How to Teach Tanakh in Schools (Part One)

Where can we find teachers to present Bible in a new, compelling way?

On the holiday of Simhat Torah, we mark the end of the annual Torah reading cycle in synagogue and begin the cycle anew with Genesis. In this time period, schools also start up again, and students return to their classes on the Pentateuch and Prophets, among their other classes. However, in contrast to the holiday joy, it seems that opening up a Tanakh in the classroom is less exhilarating.

In a survey conducted by the Ministry of Education, Tanakh classes scored lowest in terms of importance and relevance – light years behind math and English, the “sacred” subjects of the high-tech era. Worse yet, Tanakh was less popular than the rest of the subjects in the humanities curriculum.

The ongoing crisis of teaching Scripture in schools, one expression of which is this and similar surveys, reflects the declining status of Scripture, not only in educational institutions, but in Israeli society. Dealing with this problem requires us to understand where we have come from, and from there, how we can outline a path to the future.

Without Nostalgia

The status of Tanakh in traditional Jewish education is complicated and multifaceted. It is commonly assumed that in the heder system, Scripture was of inferior status and primarily a vehicle for the study of halakhah, whereas the Babylonian Talmud was considered the central and most challenging Jewish book. In-depth study was invested in the Talmud, which differentiated Jews from their surroundings, especially for those who lived in a Christian environment. Nevertheless, Jews were certainly familiar with Tanakh – including through the lens the Talmud and the midrash – from verses interwoven in the liturgy, and of course, from the public reading of the Torah, haftarot, and megillot in the synagogue.

Even if we accept that Tanakh was relegated to secondary status, important cultural and social questions remain. For example, when, and to what extent, did the familiar “Tanakh” – as we know it today, as contrasted with the “Chumash” – namely, the Torah with Rashi’s commentary, studied by the youngest schoolchildren – become part of the Jewish bookshelf? Is the aforementioned depiction of Tanakh reflective of the Jewish-Sephardic approach to education and Jewish scholarship, or did Scripture enjoy a more central, independent status in that milieu? Perhaps the determination that Scripture was of low status is nothing more than the result of an anachronistic, modernist view that is disconnected from the holistic existence in which “Torah” was of supreme status.

As Israeli poet and author Haim Nachman Bialik describes it:

Initially, “Torah” was a universal, almost cosmic, concept. In the books of Job and Proverbs, “Torah” and “wisdom” are interchangeable, one and the same…. In the Talmudic era, this concept deepened and reached extraordinary levels. It will suffice to mention the words of the aggadah: “The Torah preceded Creation,” “God looked in the Torah and created the world.” That is, Torah was the supreme “something” in this world, parallel to the material “something.” Indeed, there are two “somethings” in this world: Nature and Torah.

– Cultural Revival in the Land of Israel,1930

The answers to these questions notwithstanding, there is consensus that Tanakh study enjoyed a “Golden Age,” with the rise of the Haskalah movement, and especially with the advent of Hebrew Zionist education. The peak of this Golden Age was during the State of Israel’s first years. Tanakh study gave Zionists a sense of belonging in the land and was part of the complicated process of rebellion against the exilic tradition and a return to the era of national glory, sovereignty, and a comprehensive Hebrew existence. A reciprocal relationship developed between the book and the reality in which, as Uriel Simon put it, “Scripture was a sublime interpretation of the present, just as the present was a concretized commentary of Scripture.”

There is no doubt that David Ben-Gurion’s profound relationship with Tanakh influenced the centrality of Tanakh in the Israeli culture that emerged after statehood. “The eternity of Israel,” Ben-Gurion once wrote, “is embedded in these two things: The State of Israel and the Book of Books” (Government Annual, 1954). The insertion of Tanakh in the opening paragraph of the Declaration of Independence, whose final wording was shaped by Ben-Gurion himself, transformed Tanakh into a basic component of Israelis’ political consciousness.

It is important to note that Tanakh, as a national work, serves as a foundation for making sense both of the past and of the future, through the vision of the prophets of Israel, which ought to shape the moral horizon of the Jewish State.

