Conference on Teaching Rabbinic Literature

Bridging Scholarship and Pedagogy

January 27-28, 2008

On January 27-28, 2008, more than 200 teachers of rabbinic literature from colleges and universities, Jewish day schools, yeshivot, institutes of advanced Jewish studies, synagogues, adult education and informal educational settings gathered at Brandeis University for a research conference on Teaching Rabbinic Literature. This conference followed an earlier conference in 2005 on Teaching Bible.

There was enormous interest in the conference. Within a month of opening registration, it had reached capacity – two months before the conference itself.

What does “rabbinic literature” mean in this context?

The use of the term “rabbinic literature” was intended to signal a broad perspective on the topic. There were sessions in which presenters focused in particular on the teaching of Talmud and others who considered the challenges of teaching of Mishnah or midrash as distinct subjects. Some presenters came to the conference with a particular interest in rabbinic literature as literature, and others came with an interest in the history of the Jews (and others) in the Second Temple period and late antiquity. Still others focused on rabbinic literature as the foundation of the halakhic tradition, in which case the term clearly extends to literature of the medieval and modern periods.

Why did we call it a research conference?

The goal of a research conference, as opposed to a workshop, is to focus on the generation, sharing and critical analysis of ideas. The conference was guided by a spirit of inquiry, rather than demonstration of techniques or training of participants to teach in certain ways. Most sessions focused on a particular question that the presenter pursued through disciplined inquiry.

At the same time, the conference focused on questions that emerge from and are directly related to practice, in this case, the practice of teaching rabbinic literature in various settings. For example, some presentations focused on particular challenges in teaching rabbinic literature. Some took an apparently straightforward process – e.g. planning a lesson or developing a curriculum in rabbinics, helping students learn through a given sugya – and examined it closely. Some explored the nature of what Shulman calls “pedagogical content knowledge” in the field of rabbinic literature. And some examined the purposes of teaching rabbinic literature in particular contexts, in an effort to identify and analyze distinct orientations to the subject.

Participants were prepared not to learn new teaching techniques or leave with curricular resources, but rather, to explore new ways of thinking about teaching. They were told to expect thoughtful explorations and engaging discussions that promoted deeper and more critical thinking about challenges and dilemmas that are relevant to their own teaching. In this sense, the conference was intended to be a valuable professional development opportunity for teachers of rabbinic literature at all levels.

What happened at the conference?

The conference program included a mix of concurrent and plenary sessions. At the concurrent sessions, presenters – day school teachers and educational leaders, professors of rabbinics, instructors in rabbinical schools, synagogue rabbis – shared ideas and arguments, sometimes frontally and sometimes interactively. In every instance, there was time for responses and discussion. In the plenary sessions, the whole group came together for a shared exploration of some of the central themes of the conference.

In addition to providing an opportunity for participants to learn with and from one another, the conference promoted the power and potential of the scholarship of teaching – especially studies of practice – for fostering a way of talking about what we do that is more reflective, more sophisticated about purposes, and more attuned to learning outcomes. The conference also contributed to the further development of scholarship on the teaching of rabbinic literature through the publication of papers and presentations.

What are people saying about the conference?

To read some of the spontaneous expressions of excitement about the conference, go to the comments page.

What happens now?

Video from the conference is available for viewing. Papers will also be posted, as part of the Bridging Initiative’s series of working papers.

To learn more:

To learn more about the Initiative on Bridging Scholarship and Pedagogy, visit the project’s main page. In particular, conference participants may want to read the project’s first working paper, “What is Bridging Scholarship and Pedagogy?” [PDF], which spells out the meanings of the phrase and the wider agenda of the project.

To learn more about the Mandel Center conference on Teaching Bible in 2005, visit the conference website.

To learn more about the idea of “pedagogical content knowledge,” see Lee Shulman’s classic article from 1986, “Those who understand: Knowledge growth in teaching,” Educational Researcher 15:2, pp. 4-14.

To learn more about the “scholarship of teaching,” a term that has started to become familiar in higher education, read Eileen Bender and Donald Gray, “The Scholarship of Teaching,” Indiana University Research and Creative Activity 22:1 (1999), available online, and Lee Shulman, “From Minsk to Pinsk: Why a Scholarship of Teaching?”, in the Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning 1:1 (2000), available online (PDF).

To learn more about the idea of “orientations” towards the teaching of particular subjects, see Barry Holtz, Textual Knowledge: Teaching the Bible in Theory and Practice (JTSA, 2003), “Chapter Three: Teaching the Bible: Building a Conceptual Map.”

Finally, to learn more about studies of practice, see the Bridging Initiative Working Papers—for example, Beth Cousens and Jeremy Morrison’s paper, “Using the Contextual Orientation to Facilitate the Study of Bible with Generation X” (available online, PDF), examines Morrison’s practice of teaching Bible to young adults. For a fine (and rare) example of a study of the practice of teaching rabbinic literature, see Marjorie Lehman, “For the love of Talmud: Reflections on the teaching of Bava Metzia, perek 2,” Journal of Jewish Education 68:1 (2002).