WISDOM FROM ALL MY TEACHERS: Challenges and Initiatives in Contemporary Torah Education

WISDOM FROM ALL MY TEACHERS: Challenges and Initiatives in Contemporary Torah Education
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    WISDOM FROM ALL MY TEACHERS: Challenges and Initiatives in Contemporary Torah Education

    Edited by Jeffrey Saks and Susan Handelman

    Hardcover, 399 pages
    ATID - the Academy for Torah Initiatives and Directions, Urim Publications, 2003 
    ISBN 965-7108-56-x

    Ben-Zoma says: Who is wise? One who learns from every person, as it states: From all my teachers I grew wise. - Avot 4:1 

    In both the halakhic tradition and in pedagogical practice, learning and teaching are symbiotically connected. The teacher's own learning reaches its full potential when it is transmitted to students, and, in turn, the teaching of those students forms the basis for the teacher's own wisdom. Wisdom From All My Teachers offers insightful reflections of leading Jewish educators from Israel and the Diaspora on the pressing issues facing the field of Jewish education today. 

    The body of thinking represented in Wisdom From All My Teachers has the potential to both enlighten and ennoble the work of Jewish education, and may also serve as a springboard for the type of deliberation that will foster educational improvement in a variety of settings. These essays will stimulate all who feel strongly about the future of Torah teaching. Regardless of one's window into the world of Jewish education - be it from within the home, school, or synagogue - Wisdom From All My Teachers will aid the community of Jewish educators, parents, and policy-makers in our collective efforts on behalf of both Jewish children and the Jewish people as a whole. 

    Hayyim Angel
    Steve Bailey
    Yitzchak Blau
    Chaim Brovender
    Erica Brown
    Shalom Carmy
    Yoel Finkelman
    Asher Friedman
    Beverly Gribetz
    Norman Lamm
    Aharon Lichtenstein
    Gilla Rosen
    Gidon Rothstein
    Doniel Schreiber
    Moshe Simkovich
    Dodi F.Tobin
    Yael Unterman
    Avraham Walfish
    Yael Wieselberg
    Joel B. Wolowelsky

    The twenty essays in this volume are both descriptive and prescriptive. The authors represent a remarkable cross-section of contemporary Torah educators; both men and women, teachers with but a few years of experience, side by side with the leading figures in Torah education, both in Israel and throughout the Diaspora. 

    In Wisdom From All My Teachers, innovative Jewish educators explore the nature of Torah study and its relationship to the love and awe of God, personal moral development; the role of worldly wisdom in Torah education; the cultivation of the student's soul; the challenges of teaching students or adults who do not fit into the mold of the traditional curriculum; deliberations on the teaching of Talmud and Bible to this generation; the use of philosophy and aggadah in the yeshivah curriculum, and the place of the Israel experience in shaping the religious personality. 

    Wisdom From All My Teachers combines erudition with deep concern for the challenges facing the field of Jewish education in the contemporary world. 

    About the Editors: 
    Rabbi Jeffrey Saks
    is the founding director of ATID. He received ordination and an M.A. from Yeshiva University, NY, and was previously the director of Yeshivat HaMivtar in Efrat. He was a participant in the Jerusalem Fellows program for senior educators, and has published articles in Tradition, The Torah U-Madda Journal, and the Journal of Jewish Education. Rabbi Saks lives in Efrat with his wife, Ilana, and their children.

    Prof. Susan Handelman, a member of ATID's faculty and academic board, is Professor of English Literature at Bar-Ilan University, and taught literature and Jewish studies at the University of Maryland for many years. Her books include The Slayers of Moses: The Emergence of Rabbinic Interpretation in Modern Literary Theory and Fragments of Redemption: Jewish Thought and Literary Theory in Scholem, Benjamin and Levinas. She recently co-edited Torah of the Mothers: Contemporary Jewish Women Read Classical Jewish Texts (Urim).

    ATID - the Academy for Torah Initiatives and Directions in Jerusalem, was founded in 1998 by Rabbi Chaim Brovender and Rabbi Jeffrey Saks as a center for professional training, resource development, and policy planning for Torah education.

