How do we effectively teach students to read new types of texts that might seem daunting for them at first glance? I have a set of simple suggestions, based on my experiences teaching rabbinic sources in introductory religion courses, that might help those looking for new strategies for incorporating texts and genres unfamiliar and seemingly inaccessible to students into their courses. While the example below focuses on teaching the Mishnah, it could easily be adapted to other sources, especially texts or artifacts that might confound students who encounter them on their own for the first time (e.g. Babylonian omen texts, Greek magical papyri, Justinian’s Digest, documents from the Judean desert, etc.).
In a typical semester, none of my students have ever read a rabbinic text nor anything similar to it before enrolling in my “Classic Jewish Texts” course - most of my students have no previous familiarity with Judaism or Jewish texts at all. After spending a few weeks reading biblical and second temple sources, we turn to rabbinic literature. I love observing their first exposure to a corpus that is – generically, organizationally, and content-wise – so different from anything they’ve read before. It is an exciting process to witness, and it reminds me each time that learning something new can be thrilling for my students. I am committed to incorporating such difficult sources into my courses not only because they productively stretch and challenge my students, but precisely because I want my students to feel unsettled and intrigued when they discover writings that do not align with their expectations of what writing is. I am also aware, however, that reading a section of the Mishnah as homework without prior instruction can be confusing for them, and that in the absence of proper guidance, they will become frustrated and give up.
For example, the first tractate of the Mishnah begins as follows:
From what time in the evening may the Shema be recited? From the time when the priests enter [the Temple] to eat of their Heave offering until the end of the first watch. So Rabbi Eliezer. But the Sages say: Until midnight. Rabban Gamaliel says: Until the rise of dawn. His sons once returned [after midnight] from a feat and said to him, “We have not recited the Shema.” He said to them, “If the dawn has not risen, you are [still] allowed to recite it. Moreover, wheresoever the Sages prescribe ‘Until midnight’ the duty of fulfillment lasts until the rise of dawn.” The duty of burning the fat pieces and the members [of the animal offerings] lasts until the rise of dawn; and for all [offerings] that must be consumed ‘the same day,’ the duty lasts until the rise of dawn. Why then have the Sages said ‘Until midnight?’ To keep a man far from transgression (m. Berakhot 1:1ff; trans. Danby).
What can my students reasonably learn from reading such a text without any background or preparation? It turns out: quite a lot.
My goals for the class period devoted to the Mishnah are for my students to:
become familiar with the idea of the Mishnah (that it is a rabbinic text, a redacted and anthologized text, and the product of rabbinic study and law),
get a sense of the rhythm of the text and its multi-vocality,
learn about the range of content in the Mishnah and what it can tell us about rabbinic Judaism in antiquity,
practice close reading skills that allow them to make informed observations about a text, its genre and purpose, and its authors and audience, without prior background or knowledge about the text, and
meaningfully engage with the text on their own terms and bring to our discussion their own experiences of encountering the text.
In short, I want them to approach the text personally and affectively and to use their encounter with the text as the starting point for their interpretation of it. I also want them to learn that this is how scholars read and analyze texts, and that they already possess many of the skills and insights that allow scholars to make claims and propose conclusions about ancient sources.
In this course, I assign two sections of the Mishnah for students to read in advance of our meeting – the first chapter of Mishnah Berakhot and the entirety of Mishnah Avot. I chose these two excerpts because the opening of Berakhot relates to themes from previous classes (prayer, temple, God, etc.), foregrounds a central daily Jewish ritual still practiced today (the Shema), incorporates a scriptural prooftext (Levticus 7:16) and showcases nicely the level of detail in the Mishnah’s halakhic discussions. Tractate Avot begins with the chain of transmission (linking the rabbinic text with Moses, about whom the students learned earlier in the semester, and positions itself as “Torah”) and contains rabbinic ethical teachings to which the students can relate (some of which they find compelling, others offensive). The two excerpts demonstrate that the Mishnah is a complex composition with different types of material, about a variety of topics, and from distinct periods of times in the Mishnah’s redaction. These excerpts make it difficult for students to essentialize the text as “ritualistic” or “legal” or “philosophical” or “exegetical” and so on, because it is all of those things at once. I want them to appreciate the texts in their full complexity.
When I prepare my students for reading the Mishnah before class, I assign them a simple task. I tell them that I want them to read the Mishnah excerpts twice, and that they will no doubt be confused by them (and that they should not worry about sections they do not understand – we will read the text carefully in class and unpack the details then). Their task, as they read at home, is to create a list of five adjectives that describe the text or that describe their experience of reading the text. They are required to email their list of five adjectives to me in advance of our class meeting. This assignment allows my students to engage with the Mishnah – its style, content, rhythm, form – while setting aside their confusion in order to complete the task at hand (generating a list of adjectives). I have found that my students come to class eager to share what they thought of the text and what they learned about it.
