We are witnessing an intensification of interest in the study of Talmudic literature in North America, not only in the larger Jewish community but also within the academy. Yet, study of what it means to learn to read Talmud – how teachers teach and how students learn to read – lags far behind this growing interest. Recognizing this gap, we gathered together a group of devoted academics who teach Talmud in universities and seminaries and, under the sponsorship of the Jack, Joseph, and Morton Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education at Brandeis University, embarked on a collaborative effort to study what it means to teach our students to read Talmud. Our book, Learning to Read Talmud: What It Looks Like and How It Happens, presents a series of eight focused classroom studies written by professors of talmudic literature who were asked to respond to two questions:
1. What does it mean to read Talmud in your particular classroom?
2. What does this reading look like when it happens?
Grounded in the scholarship of both rabbinic literature and practitioner inquiry, Learning to Read Talmud is a rare undertaking that uniquely bridges the worlds of academic Talmud and the study of pedagogy. It contributes to the growing field of the scholarship of teaching and learning. While most academics spend an enormous amount of time teaching, our institutions do not always recognize that teaching should be—and often is—an academic endeavor that involves critical study and analysis. Much as we write about the Talmud itself, we pay far less attention to the significance and contribution of writing about our teaching. With our book, Learning to Read Talmud, we aim to expand the research agendas of Talmudists to include scholarship on the teaching of rabbinic literature. As academic Talmudists—“insiders”—with a broad and nuanced understanding of both what the Talmud is and the vast range of approaches useful for reading it, we believe that professors of Talmud are uniquely reflective researchers of their teaching and the learning processes of their students. We are well-positioned to contribute both to the field of rabbinics and to the field of pedagogy. As articulated by K. Patricia Cross and Mimi Harris Steadman, “Teachers who know their discipline and the problems of teaching it to others are in the best position to make systematic observations and to conduct ongoing investigations into the nature of learning and the impact of teaching upon it.” Learning to Read Talmud is thus rooted in the many research traditions that define us as Talmudists. The eight case studies included in this book describe the types of teaching and learning that emerge from the very nature of the Talmudic text itself. They not only present examples of an array of teaching techniques but also offer insight into how one teaches for different reading results as dependent on the different contexts in which professors find themselves.
In this vein, these case studies reflect a range of North American contexts, from rabbinical seminaries to secular universities. Together, they reveal that learning to read Talmud is a complex and multivalent endeavor. It involves the mastery of base-line skills: learning the technical terminology and the dialogical style of argument for which the Talmud is well-known. But, learning to read the Talmud—whether in its original language or in translation—also involves competencies in several cognitive processes: breaking a sugya into much smaller units in order to rebuild sense; simultaneously considering multiple answers as possible; viewing problems as integral to the text; integrating the ahistorical with the historical; becoming conscious of and rethinking prior religious, cultural and historical assumptions in the face of new evidence; learning to think with a different mode of reasoning; building bridges between the ancient and the contemporary; and confronting unethical, even unfriendly texts.
For example, Elizabeth Alexander, a professor at the University of Virginia, points out that by learning how to read Talmud, students become stronger readers of literature more generally. Forced to dispense with skimming books for main ideas, they learn to read more carefully, recognizing that focused reading generates deeper understandings. Sarra Lev, a professor at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, prompts us to consider that teaching our students to read empathically trains their hearts and their minds, enabling Talmud to become a “summons” in the project of creating a more ethical world.
Strikingly, we found that while the authors were equally dedicated to teaching their students to read for meaning, whether in the seminary or secular university, each emphasized different pedagogical methodologies for achieving this goal. Yet despite their differences, our authors agreed that students learn more about the Talmud by making the pedagogical process of learning how to read the Talmud central, even when reading in translation. Indeed, our work argued against a strong dichotomy between religious and secular frameworks and suggested a softer one of overlapping but not identical processes and goals.
Actively turning our classrooms into sites for our research made us better teachers and our students, better learners. Much as we asked our students to be conscious of the cognitive processes they utilized in order to read Talmud, the practice of researching our classrooms demanded that we become similarly engaged in defining the steps and processes of our teaching. We are trained to read and research rabbinic literature. This project asked us to bring our disciplinary and research knowledge into our classrooms. Through this process, we became simultaneously scholars of the Talmud and of our students, learning how they read and how we teach.
Table of Contents
Learning to Read Talmud: What It Looks Like and How It Happens
Jane L. Kanarek and Marjorie Lehman
Stop Making Sense: Using Text Guides to Help Students Learn to Read Talmud
Beth A. Berkowitz
Looking for Problems: A Pedagogic Quest for Difficulties
Ethan M. Tucker
What Others Have to Say: Secondary Readings in Learning to Read Talmud
Jane L. Kanarek
And No One Gave the Torah to the Priests: Reading the Mishnah’s References to the Priests and the Temple
Talmud for Non-Rabbis: Teaching Graduate Students in the Academy
Gregg E. Gardner
When Cultural Assumptions about Texts and Reading Fail: Teaching Talmud as Liberal Arts
Elizabeth Shanks Alexander
Talmud in the Mouth: Oral Recitation and Repetition through the Ages and in Today’s Classroom
Jonathan S. Milgram
Talmud that Works Your Heart: New Approaches to Reading
What We Have Learned about Learning to Read Talmud
Jon A. Levisohn
**Academic Studies Press is offering a 30% discount with the offer code: READTALMUD30
 K. Patricia Cross and Mimi Harris Steadman, Classroom Research: Implementing the Scholarship of Teaching (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1996), xviii.
Dr. Jane Kanarek is Associate Professor of Rabbinics at Hebrew College.
Dr. Marjorie Lehman is Associate Professor of Talmud and Rabbinics at the Jewish Theological Seminary.