    Praise for Wisdom From All My Teachers:
    "Wisdom From All My Teachers: Challenges and Initiatives in Contemporary Torah Education, edited by Rabbi Jeffrey Saks and Susan Handelman (Urim), is a collection of 20 essays directed to educators, parents and policymakers. The contributors are a diverse group of innovative Jewish educators, men and women, some who are new to teaching and others who are among the leading figures in teaching Torah.
    The writers share a deep concern for these issues and for those whose lives will be impacted by their teaching. Among the essays are "Knowing vs. Learning: Which Takes Precedence," by Rabbi Norman Lamm; "Toward Ahavat Hashem: Art and the Religious Experience," by Rabbi Chaim Brovender; "As Gardeners in the Garden of God: Hasidic Thought and its Implications for Teacher-Student Relationships," by Rabbi Asher Friedman; "Historical Perspectives in Talmud Teaching." by Beverly Gribetz; and "The Post-High School Year in Israel: Parent-Child Relationships and Religious Growth," by Dodi F. Tobin.
    Both editors are involved with the Academy for Torah Initiatives and Directions in Jerusalem: Rabbi Saks is the academy's founding director and Handelman is a member of the faculty, as well as a professor of English at Bar Ilan University." 
    - Sandee Brawarsky, The Jewish Week

    "ATID, the Academy for Torah Initiatives and Directions opened its doors some years back with the expressed intention of raising the level of dialogue among young Jewish educators, giving them the opportunity to actually think about what they have chosen to devote their lives to. (Full disclosure: I acted as a mentor for a number of ATID fellows, including one whose project appears as an article in the book under review.)
    In its first few years of existence, almost 50 young educators participated in their fellows programs, producing a wide range of thoughtful commentary on contemporary Jewish education. This volume takes some of those projects and combines them with articles by leading practitioners and thinkers in the field of Jewish education, making up an insightful, multi-generational picture of the discipline today.
    The book is broken into six sections, including "Meta-Reflections on Torah Education" with articles by Rabbis Norman Lamm and Aharon Lichtenstein, "Torah Education and Personal Development" with articles by. Steve Bailey and Joel Wolowelsky, and "On the Study of Talmud" with articles by Avi Walfish and Beverly Gribetz.
    Every anthology is bound to have some articles that catch your eye and others that are less inspiring. My years as moderator of a discussion group for Jewish educators has taught me that there are issues that are not of great interest to me, yet are of great relevance to others. There is something here for everyone concerned with Jewish learning and teaching today.

    Here are a few brief words about some of articles that I found to be of interest.
    Avi Walfish's "Hermeneutics and Values: Issues in improving contemporary Talmud teaching" comes as a relief to those of us who toil in the classroom and find that the new methods that are often suggested in the hope of getting students "interested" in Talmud study suffer from the age-old malady of "throwing the baby out with the bathwater". With the use of specific examples, Walfish suggests three central goals that can connect students with Talmud: Emphasizing values and spiritual concerns, pointing out stylistic and literary qualities of Talmudic texts, and honestly grappling with the methodology of the Talmudic text itself (Hermeneutical principles). By successfully developing sensitivity to these goals, Walfish argues that the teacher can inspire the students to develop a respect for the study of Talmud as well as for the internal logic of the Talmudic discussion.

    Yitzchak Blau's "Redeeming the Aggadah in Yeshivah education" appears in the section entitled "Curricular Deliberations". It could easily have been included in the section that focuses on Talmud study. Many a Gemara Rebbe spends sleepless nights deciding whether to read-and-translate the upcoming Aggadic portion of the Gemara or to simply skip it and continue with the next sugya. I recall my own excitement upon discovering Rav Kook's Ein Aya on Massekhet Berakhot, a find that changed the pace and direction of my class for an entire year. Blau argues that the text of the Aggadah itself should act as an opportunity for discussion of contemporary moral and ethical issues within the context of a Gemara class, rather than relegating such discussion to a Jewish philosophy class where English articles by contemporary thinkers are usually the springboard for discussion. Blau presents seven sample Aggadot, and, while admitting that commentaries on the Aggadic portions are not always readily available, he calls upon the community of educators to collaborate on producing curricular materials that will redress the situation.

    Yoel Finkelman's "Virtual Volozhin: Socialization vs. learning in Israel Yeshivah programs" deals with my two professional loves - teaching Talmud and one-year Israel programs. Finkelman argues that as much as the one-year Israel programs aim to teach limudei kodesh - with a clear emphasis on Talmud study - they are interested in promoting religious growth and commitment in their students. In the interests of accomplishing this second goal, argues Finkelman, the Yeshivot sacrifice skills development, encouraging their students to enjoy the excitement of lomdus, even as they remain unable to prepare primary sources on their own. Finkelman believes that much of the methodology employed in today's Yeshivot is a throwback to the days of European Yeshivot which were dealing with a vastly different population. In conclusion, Finkelman expresses his concern that the standard Yeshivah curriculum does not prepare the students to continue to learn independently nor to deal with the reality that will face them upon their return to a non-Yeshivah environment.