The end of the “Golden Age” of Tanakh is linked to the Six Day War. The postwar changes in mindset and political realities, which intensified starting in the mid-1970s, changed Tanakh from a unifying book, to an arena that reflected the dispute between the Left and the “Gush Emunim” strain of the religious Right. Yet this dispute alone does not sufficiently explain Tanakh’s depreciation. At its heart, this process is intertwined with the dissolution of grand ideologies – Zionism included.

There was no single moment on which the change in status of Tanakh hinged. The harmony between the book and reality had lost its hold in a long, slow, deep process. This harmony suited an era with an epic view of time, and with the decline of consciousness of grand historical narratives such as “Exile to Redemption” and “Holocaust to Revival,” Tanakh was seen as a repository of hollow language and archaic rhetoric at best, and at worst as a nationalistic vehicle.

Playwright Hanoch Levin expressed this view with his typical sharpness:

Behold, the whole land that God promised to Abraham, To him, and to his progeny, who would be like sand on the seashore: But I’m not sand on the seashore, And I don’t fulfill promises that God made to Abraham. I never dreamt of Hebron, and I am not concerned about Shechem, What concerns me is getting through life whole; For I am not sand on the seashore, And I don’t fulfill promises that God made to Abraham… Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob rest now in their graves And I have no desire to dig my own grave beside them; For I am not sand on the seashore And I don’t fulfill promises that God made to Abraham.

Israeli performers Gidi Gov and Dana Berger sing a song based on the Levin poem (What Does the Bird Care? 1969)

Tanakh as the Problem

In contrast to its public aura, from a practical, educational perspective, Tanakh never for a moment stopped being a major challenge within Hebrew education, and especially Zionist-Socialist education. It is ironic that the book which forms the core of the Jewish studies curriculum in the secular public school system is the book in which God is more present than any book on the Jewish bookshelf. It is an earth-bound book, which together with the story of mankind, the people, the land, the kingdom, and the world, there is a supreme God, who oversees and punishes. This raises an essential difficulty for teachers in a public school:

What is Tanakh for us, for people of the pioneering movement and of the communes, Marxists, Leninists, and heretics? What educational objectives do we seek to attain with our study? We do not see Tanakh as the “Book of Books” with which alone we can educate toward the values upon which our lives are predicated. We cannot ignore the religious nature of Tanakh (unless we resort to distortion and oversimplification that borders on dishonesty).

Religion, in Tanakh…is a comprehensive outlook on life, to which we pay homage on account of the powerful and creative faith within it, but this is not our view of life. Therefore, we also cannot accept the approach that is often endorsed by educators affiliated with the Labor movement, who attempt to “rescue” Tanakh, follow the path of excessive actualization, and assert the complete identity of modern ideologies with passages from Tanakh.

Thus, for example, Amos appears as the “inventor of class warfare,” Isaiah as “the father of socialism,” and certain passages in Deuteronomy as a sort of “Bill of Rights.” While the motives behind this approach are undoubtedly positive, the result, in most cases, is nevertheless a distortion of history, on one hand, and a misrepresentation of modern concepts, on the other.

For us, Tanakh is not the exclusive “Book of Books,” though it is one of the most important and decisive books for determining the spiritual shape in which he want to mold our children.Moni Alon, Educational Department of Hashomer Hatzair, 1953, “Cultural and Educational Horizons”

Moni Alon’s words do not take issue with the religious community, but with the prevailing approach within the general Israeli society for which Tanakh constituted a self-evident element of the Israeli public education system. Yet this is true at the level of systemic declarations and is less so in the decisive, unmediated encounter among teacher, student, and text. It is in this encounter that the connection between the student and the ancient text is formed – or not. Then, as now, the encounter was fraught with challenges, obstacles, and difficulties.

From this perspective, today’s sense of crisis does not derive from the “decline of the generations,” major ideological crises, or the other reasons listed above, but from internal, inherent contradictions. The fact that it is possible to identify a continuous thread of such “crisis discussions” about Hebrew education starting in the 1920s, and even a generation earlier, the Haskalah generation, attests to this. This is not a case of misery loving company (from previous generations), but a sober look at the essence of the challenge.

