
la-Torah," they tend to be
troubled by the notion of multiple, sometimes contradictory,
messages. Those who have been educated in more traditional schools,
find it hard to relinquish the idea of "one book-one
8. Studying Torah is Another Form of Prayer:
For most teachers who teach Tanakh in Orthodox schools, it
almost doesn't matter what we say, as long as we are "talking
Torah." It was once suggested that the quality and content of
a devar Torah delivered at a public gathering of Jews is subservient to
the fact of its telling.6 If this observation is correct, as
I think it is, it helps us understand many bewildering aspects of
Jewish education. In particular, it helps explain why a community
with such high standards in other school-based disciplines would
allow the teaching of Jewish subjects to be so unprofessional. For
many, "talking Torah" is enough; it does not have to be
For many teachers, Tanakh is not a discipline; it is a way of reaching God.
This approach to Bible study yields a much larger, more complex,
yet fascinating discussion7 that cannot be dealt with in the
confines of this paper. Certainly, the study of Tanakh in an Orthodox
school should be viewed as religious education. But using literary
tools to analyze the Biblical text, asking meta-questions and
looking for themes should not undermine that experience. On the
contrary, it should only enhance it.
For these causes and more, Tanakh teachers in day
schools try to avoid dealing with essential questions. But if we
don't ask essential questions, we cannot have "essential
discussions." The effect of this omission for students is
frustration, distrust, and anger that, sadly, usually turn into
apathy. Students of high-school age in particular are interested in
meta-questions; they are eager to explore the big picture. With
time, they become wary and suspicious of those disciplines in which
the teachers tend to waffle over the essential questions.
"What are they hiding?" they want to know.
In his book, The
Disciplined Mind: What All Students Should Understand,8 Howard Gardner advocates schools where
students delve into deep epistemological questions. He refers to
that approach to education as "the understanding
pathway." In an interview about the book, Gardner offered the
I don't actually advocate teaching directly
about truth, beauty, and morality; that sounds like a graduate
philosophy course. I advocate teaching those disciplines—history,
science, the arts, and literature—that will present to
students their culture's image of what is true (and not true),
beautiful (and not beautiful), ethical (and immoral).9
Are not Bible and Talmud our civilization's
way of teaching about that which is true and that which is untrue,
about what is beautiful and what is not beautiful, what is ethical
and what is immoral? Should not these be the questions that are the
focus of our discussions when teaching Tanakh to children?
III. Towards a
Pedagogy of Extensive Reading
The question of why teachers and many other
members of the community are content to study Bible without asking
essential questions is a compelling one that deserves extensive
reflection. The analysis presented in the previous section of this
paper may generate the beginnings of such a discussion. However my
intentions here are of a more practical nature. Since my immediate
concerns are with teachers, students, and curricula, I approach the
issues addressed above from a pedagogical perspective, not a
In the following section I present an
"inventory" of reading skills, informed by the literary
approach to reading Tanakh, though not exclusively so. When we study Bible
from a literary perspective, we use tools of inquiry and discovery
to uncover the layered meanings of the text. We are interested in
uncovering what the text says, and in exploring how the text works
to convey a certain meaning or make certain points.
The literary approach to reading Bible is of
particular interest and appeal to many religious educators.10
This is true because, in the words of the great Bible scholar
and teacher, Professor Meir Weiss, z"l:
It seeks to explore the text in its totality (be-kuliyuto). The
literary method is particularly comfortable for us, the dati-le'umi community,
who find ourselves both attracted and troubled by the questions
raised by biblical research. The underlying principles of these new
approaches are valuable tools for inquiry into biblical literature,
and as such, may be perceived as both a continuation and an
emendation [tiqqun] of the accepted critical philological approach. 11
Literary analysis is underpinned by a variety
of textual skills that need to be made explicit to students as they
come across them in the course of their study, in the hope that
they will be able to draw upon and transfer these skills to other
books of the Bible. In order to help teachers identify some of the
reading skills that they need to master to analyze a biblical text,
I have composed an outline of extensive reading skills, which I
refer to as an "inventory." 12
The skills presented here are
"value-laden." Their intention is to open up the text for
inquiry and enable teacher and student alike to arrive at a broader
and deeper understanding of the Bible. McDiarmid, Ball, and
Anderson, in their article cited above, explore the question of how
teachers can bring their pupils to a "deep and flexible
understanding of subject matter." The writers discuss the
tendency of prospective teachers, to view the teaching role as
telling pupils what they need to know and giving them practice in
it. [New teachers] tend to assume that learning means accruing
information, and that the teacher's main task is to "motivate
pupils" and get them to pay attention... The goal is to
prepare teachers to break out of this conventional pattern of
teaching and help pupils develop deep and flexible understandings
of subject matter [emphasis my own].