    One thing that is clear when reading these articles is the inspiration for so much of the contemporary world of Jewish education. Of the twenty articles, fifteen of them refer to either Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik or his student and son-in-law Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein (this includes one article written by Rav Lichtenstein, and one article entitled "Teaching Rabbi Soloveitchik's thought in the high school classroom"). Far from making this collection one-dimensional, it attests to the broad impact that Rabbis Soloveitchik and Lichtenstein have had on their contemporaries and students, which points to the importance of ATID's ultimate goal - to produce thinking Mehankhim and leaders.
    To give a sense of the value that I place on the articles in this volume, I have already referred Lookjed readers to two of them (Chaim Brovender's "Towards Ahavat Hashem: Art and the Religious Experience" and Joel Wolowelsky's "Religious Counseling and Pesak Halakhah in a Yeshivah Setting") as a basis for on-list discussion." 
    -Shalom Berger, Lookstein Education Digest

    "Judaism promotes Torah study as a way to reach Torah knowledge and a process leading towards the development of independent learning skills, love of study, and the observance of the commandments. Among the mitzvot, "the study of Torah outweighs them all."
    Wisdom From All My Teachers brings together the ideas of twenty contemporary Jewish educators (fourteen men and six women) regarding the present and the future of Talmud Torah. Contributors express views of Modern Orthodoxy, Orthodoxy, Chasidism, and other developers of Judaic Studies curriculum innovation. The book is divided into six parts: Meta-reflections on Torah education; Torah education and personal development; On the study of Bible; On the study of Talmud; Curricular deliberations; and Yeshivah study in Israel.
    There is definitely a trend to integrate general education as a tool in promoting Jewish education. Among others included in this text: Rabbi Chaim Brovender shows that there is a place for serious study of fine arts in Orthodox schools. Dr. Steve Bailey implements Lawrence Kohlberg's universal model of moral education into Jewish Day Schools. The Jewish heritage is the main source for promoting spirituality and ethical values. Erica Brown reflects upon religious language and modern sensibilities in adult education classes, and Dr. Dodi Tobin considers implications of religious growth post-high school year in Israel.
    Saks and Handelman present a significant pedagogic tool for Jewish educators seeking new methods to fit the changing world. All essays are well written and documented with accurate footnotes. Wisdom From All My Teachers will interest all who are involved with Jewish education. It should be part of all academic Jewish collections, as well as Yeshivot, Seminaries, Day Schools and Synagogue libraries." 
    -Nira Glily Wolfe, AJL Newsletter

    "It is rare to find a book notable for its area of concern, its contributors, its sponsorship, and its publisher. But Wisdom From All My Teachers rates high on each level.
    Books on religious education tend to be full of platitudes, but this one is packed with 20 creative and insightful explorations of such important topics as the nature of Torah study and its relationship to the love and awe of G-d, personal moral development; the role of worldly wisdom in Torah education; the cultivation of the student's soul; the challenges of teaching students or adults who do not fit into the mold of the traditional curriculum; deliberations on the teaching of Talmud and Bible to this generation; the use of philosophy and aggadah in the yeshiva curriculum; and the place of the Israel experience in shaping the religious personality. Here is food for thought for all of us who want to think seriously and creatively about the important issues in contemporary Jewish education.
    Just as the topics are first-rate, so are the contributors. Roshei Yeshiva Rabbis Chaim Brovender, Norman Lamm and Aharon Lichtenstein provide important hashkafic overviews. Seasoned professionals like Erica Brown, Shalom Carmy, Beverly Gribetz, Gilla Ratzersdorfer, and Joel B. Wolowesky tackle specific educational issues with insight and erudition, as do other equally engaging but lesser-known educators Their discussions will surely provide a springboard for deliberators that can only enhance Torah education in our contemporary setting.
    The book was sponsored by ATID: The Academy for Torah Initiatives and Directors in Jerusalem. ATID was founded in 1998 by Rabbis Chaim Brovender and Jeffrey Saks as a center for professional training, resource development and policy planning for Torah education. It has quickly emerged as a center for serious discussion of important issues in contemporary Jewish education. Rabbi Brovender has long been recognized as one of the creative voices in Jewish education. The whole explosion of advanced Torah education for women can be traced to his original and courageous pioneering efforts decades ago. In this volume, he takes up a fresh question: the role of the fine arts of yeshivah education.
    The handsome volume was published by Urim Publications, a new Jewish publishing house that is quickly setting a standard for excellence in the quality and importance of the volumes they put out, and the care they take to present their significant material in attractive and well-crafted volumes. It shall be interesting to see it emerge as a new major resource for contemporary Judaica.
    Wisdom From All My Teachers combines erudition with deep concern for the challenges facing the field of Jewish education in the contemporary world. It should be read by all laymen and professionals who want to deal with these challenges in sophisticated way." 
    -Prof. Oscar Mohl, The Jewish Press