Without recognition of the depth of the challenge, education is liable to focus – as indeed it did in the ‘70s and ‘80s – on displacing the weight of the struggle onto Scripture itself and on investing the majority of resources in academic and literary methodologies (finding parallels, pointing out different internal traditions, and the like). Without diminishing their importance, these methodological changes are liable to transform these studies from dealing with Scripture to learning about Scripture and skip over the efforts to hold the vital dialogue – including criticism– between student-reader and Tanakh.

On the Present Crises

Ultimately, whatever our assessment of the past, our cultural and social circumstances are different. Longing for yesteryear cannot produce an educational stance that yields practical, positive results. Furthermore, it would be paradoxical if placing Tanakh at the center of the secular public school curriculum, originally conceived out of revolutionary intuitions, would itself become the embodiment of conservative entrenchment, which turns the study of Scripture into the bastion of secular public education.

What then, are the unique characteristics of the present challenge of teaching Tanakh?

The crisis of teaching Scripture cannot be disconnected from the general decline in esteem for the humanities. Sometimes it is the most self-important expressions that reveal the truth about the real value of things. One such unfortunate term is “verbose subjects,” used by the Ministry of Education in reference to history, literature, and Tanakh. This terminology expresses belittlement of all that is beautiful, deep, and exhilarating about these disciplines, reducing them to word count (a nice way of saying that they are “chatter” or “rambling”), while making a qualitative distinction between words and numbers.

Alongside the emphasis on the importance of Scripture, it is important to form a united front with the humanities by considering things together. The notion that Tanakh instruction can save itself by reusing slogans like “the eternal Book of Books” without engaging in dialogue with the other humanities generally, and with Israeli culture specifically, can be likened to Mordechai’s words to Esther: “If you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will come…from another place.” It is important to consider the unique characteristics of Tanakh study, yet it is also important to place it on the continuum of Jewish literature.

Teaching Scripture presents both a unique challenge and a unique opportunity. Dealing with the language of Scripture is more similar to the language challenge in the teaching of literature than in the subject of Jewish culture and heritage. Textbooks used for teaching Jewish culture, Jewish thought, and classic Rabbinic works are organized conceptually. The primary objective of these textbooks is to generate avenues of discussion, to “attach” sources to them, and to mine various, even opposing philosophical positions from them. A large share of classroom instruction is devoted to considering these ideas and values and inviting the student to stake out a position within the discussion. Such techniques are designed to cultivate students who see themselves as part of a multigenerational interpretive community, understand the various claims, stake out their own claims, and formulate independent positions out of an informed choice. Within this educational process, delving into the language of the text plays a relatively minor role. For example, it is clear that when studying Maimonides’s “Eight Chapters,” (which was written in Judeo-Arabic) the language of the text in the Hebrew translation is a means and a vehicle to understand the ideas and does not carry much weight as a subject of study in its own right.

When it comes to teaching Scripture, we find ourselves on a different playing field, where the language itself has moral, cultural, and pedagogical importance. We do not want to replace the word “bereishit” with the modern Hebrew equivalent, “behatkhalah.” The great poet Haim Guri’s anxiety about what he dubbed “the associative disconnect” was rooted in the average Israeli’s loss of connection with the language of Scripture. “How will students understand Rachel, who wrote about the pain of Nevo, if they don’t know what Nevo is?” Guri said. He was concerned that they would not understand him either. “What future is there for Hebrew poetry and Hebrew literature without Tanakh?”

This concern can ensnare a Bible teacher in a vicious cycle: If the teacher chooses to delve into matters of philology, she will “drown” and be swallowed up by such efforts, but if she skips directly to a discussion of the idea behind the words, she will contribute, with her own hands, to deepening the associative disconnect that comes from severing the linguistic threads of Hebrew.

In other words, unlike the other humanities and like literature, the language of Scripture is not a curtain that must be lifted to access the essence, but an independent objective. How can we pass through this curtain without becoming ensnared in it, on one hand, and without ripping it, on the other?