“What is essential for teachers to know
in order to help pupils develop flexible understanding of the
subject matter?...Flexible understanding of subject matter entails
the ability to draw relationships within the subject as well as
across disciplinary fields and to make connections to the world
outside of school... Flexible understanding also involves knowing
about the discipline.13
Knowledge of the principles of literary
analysis, as well as constant and consistent practice in the skills
that underpin it, will enable our students to read the biblical
books as a whole. It will assist them in perceiving and
understanding Tanakh as a discipline and direct them to creating connections
between the themes put forth in the Tanakh and the themes of great literature, of
politics, of history, and of their own lives as well.
I have chosen to focus this inventory on
extensive, not intensive, reading skills for several reasons: Much
has been written about intensive reading skills (also called close
reading).14 Also, since extensive reading is the more
difficult and the more controversial of the two modes, it is the
more neglected. Yet the pathway to vibrant classroom discussions of
essential questions begins with knowledge and expertise in
extensive reading skills.
The listing presented here is not exhaustive.
Each one of the skills listed below warrants distinctive
deliberation and analysis. This inventory is a work in progress and
is constantly being amended in response to feedback from teachers
and student interns. I intend for this inventory to serve as a
model of pedagogic skills that need to be mastered by Bible
teachers so that students will arrive at a "deep and flexible
understanding" of the biblical text.
IV. An Inventory of
Skills for Extensive Reading of the Bible
Skill # 1: "Overviewing" a Text
Overviewing a text is looking at and asking
carefully chosen questions about the text as a whole. Overviewing
necessitates becoming familiar with the entire narrative. What
kinds of questions might we ask when we do extensive reading?
What is this book about? What story does it
Can we ascertain for whom it was written? Why
it was written?
What questions does the book raise? Which of
these questions would you consider "an essential
How does the text raise these questions? How
is the reader meant to ascertain them?
What message or messages does the book convey?
How does the book convey its messages?
What literary tools or language patterns does
How do the Rabbis relate to this book? Why was
the book canonized?
What are the major themes in the book?15
More book-specific overview questions might be:
From your reading of Megillat Esther, what aspects
of the story did you find interesting or puzzling?
What aspects of the Diaspora experience
described in the Megillah are familiar to you? What aspects unfamiliar?
These questions open up the books of the Bible
for discussions that engage students and lead directly to essential
questions. Although overviewing texts may sound obvious to the
people inclined to be reading this article, in truth, these kinds
of questions are seldom posed in our classrooms.16 A teacher
recently confessed to me that she had not "yet" read the
entire narrative of the biblical book that she was teaching,
although she was midway through teaching the book. If so, how could
she possibly ask any overview questions or any questions that
require a broad look at the book?17
Skill #2: Identifying a Genre
One of the major contributions of the
form-critics to Bible scholarship has been the identification and
naming of genres.18 The rabbinic tradition discerned distinct
literary styles in the Bible19 , but did not classify or
identify specific distinctions.
Biblical literature can be divided according
to different kinds of categories. For example, the Torah may be
divided into narrative and law, or into prose narrative and poetry.