When we gather in class, I ask each of my 35 students to share one adjective with her classmates. As each student shares an adjective, I ask the student to explain why she chose that adjective (what feature of the text led the student to use that adjective?), and what she might learn about the text based on this observation. For example, if a student shares the adjective “repetitive,” it might lead us to think about the orality of the text’s transmission or the pedagogical purpose of the text or its origins in a study house. I don’t simply use the student’s adjective as a springboard for a mini-lecture on rabbinic orality or pedagogy. Instead, I ask my students to think through the possible functions that this particular feature of the text that they have identified might have played in the text’s composition, use, or transmission.
If a student shares the adjective “detailed,” we discuss why it was important to the rabbis/redactor(s) to parse each specific element of the ritual or verse and what was at stake in doing so. If a student shares the adjective “oppressive,” we discuss what it was about the text that seems so strict, and compare it with another student’s adjective, “inspiring,” and how the same level of intricate debate left one student bewildered about the control exerted over practitioners and left the other student in awe of the seriousness with which the rabbis approached the fulfillment of God’s commandments. If a student shares the adjective “confusing,” we talk about the text’s audience. If so much information is assumed, we might hypothesize that the text appealed to an internal audience, one that was probably quite educated, rabbinic, and elite. Perhaps it was an insider document, addressed to experts, rather than an introductory manual for beginners or a recruitment document for the uninitiated. If a student shares the adjective “loud,” we consider the tone of the text and its dialogue format and why the individual voices might have been preserved; or we might discuss the culture of study in modern yeshivot, and the aural dimensions of the text’s later reception.
It is important for me that each student’s set of adjectives is taken seriously by me and the other students. In my class, there are no “correct” and “incorrect” personal reactions to a text. Indeed, many of the examples in the previous paragraph initially surprised me – I had never thought of the Mishnah as “loud” or “oppressive” or “inspiring” before my students used those adjectives, and these were fruitful dimensions of the texts to explore together in class and see where they took us in our interpretations of the Mishnah. Naming these adjectives also allows students to pose new questions of the sources that scholars have not asked and to dwell on aspects of the texts that scholars might not usually notice. Sometimes, their observations push back against received scholarly interpretations, and it is at these moments that I learn the most from my students.
Once all the students have each shared an adjective, I show them a word cloud that I have created out of all of their adjectives, and we reflect on which words came up most frequently and what additional insights we might gain about the text by considering the group of adjectives together.
By the end of the discussion – 35 adjectives later – we have figured out, together, many important aspects of the text’s audience, authors, its many functions, its literary features, and much of what I might have told my students in a lecture on the Mishnah, in addition to new insights that I had not previously considered. What my students gain (which they would not have gained through a lecture) is understanding that when we read texts closely and carefully, we can tease out of them countless clues about their authorship, audience, purpose, and transmission even if we don’t (yet) fully understand them. They also gain the confidence to approach new texts – ones that seem completely baffling on a first read – and to try to make sense of them on their own terms and from their own experiences.
Once my students have already done much of the intellectual heavy lifting of reading the text carefully and critically on their own, before class and in our initial discussion, I share with my students historical and methodological insights from scholarship in the field of rabbinics that adds another dimension to our study of the Mishnah. It is therefore only at this point that I supplement our initial adjective exercise with a brief lecture about rabbinic literature. That is, I finally step in as an “expert,” not to revise their own insights but to provide them with content and context they would not be able to glean simply from reading the texts so that they can build upon and expand their initial readings. Through this presentation, my students learn about the political and geographical context of late antique Roman Palestine, the linguistic and cultural environment in which these texts were composed, and other historical information that is important for understanding the Mishnah in its cultural context. I distribute a list of the orders and tractates from across the rabbinic corpus so that my students become familiar with the range of issues with which the Mishnah is concerned: rituals, festivals, purity, sacrifice, temple, agriculture, and civil law.
With this broader perspective, we then return to the opening lines of Mishnah Berakhot and Avot. We re-read the passages together, word for word and line by line, so that I can model for my students the close and attentive reading that rabbinic texts require. As we discuss each word and phrase, I make sure that they understand the text’s logic and argumentation. We then read the text again, to discuss the content in a broader thematic context: the development of Jewish rituals after the temple’s destruction, the marking of evenings and mornings with the Shema prayer declaring one’s commitment to God and the commandments, the relationship between legal discussions and narratives in the Mishnah, the use of scriptural proof texts in the Mishnah, the connection between prayer and sacrifice, the transmission of traditions, the personas of the rabbis as they are portrayed in the passages, and the role of maxims and ethical statements. They are also able to bring to the discussion other themes and questions that are of interest to them and that arise from these deeper readings.
One of the overarching lessons I hope my students learn is that there are different types of readings – first readings, close readings, contextual readings, thematic readings, and so on – and that re-reading itself is a form of analysis, because it allows us to notice new aspects of a text and to raise new questions we might not previously have considered. Indeed, at the end of each class, rereading sections of the Mishnah with my students has also taught me something new, and I reflect on my own experience of learning from and with my students. My hope is that my students can then apply these reading skills, and an appreciation for re-reading, to all texts, even those that aren’t as difficult to understand on a first read as the Mishnah.
Dr. Sarit Kattan Gribetz is an Assistant Professor in Fordham University's Theology Department.