The power of the Hebrew language

The matter of language also looms as a gap between Israeli Judaism and Diaspora Judaism, and it is important for those who hold dear the “Spiritual Center” concept articulated by Ahad Ha’am. Today, there are few Diaspora communities that provides an education which is raising a new generation of people who know Hebrew well. This makes it impossible to rejuvenate one of the most important foundations of the vitality of Jewish culture – midrash. Midrash, by nature, brings together ideas and language, continuity and innovation, and is dependent on the Hebrew language. There are wonderful works of Jewish thought in English, German, and French. But new midrash cannot exist outside the Hebrew universe.

Teaching Scripture is an important part of the stubborn refusal to give up on the depth of memory living within the Hebrew language. It is a vital layer of the broader project of Jewish-Israeli culture and the attempt to develop a creative connection between the Hebrew past and the Israeli present.

The reader as exegete

One of the well-known characteristics of the Israeli “Golden Age” of Tanakh study was that it skipped over 2,000 years of Jewish creativity. The reconnection to Tanakh as a national epic, on the one hand, and the negation of the exile and the Rabbinic halakhic tradition, on the other, produced a literary-ideological-cultural space expressed wittily as the leap “from the Tanakh to the Palmakh.” We can understand the reasons for this jump in its historical context, but it wrought heavy damage. Alongside relinquishing entire parts of Jewish culture, Tanakh was stripped of the layers of Jewish exegesis, from the “Oral Torah” in the broadest sense of the word. The way that Tanakh had been read and interpreted, generation after generation, under new historical circumstances with moral, religious, and social sensitivities that differed from those of the Biblical era , did not reach modern Israeli readers of Tanakh.

There is value in Ben-Gurion’s call to enable Israeli students to experience how “Tanakh shines with its own light” and confront the power and problems of Scripture directly. Nevertheless, peeling generations of commentary off the Tanakh left the danger of fundamentalist readings of the Tanakh text at the doorstep of Israeliness. This is because it removed the layers of various readers’ grappling with Scripture, and because it generated the misconception that it is possible to read Tanakh simply, straightforwardly, without any underlying assumptions or preconceptions. In other words, the encounter between the Hebrew-speaking Israeli and Tanakh, which holds a genuine sense of wonder and enchantment, obscured the fact that “exegete” does not only describe a set of talented individuals like Radak or Rashi, but that every reader is, quite seriously, an interpreter of the text.

A discussion of our interpretive relationship with Scripture must find expression at an early stage of teaching Scripture. The student’s awareness that she is an exegete does not disconnect her from the text; to the contrary, if done properly, it can train the student in an approach that is so vital in this era – listening attentively to the voice of another. To take Scripture at its full depth, one must invest time to understand a complex message and to conduct a dialogue, while recognizing there is a vast difference between the contemporary reader and Tanakh. In such a dialogue, there is room for closeness, excitement and also critique.

Developing the ability of Israeli students to see the world from the perspective of a Scriptural hero (or antihero), to identify the closeness and distance between them and him, to cultivate empathy as well as the ability and courage to critique Scriptural heroes and voices, despite the fact they are part of “the Eternal Book of Books” – these are some of the important contributions Tanakh study can make to the cultivation of students who will be a strong link on the chain of Israeli culture, a culture that is both deeply rooted and open to new ideas.

Where are the teachers?

Where can we find teachers who can do all the things described above? The amazing thing is that there are such teachers – many in fact. The question is how to empower them, how to cultivate more teachers capable of reaching, with their students, these levels of learning into the national educational system and create a professional language that includes pedagogy, content, and professional identity, which will percolate into a system that has thousands of teachers and hundreds of thousands of Tanakh students.

These questions gave rise to the Tanakh Initiative, a partnership of the Shalom Hartman Institute, the Ministry of Education, and a philanthropic foundation.

Regarding the directions in which this initiative seeks to make strides in order to confront the challenge of teaching Tanakh in secular public schools – stay tuned for Part Two.

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