A popular breakdown frequently referred to in literary analyses of
the Bible is a fivefold division into the following genres:
Narrative, Law, Prophecy, Poetry, and Wisdom Literature. Each one
of these genres has distinctive rules and its own internal dynamic.
Within each genre, there are sub-genres. Narrative prose, for
example, includes stories, first-person speeches, blessings and
curses, laws, lists, genealogies, enumerations, and more.
Identifying genres is part of understanding Tanakh as a
discipline. It is important for teachers to determine the genre of
the text that they are teaching, to know something about the rules
of that genre, and to be sensitive to their application.
Let us look for a moment at the first two
chapters of Genesis. We are by now familiar with the distinctions
between the two "versions" of the creation story
presented in chapters one and two of Genesis.20 To my mind,
these distinctions are to be found not only in the details of the
stories, but in the differences in style between the two chapters.
Chapter two is an easy, flowing narrative; chapter one, a
highly-charged hierarchical list of the Almighty's daily creations.
The distinct style of each of the chapters corresponds in an
exquisite manner to the differing content of each.
"Historical" events related in
narrative form must be understood differently from similar events
related in an elegy.21 Repetitions used in poetry should be
read differently from repetitions used in prose.22 Each
genre underscores the subtle nuances of the text as well as its
overt meanings. Genres exist, and it is a mistake to continue to
ignore them. Identifying genres and understanding how they work to
convey meaning are essential parts of extensive reading.
Pedagogically, it is advisable to reveal and explain the genre to
students while in the midst of study, and not in an introductory
lecture about genres.
Skill # 3: Choosing a Reading Orientation
A reading orientation23 refers to the
reading approach that one takes when analyzing a text. A teacher
should be knowledgeable enough about her subject matter to be able
to deliberately choose one, two, or three reading orientations.
Teachers are naturally pulled to orientations that they are
familiar with from their own days as students. In most case, they
are not even aware that they are teaching an approach that is
underpinned by certain assumptions. As a young teacher, I recall
being asked by a colleague what was my approach to teaching Humash. The question was
disconcerting, because I had never been challenged by anyone to
articulate my approach to teaching Tanakh. I mumbled something
about Rashi and Nehama Leibowitz and fled as quickly as I could.
Teachers need to be exposed to different
orientations, so that they may deliberately choose an orientation
based on knowledge of various approaches, as well as personal
inclination, and not an approach based solely on imitation.
Ideally, teachers should be able to work with several different,
perhaps even opposing, orientations in order to enrich their
teaching, and to develop in their students a "flexible
understanding" of the subject matter. It is both respectful
and empowering to develop in our students the ability to negotiate
between reading orientations.
Some common orientations to teaching Bible are:
(1) Literary: An approach that focuses on what the text says and
how it says it. It aims to understand the text from
"within" and is exemplified by the writings of scholars
such as Meir Weiss, Yair Zakowitz, Meir Sternherg, Shimon
Bar-Efrat, Robert Alter, and David Silber. Rabbinic/Traditional
uses early rabbinic sources, as well as medieval commentators such
as Rashi, Ramban, Ibn Ezra, Rashbam to understand "the plain
meaning" of the text (peshuto shel
mikra). The books of Nehama Leibowitz
and Rav Issachar Yacobsen are examples of commentaries that rely
heavily on the rabbinic tradition.
(2) Midrashic: A particular way of understanding the text based
on the midrashim of the Sages. Midrash is a window to the intellectual, emotional, and
spiritual world of the rabbis. In this approach, we read the text
from "without." The midrash, too, asks "literary" questions, but
offers different kinds of answers. A midrashic orientation can
uncover an entirely different set of significances and essential
(3) Historical/ANE: An approach that gleans from archeological
discoveries and from contemporaneous Ancient Near Eastern texts in
an attempt to illuminate the Bible. This approach can deepen our
understanding of the political, economic, and social world in which
the heroes of the Bible found themselves. This orientation may be
found in the books and commentaries of Nahum Sarna, Moshe
Greenberg, the JPS, M. D. Cassuto, and the Olam ha-Tanakh, among others.
