A Conference on The Meaning of Meaning in Jewish Education, June 2015
The Davidson School recently invited three Judaica scholars from the JTS faculty to teach a piece of text to a group of learners for the purpose of exploring meaning and meaningfulness generally as a part of Jewish life and particularly through Jewish education. After the study sessions, the entire conference gathered together and the three scholars discussed their pedagogic decision-making. We are happy to publish the reflections of one of the scholars, Dr. Judith Hauptman, E. Billi Ivry Professor of Talmud and Rabbinic Culture, JTS.
Pondering the meaning of meaning in Jewish education is not easy. To do so, I will examine why I chose a particular text for my session at the conference, how I choose texts in general, and how I understand the meaning of meaning in Talmudic texts. I think it axiomatic that in life most people are looking for meaning and community. Studying great Jewish texts together with others is one way to find both.
Why I Chose This Passage to Teach at the Conference
Of all the possible passages I could have chosen to teach at this conference, I selected Bavli Shabbat 54b-55a. The mishnah contains a seemingly extraneous comment about a rabbi who, in the eyes of his colleagues, violated the Sabbath. The Gemara claims that the concluding sentence of the mishnah, which is also the concluding sentence of the chapter, teaches the principle that if one does not protest the immoral behavior of the members of one’s household, one’s neighbors, and even one’s countrymen, the one who is silent is as guilty as the perpetrator of the wrongdoing. After presenting a number of anecdotes in which people either did or did not protest the behavior of others, the unit continues with an interpretation of several verses of the book of Ezekiel in which God is reprimanded by the Attribute of Justice for not acknowledging that silence in the face of wrongdoing is also wrongdoing and is punishable. My reasons are as follows:
The passage will show the participant an example of how the Talmud intertwines detailed description of Jewish law with presentation of Jewish values. Many people are not aware of this other aspect of the Talmud, imagining it principally as a repository of rules of Jewish practice, which it is, but it is also much more.
The passage under discussion presents a core moral principle and then illustrates it with several anecdotes. The anecdotes help one grasp how to apply the principle to life situations. The passage also contains a fanciful midrash that will engage the student and be easily understood and remembered.
The principle in question is the obligation to speak out in the face of wrongdoing. It is addressed to everyone, but in particular to those who work for either religious or secular authorities and have knowledge of internal corruption.
This passage is so clear in its moral demands and so inspirational that I think it an excellent choice to teach to people who are looking to understand Judaism and to grasp why the Talmud is a foundational Jewish document. I am not attempting to dismiss or downplay the numerous discussions of the fine points of Jewish practice and ritual that abound in the Talmud, but when given a one-time opportunity to talk about meaning in Jewish education, I would sooner deal with a broad moral demand than with a rule of Sabbath observance. This passage, by the way, includes both.
Another reason I chose this particular passage to present at this conference is that I taught it last March in Israel at the Knesset library, during the weekly Talmud class that takes place there (presenters are either in-house staffers or invited guests). Speaking truth to power, to paraphrase the Talmud, seemed to me like an important lesson for legislators and senior staff. The people who attended “got it.”
This Talmudic passage, more than many others, speaks to people in their contemporary lives. It is one I can easily relate to issues we face today. When I do so in class—and when I did so at the Knesset—people immediately internalized the lesson. They proceeded to give me instances of applying the moral principle in their own lives. This passage also generates good questions, such as: Are we also expected to speak out about ritual failings of others or only about immoral behavior? If both, is it not obnoxious to do the former? What impact can I have as just one individual?
How I Choose Talmudic Passages for the Classes I Teach at JTS and Elsewhere
I often teach classes at JTS on the topics of family relations and how the Talmud views and treats women. I don’t shy away from “troubling” texts. I bring the “insufficiencies” of the text, as viewed from a contemporary perspective, out into the open. My goal in text selection for these JTS classes, which are intended to give future rabbis necessary knowledge for addressing contemporary issues, is to show students the continuum, or arc, of legal statements. A teacher could opt to only cite statements about “purchasing a wife for money” as we find in the Torah (Exod. 22:16) and the Mishnah (Kiddushin 1:1), and view marriage as the sale of a woman by her father for money. But, such an approach may lead people away from the Talmud and even away from Judaism.
