Big News: Teaching Talmud is Really TEACHING

Ah, Boston in mid-winter. In the break between the AFC championship and the upcoming Super Bowl holiday, and in the cold and snow, Brandeis University is holding a two-day research conference on the teaching of rabbinic texts. Yes, research on the teaching of rabbinic texts.

It’s an incredible thing. Back when dinosaurs roamed the earth, I was first thrown into a Talmud classroom as a poor, unsuspecting early adolescent. Nobody ever told me when these volumes were written, by whom, or on what authority; even the Aramaic language was not thought worthy of any introduction. Here’s what my first few exposures to the world of Talmud looked like.

Scene 1 – First attempt

I’ve been in Jewish day school for two years now, and graduated from mechina (preparatory level; it really meant “remedial”) and Habet U’shema (ask your parents…it’s probably how they learned basic conversational Hebrew, and was pretty good for its time) to the real world of high school. I’m thrown into a class. Guess what? Not only is the text in Aramaic, but the teacher is Israeli and is teaching in Hebrew. To this day, I have no idea what he was saying or what book we were studying.

Scene 2 – Second attempt

After falling out of the class led by an Israeli, I fall into a class led by a rabbi of unidentifiable European accent. He’s allegedly teaching in English, with other words thrown in:

Rabbi: So, freg the gemara

Young Notorious (fortunately, I only thought this; didn’t say it aloud):
Yo, Rabbi dude. You don’t have to curse at the book. If you’re mad at the
book, just go to the library and get a different book to teach.

Scenes 3, 4,& 5 – Baba Metzia, Baba Kamma, and Kedushin

So, now we’ve got a different game going. I’ve figured out the freg business, and we’re going to learn Talmud tractates Baba Metzia, Baba Kamma & Kedushin.

Rabbi: Shenayim ochazim b’talis…two people are holding a garment, each one
says “it is mine.”

Young Notorious: Why can’t one of them just get another garment off the
rack [I was from Chicago and had not yet seen the wedding dress sale in Boston’s
Filene’s Basement, at which one can fully understand what it meant for there to be a serious, even violent dispute over a garment!]


Rabbi: So the field and all that is in it reverts to the original

Young Notorious: Why do I need to know this? I’m 15. I own no real estate.
Come of think of it, all that I own are my Beatles records [in many ways, this
is still true today, but only because I’m in debt to Jewish day schools and the
mortgage company].


Rabbi: So the question is she mekudeshes [legally engaged] by bi’ah shelo k’darkah.

Young Notorious: What is bi’ah shelo k’darkah?

Rabbi: Unnatural relations.

Young Notorious: You mean like a second cousin? That kind of relation that
isn’t natural?

Rabbi: No. Relations. Like between a husband and wife.

[OK, I was a naive teenager. Neither he nor I knew the words “anal sex.”
Why he chose to teach something that he couldn’t articulate, and possibly
couldn’t imagine, remains a mystery of my Jewish education].


Something very interesting is happening here. Teachers of every make and model, teaching in all sorts of settings, have gathered to discuss what they’ve learned about teaching Talmud, midrash, and halacha. They’re doing it respectfully and without regard to gender, religious style, or approach to teaching.

How is this possible?

  1. This gathering, intentionally or not, reflects the emerging post-denominationalism of American Judaism. Twenty years ago, the Reform and Reconstructionists would not have been at the table. They would have proclaimed themselves as non-halachic, or declared that halacha has a vote but not a veto, and that would have been the end of the conversation. Today, they are at the table in a serious way. Each movement has developed some type of halacha and halachic process; each is actively inviting its members to encounters with classical Jewish texts. The Judaism that is emerging on most fronts is one in which we are speaking the same language. And one in which the walls that separate Modern Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist and Reform have fallen. What now exists is either a continuum of sorts. Or just a good, old fashioned mess.
  2. A huge realization: With the exception of a young Polish-born Jewish educator, there are no European trained Talmud teachers in the room (and trust me, she didn’t learn at the yeshivot that the last generation of Talmud teachers did). They’re gone. My generation was the first generation that boasted American born and trained teachers of rabbinic texts. And the young generation of Talmud teachers have ONLY been trained by American-born Jewish educators and Talmudic scholars. And these folks rock! Like good Americans, they bring to the Jewish discussion their values of open dialogue and of a search for knowledge regardless of where it might lead them. So discussions of achieving a better understanding of the texts we teach by embracing archaeological findings, analysis of literary forms, addressing the ethical shortcomings of certain texts are all part of the discussion. There is a sense that Talmud education is really education and not simply indoctrination or study just for an intellectual exercise.

And our students will be the better for it.


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