(4) Modern Midrash
and Interpretation: Includes diverse
modern approaches, such as Nationalist/Zionist, Secular/Humanist,
School of Rav Kook, Modern Midrashic, Feminist, Orthodox/Literary.
These orientations can be found in the writings of Yehezkel
Kaufman, Zvi Adar, Martin Buber, Shelomo Aviner, Adin Steinsaltz,
Aviva Zornberg, Ilana Pardes, Mieke Bal, Yisroel Rosenson, Menachem
Leibtag, and the journal Megadim.
Teaching varied and sometimes opposing
orientations is absorbing and thought provoking. It affords
students the opportunity to understand the seminal role played by
interpretation in all of our readings of the Bible. It allows
students to connect the texts with different aspects of their own
selves. When teaching and comparing various approaches, essential
questions cannot be avoided.
Skill #4: Reading from Different Perspectives
There are alternative ways to read a text. For
example, it is possible to read Megillat
Esther from a political
perspective, from a feminist point of view, and as a paradigmatic
"Book of the Diaspora." Each perspective uses a different
"set of glasses," and is based upon different
"interests" and assumptions. Students should be able to
appreciate how these interests and assumptions lead us to view
textual details in a certain way.
With each perspective, we can ask different
kinds of questions. Some questions we might ask when we are wearing
a political set of glasses are:
What kind of regime is being described here?
How is that regime structured? What are its
How are decisions made in this empire? How are
Give examples of at least two major decisions,
and describe how they were made?
What does this tell us about the Persian
How many different appellations for court
servants are enumerated in the Megillah?24
What does this tell us about the nature of
If we try on feminist glasses, what kinds of
questions would we ask if we were reading the Megillah?
How does the Megillah describe the position of women in the Persian
Why does the Megillah give us so much detail about the beauty
What does the writer of the Megillah think about the
Is Vashti portrayed as a heroine or as a fool?
Why are we told the Vashti story at all?
What is Zeresh's function? Lady Macbeth? loyal
wife? wise pragmatist? evil schemer?
Would she would have obeyed the decree issued
by the king at the end of Chapter 1?
What role does Esther's femininity play in
Is this question important to the Megillah, or just to us
21st Century creatures?
Or, if we were to read Esther as a
paradigmatic book of the Diaspora, we could ask:
Was the Persian exile typical?
Is it meant to be portrayed as archetypical?
What characterizes this particular Diaspora?
What elements of it are familiar to you? What
elements are strange to you?
Reading texts from different perspectives is
challenging, eye-opening, and fun.
Skill #5: Finding themes and motifs
Finding themes is one of the most important
skills that students need to develop in any study of the great
books. It enables us to ascertain the deeper meanings of the text.
In teaching Tanakh it is a skill that both the teachers and the
students need to acquire.
How do we do this? We look for patterns and
repetitions. We look for key words, key phrases, key places. We
look for repeating ideas, words, artifacts, and places. We look at
structure. When we look for themes, we are looking for key ideas
that form part of a narrative's value system, define its central
purpose or underpin the whole narrative structure. We look for
motifs, i.e. a recurrent action, word, or object that keeps drawing
attention to itself and forms links that help unify a story. Motifs
force the reader to think of one passage in terms of another, and
help shape the way in which the story is read. Students should be
able to identify particular motifs and understand how they
influence one's reading of the text. If we learn how to locate
themes and motifs in the Tanakh, then we learn to read.
Skill #6: Intertextual Reading
An intertextual approach involves examining
one text in light of and in comparison to other texts in the Bible.
Intertextual reading involves a comparison of motifs, ideas,
events, characters between two texts. The reason that this skill is
so important is because the Bible is written intertextually.25
Certain texts are written with other texts in mind. In order to
enhance our understanding, we must therefore learn to look for and
listen to the echoes of other texts.