A more intellectually honest way of analyzing those two texts (and others like them) is to compare them to most other Talmudic statements on the subject of marriage and note that the verb ‘’to purchase” is replaced by the verb “to sanctify.” The Rabbis of the Talmud created a new term for marriage, kiddushin (from the root Q.D.SH), which means “to sanctify,” and employed it consistently. In this way the Rabbis distance themselves from the Torah model of wife as chattel.
The message students get is clear: Although marriage in the Torah was considered a purchase, the Rabbis, over time, transformed it into a negotiated relationship between husband and wife—each with obligations and privileges. This is a far better social arrangement than that prescribed by the Torah, but still not sufficiently egalitarian to satisfy a contemporary individual.
I think that pointing out this evolution in Jewish marriage is an instance of “making meaning.” We examine the passage in wider and wider concentric circles, first Torah, then Mishnah, then Gemara, then Shulhan Arukh (Code of Jewish Law, 1565), and finally in contemporary society. Patriarchy reigns in Jewish texts but has been gradually reduced and totally eliminated today. One can either condemn rabbinic thinking by examining individual passages on their own or grasp what the Rabbis were trying to accomplish on a grand scale by examining passages along a timeline. Each time I choose a text for my students, be it on marriage, the ketubbah, the wedding ceremony, procreation, divorce, or conversion to Judaism, I keep these considerations in mind.
An even larger goal of mine is to get students to love the text, to become as addicted to Talmud study as I am. One way of doing this is as described above: reading texts in a wide context. Another, of course, is the way I model my attitude toward the text. It is not my mode of operation to say to students, as I hear is done in some yeshiva settings, “Isn’t this amazing?! Aren’t these rabbis holy men?!” To me, making such statements is an attempt at indoctrination. Rather, by laying out the various texts for the students, I make it possible for them to come to similar conclusions on their own. What pleases me is when a student exclaims, “isn’t this a great text?!”
To bring students to the point at which they see the enduring meaning in the text, it is necessary to help them acquire the skills of reading texts in the language in which they were composed. Every translation, as we know, is an interpretation. Therefore, to have students find meaning in the text, it is important that they discover it by reading the words of the text as they were formulated. That is, they first need to understand the text word by word as well as understand the structure of the argument or the flow of logic of the sugya (discursive unit). After which they jump to the next level, which is figuring out why the Rabbis decided law as they did, what were their animating principles, to what extent can we relate to these principles today, and so on. And then I ask students to consider more general questions: What ongoing Jewish values are present in the text? Why is Talmud considered to be the basis of rabbinic education?
Another text that can be used to explore meaning is Bavli Shabbat 119a. It gives 15 examples (an unusually large number) of Rabbis who personally prepared for the Sabbath—engaging in such activities as chopping beets, stoking the fire, grilling fish. The takeaway message is that the Talmud is speaking loud and clear about the need not just for household staff but also for the head of household to regard the Sabbath as a royal guest for whom one makes lavish preparations with one’s own hands. Honoring the Sabbath means to be personally involved in welcoming the Sabbath, not just delegating all tasks to others.
This text does not speak about Sabbath restrictions, which occupy so much space elsewhere in the Talmud, but about the principle of oneg Shabbat (Sabbath pleasure), which means to view the Sabbath as a day of delight and not limitation. This message is not conveyed by statute or by requiring Sabbath preparation, but by giving anecdotal evidence of Rabbis who chose to prepare to welcome the Sabbath queen on their own. The hope of the text is that the reader will seek to emulate the actions of these rabbis. Therefore, one way to put students in touch with the meaning of texts is to analyze the goal of the editor of the texts with them.
The meaning of meaning is grasping the meta-message of the text after first working it through word by word. To see the forest after identifying every tree. And hopefully, to realize how beautiful the forest is and how wonderful it smells.
Dr. Judith Hauptman received a degree in Talmud from the Seminary College of Jewish Studies of JTS (’67; now Albert A. List College of Jewish Studies) and a degree in Economics from Barnard College, and earned an MA and a PhD in Talmud from JTS (GS ’82). In May 2003, she was ordained as a rabbi by the Academy for Jewish Religion.
In addition to her full-time post at JTS, Dr. Hauptman is a frequent instructor in the adult-education program at the 92nd Street Y in New York City, and has served on the faculties of many prestigious education institutions. She has also authored many influential articles. Among them are “Women and Prayer: An Attempt to Dispel Some Fallacies” (Judaism, Winter 1993); “A Time to Mourn, A Time to Heal” (Celebration and Renewal, Jewish Publication Society, 1993); and “Judaism and a Just Economy” (Tikkun, January/February 1994).