Conference on Teaching Rabbinic Literature
The Initiative on Bridging Scholarship and Pedagogy hosted a research conference on teaching rabbinic literature at Brandeis in January 2008, featuring 50 presentations and bringing together more than 200 academics and educators representing 30 Jewish day schools, 20 universities, 12 yeshivot and rabbinical seminaries from across the denominations, and numerous other educational institutions.
There was enormous interest in the conference. Within a month of opening registration, it had reached capacity — two months before the conference itself.
This conference followed an earlier conference in 2005 on Teaching Bible.
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.
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.
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 rabbi — 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.
To Learn More
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), 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).
This conference was hosted by the Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education, a partnership between the Mandel Foundation of Cleveland, Ohio and Brandeis University.
The Mandel Center gratefully acknowledges the support of the Mandel Foundation and its leadership.
The Mandel Center also acknowledges additional support for this conference from Combined Jewish Philanthropies; from Targum Shlishi, a Raquel and Aryeh Rubin Foundation; and from the Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning in Theology and Religion.