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Tanakh Teaching: An Introduction

This introduction to the comprehensive curriculum, Teaching Tanakh, provides a framework for understanding the diverse approach
Noam Zion is a Senior Fellow Emeritus of the Kogod Research Center at the Shalom Hartman Institute since 1978. He studied philosophy and holds degrees from Columbia University and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He studied bible and rabbinics at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and the Hartman Beit Midrash. In the past, he led the Tichon program for North American Jewish educators and he teaches in Hartman Institute rabbinic programs: the Be’eri program


When teachers approach teaching a particular Biblical text, they must clarify several practical questions. In the curricular planning rubric of Joseph Schwab , one must give an account to the subject matter or discipline, in this case Tanakh or Torah; to the students as individuals and as a class whose ethical, intellectual, emotional, social, and Jewish identity growth are important; to the teacher in us who has a passion for Tanakh and education based on her/his beliefs, as well as a desire to expand the range of skills and experience; and finally to the community and the school who sent the teacher to transmit cultural-religious values and to help integrate the student into existing institutions of the Jewish community.

This handbook cannot help the teacher clarify the fit with the community and school but it will seek to answer the other three questions or at least to open the conversation.

Subject matter and scholarly discipline define the critical thinking that the teacher wishes to develop in the study of Torah in its contexts. A particular field of study is the what/matter and particular disciplinary method is the how/form. When confronting a Torah text, the teacher and student must know what the rules of the game are in interpretation.

It is not legitimate just to free associate, but is it appropriate to bring a contemporary painting of Adam and Eve to compare to the text? Is this a legitimate form of commentary whether it is good example of commentary or a bad one? Are midrashim part of the discipline of Tanakh or are they subjective sermons reflecting a different mentality – not a recognized part of Tanakh as a discipline?

Are Rashi and Ramban part of the Tanakh subject-matter as an ongoing cultural practice of interpretation, or would we read their commentaries only in so far as they illumine the original historical and grammatical meaning of the text?

Is the Tanakh chiefly a historical text from the Ancient Near East revealing the period it addresses or is it a literary text with the status of a classic that is best unpacked using literary tools? Maybe Tanakh is canonized in our tradition and taught in our schools because it teaches values of Divine origin or at least perennial significance, so value questions may and must be asked – what does the Torah teach us?

Is the Tanakh part of a creative tradition of both ongoing interpretation and further midrashic creation, so that we want to study it and to add to it in the mode of the creative artist?

Part I of the Handbook will offer four grand approaches to the discipline of Tanakh into which we are inducting our students as co-investigators. We might say that the text must be situated within a context in order to be interpreted.

But which context is primary? The teacher can reflect on his/her understanding of that canon and what should be the primary emphasis:

Text and the context of the untutored student

In the first encounter with the text students still bring much baggage to their reading. What are those associations? When the student brainstorms questions that arise from this initial meeting with the text – what are they? What pre-judgments would you like the student to leave at the door to a disciplinary study of the Tanakh?

Because students often need a translation, how do we neutralize the heavy- handed guidance of the translator in order to open up the student to more nuanced and open reading? Because teachers often pose the questions, how do we choose what the focus should be if at all?

Text and historical context

We must know the grammar of Biblical Hebrew, the meaning of the words in that era, the parsing of verse, the best historic version of the text. Ancient Near Eastern background may be very helpful, as well as extensive realia and information gathered from other parts so the Tanakh from the same period.

Modern connotations must be rigorously filtered out to open us to the message of a different era or if you will, what God is saying, not what we humans are projecting onto the text, the original truth. Diachronic questions of how the text has grown over time are important and how it was transmitted and sometimes corrupted or reedited to fit different interests than those of the original text. The Torah text is a window into the ancient era from which it came.

Text and literary context

The Torah can also be seen as a literary work even if the author is the Divine author. The Torah is a classic that speaks beyond its historical generation though it may be rooted in the typical literary forms of its era. A synchronic approach disregards the historical question of when these words were written and whether the text has been emended and reedited.

The text is not a window to the historical period but an object of study for its own sake. What we explore is not the background of the text but its foreground, the literary world it creates with the power of words – disregarding whatever really happened. (We are speaking here chiefly of a literary approach – like reader response or New Criticism).

Here we use tools of character development, plot structure, beginnings and endings, word choice or diction, to allow the student to develop critical skills for asking and answering questions about what the Tanakh is saying or expressing. The genre of the text and the limits of the unit are essential questions.

Text and context of its community of learners/commentators

Here the discipline is not history or literature but the social practice of conducting critical, thoughtful conversation with others interpreting the same text over thousands of years. Torah is not a closed book of a bygone era but a cultural practice of ongoing interpretation that makes whatever our fellow Tanakh students have said valuable as well as what students today in our class say.

Generally, we are speaking here of pursuit of the p’shat – the original message and meaning – whether as defined in the medieval era or the modern period, but we focus on the conversants, as much as on what the object they were interpreting.

Text and context of midrashic writers/rewriters searching for relevant meaning

Here, too, Tanakh is not just a book, but a book-in-context-of-being-read, a community of interpreters. However, the midrashic interpreter is also a writer/artist creating new "texts" (midrashic stories, movie scripts, sculptures, etc.) that are related to the original text (intertextuality).

These creative responses to the Torah are implicitly interpretations that struggle with textual difficulties as do the p’shat commentators. They too invite critical study, for there are better and worse artistic interpretations. However they are judged not only by their solution of textual lacunae and their esthetic beauty but also by the relevant truths that emerge from this dialogue between the creators and the original Tanakh.

Just as students may and should join the community of p’shat interpreters by adding their own voice of parshanut, so too they can join the creators of midrash – after closely interrogating the Tanakh text.

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