One example from Megillat
Esther would be to read the Megillah with an eye to
the story of King Saul and Agag (1 Sam. 15) and to the story of
Joseph.26 An example from Genesis would be to read the story
of the expulsion of Hagar (Genesis 15:21) in comparison to the
flight of the Israelites from Egypt.
A particular form of intertextual reading
involves identifying story repetition. Thus when studying a
particular text, students should be challenged to recall a similar
story in some other text in the Tanakh. We ask them, "What other story in the Tanakh does this
remind you of?"
Students should be able to identify a similar
episode told or retold in different ways. They should be able to
locate the changes, compare them and discuss possible reasons for
Each of the skills discussed above leads us to
essential questions. They demand and contribute to a deeper
understanding of the contents, the structures, and the
significances of the Bible on the part of the teacher, and of the
student in turn. A teacher adept at these skills cannot avoid the
big picture. The skills of extensive reading are also aimed at
understanding the Tanakh as a discipline, seeing how the text is
structured, and how the values are put forth.
In an interview about The Disciplined Mind, Gardner
In a classroom that focuses on understanding,
teachers are clear about the understandings that that they value
and the understandings they want students to exhibit. In general,
these understandings focus on important topics and reveal
disciplinary ways of thinking.28
A constant and consistent devotion to
extensive reading skills, along with those of close reading, will
lead students to a "deep and flexible understanding of the
Bible." This hopefully would redress some of the shortcomings
of Bible educations that were discussed in the beginning sections
of our paper. The key word for all of us—teachers, students,
parents, and community leaders—is "flexible." We
need to graduate from kitah daled in our understanding of the Bible. Yes, the
stories in Genesis are about the sun and the moon and which was
created first. They are about snakes and fruit and who said what to
whom in the Garden. But they are also about origins and beginnings,
about the meaning of creation and creatureliness, about commandment
and obedience, about will and choice, about sin, guilt, and
retribution, about false beginnings and fresh starts.
When we do not ask the essential questions
with our students, we miss the essential discussions. If we miss
the essential discussions about Torah with our students,
particularly our high school students, then, to paraphrase our
matriarch Rebecca, "Where are we?"
**This work is dedicated to the memory of my father,
Isaac Orenstein, z.ts"l., and my father-in-law, Rabbi Ben-Zion Lapian, z.ts"l., who both loved Torah, and
who encouraged my every endeavor to learn and to teach.
1Williamson McDiarmid, Deborah L. Ball, Charles W.
Anderson, "Why Staying One Chapter Ahead Doesn't Really Work:
Subject-Specific Pedagogy," in Knowledge
Base for the Beginning Teacher, ed. M.C.
Reynolds (Pergamon Press, New York, 1989), p. 193.
2It is noteworthy that Prof. Lee Shulman titled his
seminal work on teacher knowledge, "Those Who Understand: Knowledge
Growth in Teaching," Educational Research 15, 1986 (2):4-14.
3See: Isa. 9:13-20; Jer. 7:3-15, 21-28; Amos 5: 2
4"Constructivism" proceeds from the
assumption that students are not simply empty vessels waiting for teachers
to fill their heads with information. Rather, they are constantly
"constructing" their own understandings of the material in front
5Olam HaTanakh, Davidzon-Itai, (Tel Aviv, 1994).
6 By my teacher and friend, Rabbi Jay Miller, who
coined the phrase, "talking Torah."
7 A fascinating debate on the issue of "Tanakh as Literature," or
"Tanakh As the
Word of God," pitting the approach of Yad ha-Rav Herzog [or, the
against the approach of the school of Rav Tau and his followers, is
currently receiving much press in the Israeli national-religious daily, Ha-Tsofeh.
8 Howard Gardner, The
Disciplined Mind: What All Students Should Understand (New York: Simon & Shuster, 1999).
9 Marge Scherer, "The Understanding Pathway: A
Conversation with Howard Gardner," Educational
Leadership, Vol. 57,3 (Nov. 1999):13.
10 It is also anathema to others, as attested to
by the current debate being conducted in the Israeli press.
