Fostering Meaningful Connections to Text: Barry Holtz

Barry Holtz

After 43 years on the faculty of JTS, including five years as dean of The William Davidson School and 12 years as co-director of the Melton Research Center for Jewish Education, Barry Holtz has a wide-angle lens on what it means to teach sacred texts.

“At the beginning of my career, teaching Jewish texts was pretty much at the center of what Jewish education was all about,”said Holtz, who started his career teaching English and Jewish studies at a Jewish day school.

In a certain respect, Holtz literally wrote the book on studying Jewish sources. Holtz is the editor of the classic anthology Back to the Sources, a comprehensive guide to the literary legacy of the Bible, the Talmud, the midrashic literature, the commentaries, the legal codes, the mystical texts of the Kabbalah and of Hasidism, the philosophical works, and the prayerbook. 

For Holtz, teaching and studying text is at the core of the Jewish educational endeavor. “When we study texts, and when we teach them, we are conveying to learners a belief that we can find what our ancestors found—namely wisdom and insight that can affect our lives in many different ways,” Holtz said. “That is what we are about as educators.”

Throughout his career and drawing on his own educational background growing up in Brookline, Massachusetts, Holtz has observed changes in educational focus. As schools in the latter half of the 20th century took on greater responsibility for conveying the basics of Jewish life, prioritization of text study declined. “Schools became where Jewish children learned how to observe the holidays, for example,” said Holtz, “and there was less time available for developing the Hebrew literacy necessary to engage in traditional Jewish text study.”

The attraction to teaching text today is rising among today’s William Davidson School students, said Holtz, who praises the opportunities for students to do degrees at The William Davidson School and the Kekst Graduate School simultaneously. In that way a student can acquire depth of knowledge in a subject such as Bible or rabbinics at the Kekst Graduate School and explore the theory and practice of teaching those subjects in their studies at The William Davidson School. “Once you have acquired advanced knowledge and competence through studying texts, the next question to ask is ‘What do I do with this?’ How might we teach Bible, rabbinics, or the prayerbook in a day school or a congregational school or at a summer camp?” 

To answer those questions, Holtz starts with the basics and invokes John Dewey’s principle that teachers need to start by considering the point of view of the learner. “When you are teaching text—when you are teaching just about anything—you need to ask who is the learner and where are they at? What’s worth learning in that context and under those time constraints?”

With sacred Jewish texts, from the point of view of the teacher, the subject matter is organized and clear, but this is not necessarily the way the learner sees it. “By asking, ‘What’s worth learning here?’ as opposed to ‘What can I tell you about what I know?’ teachers approach text study through the eyes of their learners and ultimately draw out the text’s deeper significance and potential for impact,” said Holtz.

A second principle that Holtz promotes is from the late philosopher of education and Rabbinical School graduate Israel Scheffler. “We need to establish an emotional connection between learners and text,” said Holtz. “Scheffler argued against the distinction between cognitive and affective learning,” said Holtz. “There is no question that you can teach love for text study.” 

“If we begin with texts that are really interesting—and there are countless sacred Jewish texts that meet that requirement—we can cultivate that love,” said Holtz. “The primary directive is that the text has to be interesting. We know a lot about helping learners to find things interesting.”

A big challenge in teaching sacred Jewish texts, said Holtz, is language. “We have seen the goal of Hebrew education fluctuate over time,” he said. “Are we aiming for true fluency so learners can, as the old line has it, ‘order falafel in Tel Aviv,’ or is the priority that they can become literate in understanding sacred texts?’” 

“Congregational schools devote a lot of time to Hebrew decoding, and we know that six hours a week is not enough to produce fluent Hebrew speakers,” said Holtz. “Even in Jewish day schools where texts are usually studied in Hebrew, the discussion is more often than not in English.” Holtz does not criticize this. “This is not so different from the venerated, romanticized world of our shtetl forbears who spoke Yiddish when they studied humash.”

Teaching texts in translation is possible, said Holtz, with a recognition that something is lost. “We can teach texts in English in a way that both demonstrates why you do get more out of the Hebrew and opens up relevant questions that the text raises,” he said. “You can teach aggadic texts in translation and explore two dimensions—the way the midrash works–and for that you will want to point out puns or other word play from the original–and the ‘why’ of the midrash, what the text is trying to communicate across the ages.”

“Historians like to point out that in the past only a very small percentage of Jews were exploring Talmudic texts,” said Holtz. He believes that the traditional prioritization of studying sugyot focused on matters of halakhah mistakenly sidesteps narrative portions of midrash. 

“There are wonderful stories about the Rabbis that are very literary and sophisticated, even in translation,” he said. “By studying these stories, readers can dig into remarkable ambiguities in many of those tales and find meaningful connections to the text.”

For Holtz, a text is sacred because of its own self-representation as well as how it is perceived by those who study it. “The Torah itself claims to have been given by God,” said Holtz, 

“Jews have always treated Torah as sacred text,” he said. The question is how do we understand the sacredness of Torah in our times.” 

When he taught a course on teaching text to adults and adolescents, the class was grappling with the idea of what makes a text sacred. Holtz asked the students to listen to a podcast called Harry Potter and the Sacred Text. “The two hosts of the podcast treat Harry Potter as sacred text, and for them it is,” said Holtz. He then asked the students to analyze the way that the podcast understood sacredness and compare it to our understanding of that concept as applied to Torah, exploring the significant differences between a book written in recent times by an author whose name and biography we know and Torah, a text whose origins are fundamentally mysterious and which has a history of interpretation more than 2,000 years old. 

Transmitting both the sacredness of a text and the ability to read it through a modern critical lens is a particular challenge in Jewish education. “In the modern/postmodern world, there is so much suspicion and skepticism,” said Holtz. “We’re asking learners to view these texts of our tradition with both generosity and kindness, and with the idea that there is much to be found there.”

For Holtz, the reward of teaching in this way has lasting impact. “When we study texts that we believe are sacred, that we treat as sacred, and when we teach them, we try to cultivate a dual attitude: give the text its due not just out of sentimentality but out of a belief that if you are open to the text, it can be a source of great meaning.” 

When a teacher conveys this to learners, it is a kind of faith in itself.

 Written by Suzanne Kling Langman