What Is the Meaning of Meaning in Jewish Education?

Rabbi Dov Lerea (RS ’83, DS ’13)

My work in Jewish education focuses exclusively on teaching texts to students of all ages. Recently, at a presentation made to rabbinical students by a practitioner in the field of experiential education, the presenter remarked, “So often courses in experiential education are not taught experientially.” I liked the playfulness of that remark because it captured the notion for me that learning a text is a primary experience of Jewish learning and therefore should be taught experientially. That implies that the involvement with a text, one’s engagement with it along with the engagement between students of that text in havruta, or in a facilitated discussion, should involve an exchange of ideas and feelings that penetrate students deeply as they are learning. To appropriate a term coined by Professor Israel Sheffler, the learning of a text should evoke cognitive emotions. Ideas should be felt and experienced. 

This is the way I conceptualize meaning. Meaning, in my teaching, suggests that in the process of learning and teaching a text, learners feel the ideas they construct in response to and through the engagement with that text. What I have found to be of lasting value in my teaching for students is the pedagogic centrality of challenging them to stay with all of the dimensions of a text they come to see—its language, grammar, rhetorical structure, context, conceptual implications—while taking their own thinking about that text seriously. “What are the many meanings this text conveys?” and “What are the many meanings this text holds for me?” are the two questions that my pedagogic decisions intend to balance and hold in tension with each other. The textual basis for pedagogically balancing the external, transmitted integrity of a text with as full a range of meanings deeply felt by the learner at the same time is found in two different traditions that conceptualize revelation. In one tradition, Torah is transmitted to Moses from the outside: Moses received Torah from Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua. In the other tradition, the Sages wonder how it was that Avraham had Torah knowledge if he lived before the revelation at Sinai. They answered that his source of Torah knowledge flowed, literally, from the inside out:

Each of the generations before Avraham disappointed God, since none walked in God’s pathways until Avraham, as the Torah says, “Since Avraham heard My voice and kept My ordinances, My commandments, My laws and My Torot” (Gen. 26:5). The verse does not say, “torah,” but rather, “torot.” How did Avraham know these torot (i.e., the written and the oral torot)? God created two kidneys, which functioned like two Sages. They stimulated his understanding and counseled him and taught him wisdom all night long, as Scripture says, “I will bless God who has counseled me, as well as steered me through the night through the wisdom flowing through me [literally “through my kidneys”]. (Psalms 16:6) (Abot d’Rabbi Natan version A, chapter 33)

These two traditions provide pedagogic guideposts in this work: Moshe Rabbenu insists that learners stay true to the demands the text makes of them, while the tradition I am calling “Avraham the Wise” encourages flow, imagination, and the constructing of personal meaning as a pathway to understanding, or making sense of, the text for one’s self. 

The two most prominent ways I encourage students to engage with texts for meaning is through constant conversation and processes of visualization. Teaching conversationally as a way of constant engagement with text includes several pedagogic principles. Perhaps the most important has to do with clarifying my task as the teacher. My task, as Eleanor Duckworth has described in several places, is to keep my students interested and engaged so that they come to increasingly satisfying and meaningful ways of understanding the material. In order to achieve this goal, I teach more by listening than by talking, and certainly almost never by telling. I listen as carefully and as closely as I can to how the students are thinking and how they understand the material, and then constantly make decisions about how to challenge them next. The students do not always notice what I think they should consider in the text, and then I have to decide how to get them to pay attention to something they have missed in a way that they will find challenging to their own thinking. I have often found, in these situations, that the most difficult thing for a student to do is to reevaluate her own thinking, abandon a theory, and start to think differently about something she had thought she understood in a certain way. I will bring some examples of these moments, along with examples of the pedagogic decisions I made. Of course, such an approach to meaning—the teacher facilitating ways for the students to remain engaged with the text—requires constant reevaluation of those pedagogic decisions in thinking about planning for the coming lessons. 

A second pedagogic commitment I have made in teaching texts so that students form meaningful ways of understanding the material for themselves is by including the goal of visualizing the text in some way. By asking students to visualize the text—by facilitating the disciplined habit of mind to do so—challenges the learner to imagine a meaning, a way of understanding it, in a very specific, vivid way. By asking the learner to then produce that vision and then describe it by composing an “artist’s statement,” the student effectively retranslates his non-verbal view back into a linguistic, conceptual form. I begin this process by reading the text with students. Then I spend considerable time thinking about how to frame the right questions to stimulate interest in what students notice about the text. Then I ask students to imagine how they see some dimension of the text—either a concrete dimension or a conceptual understanding. At some point, I ask students to show their understanding visually through some medium: water color, chalk, paper, three-dimensional materials. Finally, I ask students to compose an artist’s statement describing what they did and explaining why and how what they did relates to the ways in which they read the text. That process provides a way for entering a text, stepping back from it, and capturing an interpretation of personal meaning. Here, by “personal meaning,” I mean how the student has come to make sense of the text. 

Lessons learned. The motivation to learn Torah is a foundational goal of learning Torah. Motivation depends upon the student feeling that the learning was intrinsically worth her time and effort. Meaning, in this sense, has to do with how the student came to make sense of the text, which requires that my pedagogic decisions must take seriously how learners are thinking about the text. I do not know how to teach a text without teaching the students directly and primarily. Similarly, whenever I learn a text myself, I am ultimately learning and investigating myself at least as much as the text in front of me, as reflected by the image of Avraham acquiring Torah knowledge. 

I have two pressing concerns in this work. One is the alienation and discomfort many learners have with visual art. Usually, the older the learner, the greater the discomfort. Adults sometimes say to me, “Oh, we are going to color today?” The second concern I have is about the imbalances of privileging the text over personal meanings or privileging personal meaning-making over the demands of the text and the integrity of an inherited tradition. Both must be held in balance with each other. These days, I often find that this demand is a bit too nuanced for some teachers, as well as for some learners. This research—and this conference—seems to me to be extremely important because the more we share and expand visions of meaning, the deeper the engagement with the knowledge and wisdom of our culture, and the lives we lead and the world we inhabit need these processes of learning for meaning. Such processes acknowledge value and cherish diversity of thought and experience, and the commonalities often shared by people who learn with each other.

Rabbi Dov Lerea is dean and mashgiach ruchani at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, and the rabbi of Beth Aharon, the Sephardic congregation of Riverdale. Rabbi Lerea has an undergraduate degree from Brown University in Religious Studies, rabbinic ordination from The Jewish Theological Seminary (RS ’83) and Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, an MA in Learning and Teaching from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and an EdD from the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education (DS ’13). Rabbi Lerea served as teacher and dean of Judaic Studies at the Abraham Joshua Heschel School, Rosh Hinuch at Camp Yavneh in New Hampshire, and director of Kivunim in Jerusalem. Rabbi Lerea has also taught at Drisha and the Wexner Foundation.