11 Meir Weiss, "Avnei
B'eniyah liMelekhet ha-Sippur ba-Miqrah,"
in Miqra'ot ke-Kavvanatam (Jerusalem: Mosad Bialik, 1987), p. 294.
12 Special thanks to Mr. Paul Forgasz, colleague
and friend, for being a skilled sounding board for many of the ideas
expressed in this inventory. A detailed and expanded introduction to both
intensive and extensive reading skills can be found in our joint Teachers'
Guide entitled "Reading Esther: A Curriculum for Teaching Megillat Esther," written
by Esther Lapian and edited by Paul Forgasz. This is joint project of the
Hebrew University Melton Center for Jewish Education and the Mt. Scopus
Memorial College, Melbourne, Australia. It is as yet an unpublished
13 McDiarmid, Ball, Anderson, pp. 193,194
14 For an excellent typology of close reading
skills, see Maria Frankel, "The Reading of Bible in the Elementary
Grades of the Day School," Masters thesis, University of Toronto,
1979. For literary analyses of the biblical narrative, see writings of
Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative, Jewish Publication Society of America Basic Books,
(Philadelphia, 1981); Shimon Bar-Efrat, Shmuel I and II, Am Oved, (Tel-Aviv, 1996);, and
David Silber, "Kingship, Samuel, and the Story of Hanna," Tradition, (New York, 1988);
"The Joseph Narrative: The Reconstruction of a Family," 8 CD's
produced by the Drisha Audio Project, The Drisha Institute for Jewish
Education, New York; Meir Sternberg, The
Poetics of Biblical Narrative, Indiana
University Press, (Bloomington, 1985); Meir Weiss, The Bible from Within, Magnes Press,
(Jerusalelm, 1984); Yair Zakowitz, Mavoh
Li'Parshanut P'nim-Miqrait, Rechess, (Even-Yehuda, 1992).
15 See Skill #5 for a separate discussion.
16 I refer here mainly to primary and
high-school classrooms, not to midrashot and yeshivot.
17 In defense of this teacher and most of her
colleagues, her teaching load includes Language Arts and Math in addition
to Tanakh. Time
constraints, excessive teaching loads embracing too many disciplines, and
exaggerated expectations of primary school teachers seriously impede even
the best teacher's ability to teach any subject in depth.
18 Mavo Le-Miqra,
Ha'Uuniversitah ha-Petuhah, (Tel Aviv,
1988-1990), Vol. 2, p. 26.
19 R. Naftali Zevi Yehudah Berlin (the Netziv),
in the introduction to Ha`ameq Davar, his commentary on the Torah, refers to all of the
Bible as poetry.
20 See Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik, "The Lonely
Man of Faith," Tradition 7:2 (New York,1965), pp. 5-67.
21 Compare the description of Saul's death as
related in I Samuel 31 to the story related in II Samuel 2:17.
22 The midrash has its own unique understanding of repetition. For
example, see Mekhilta, Shabbat
86: 1; 87:1 on Exodus 19:3. Also, see Yitzhak Heinnemann, Darkhei Haggadah (Magnes
Press: Jerusalem 1970).
23In current education literature, the word
"orientations" is used to denote religious inclinations as well
as varying reading approaches. For example of the former usage, see Sam
Chervin, "The Transformation of Personal Orientation to Pedagogic
Orientation of Torah Teachers in Jewish Schools: Six Case
Studies," unpublished doctoral dissertation. In this
paper, I adopt the latter definition.
24Gavriel Chaim Cohen, "Megillat Esther," in Iyyunim be-Hamesh Megillot (Ha-Madpis ha-Memshalt:
Jerusalem, 1967) p. 12.
25I thank Rabbi David Silber, who first opened my eyes
to this wonderful way of reading Tanakh.
26David Silber, "The Scroll of Esther," an
audiotape from The Drisha Audio Project, N.Y. 1995.
27Lapian and Forgasz, "Introduction," Reading Esther: A Teacher's Guide."
28Scherer, p. 13.