    "A moving and fascinating essay by Asher Friedman, subtitled "Hasidic Thought and Its Implications for Teacher-Student Relationships," sets the tone by identifying what is at stake in confronting the challenges of Torah education. Quoting from Rav Kalonymous Kalman Shapiro in his [translated] A Student's Obligation,
    "...teachers must know that their task is to educate and reveal children of the Lord and giants of Israel. They must see the children sitting before them as great souls still immature; their task is to get them to grow and flourish. A teacher is a gardener in the garden of G-d..."
    It is within this context of a sacred mission that is vital to the continuity and vibrancy of our people that the two editors developed this volume. Consisting of twenty essays, the book is an outgrowth of work begun by ATID -- the Academy for Torah Initiatives ad Directions in Jewish Education in Jerusalem. Both editors have been intimately involved with ATID -- Saks as a co-founder and Handelman as a member of the faculty and academic board. While the editors in their preface suggest that the book is designed not only for professionals in the world of education and pedagogy but "...to stimulate all who feel strongly about the future of Torah teaching," many of the essays are not really written for as broad an audience as the editors suggest. All the contributors are profoundly and passionately committed to elevating the quality of Torah education to a level that is commensurate wit
    h its lofty imperatives. In general, the essays are very interesting and thought provoking. Many are extremely noteworthy, and warrant specific mention of some of the highlights of their themes. 

    Chaim Brovender's essay, "Towards Ahavat Hashem: Art and the Religious Experience," boldly outlines the possible role of art as a part of the formal Torah curriculum. He views art as having the potential to enable people to connect to the spiritual dimensions of Judaism through a focus on the wonders of creation. This approach can be beneficial in particular to those for whom classic academic/intellectual approaches of text-based study are insufficient to help them develop a relationship with G-d. Yael Wieselberg's "Awe, Love and Attachment: Religious Development and the Maharal of Prague," contrasts some contemporary academic approaches to Torah study with the Maharal's notions that hokhmah (wisdom) must not only lead additionally to spirituality but also must result in awe of G-d. Friedman's essay (as noted above) gives us a glimpse into the application of Hassidic and Kabalistic concepts to the teacher-student relationship. In discussing the Lurianic principle of Tzimtzum (G-d's self-constriction) Friedman describes how, in the realm of education, Tzimtzum is the ability of the teacher to recognize and accept the more constricted cognitive, moral and spiritual levels of his students in order to work with them on their own terms." 

    I personally related to Yael Unterman's "If You Seek Him With All Your Heart: Nurturing Total Individual Growth in Yeshiva." During my years as a Beis Midrash student, I too was labeled as asking too many 'philosophical questions' that were 'off-the-topic.' Unterman's call for a new set of additional goals for the yeshiva, to include ... developing a personal relationship with G-d, finding one's own unique path in Torah and nurturing spiritual completeness... is a critical one if we are to create and sustain people for whom the religious experience is evocative of Buber's "I-Thou" and not simply the sum total of their ritual adherence. Beverly Gribetz's "Historical Perspectives in Teaching Talmud" is superb and makes the case for an approach that would give students a far better framework for understanding and appreciating the development of the Talmud itself and the Halachic process in particular. I fear that there simply are not sufficient numbers of teachers currently available with this expertise to implement this approach on any wide-scale basis.

    In a courageous essay, "Walking Before Running: Towards a More Practical Judaic Studies Curriculum," Gideon Rothstein suggests that rather than the traditional Talmud-dominated focus, we might achieve a greater good for the overall Jewish community by focusing on what he calls "Educating for Jewish Adulthood." In this curriculum, study would focus on in depth and sophisticated study of Chumash (Torah), Navi (the Prophets and select Megillot), the Siddur and the Hebrew language prior to intensive direct and [fairly exclusive] study of the Talmud. Rothstein's goal is to create curriculum that will ultimately educate the largest numbers of student for "Jewish Adulthood," in which the direct study of Talmud is far less important that the four core content areas he has identified. I was intrigued by Moshe Simkovich's essay "Teaching Rabbi Soloveitchik's Thought in the High School Classroom." I still remain somewhat unconvinced of the accessibility of many of the Rav's concepts to high school students. High school-age boys, from my experience, are generally less developmentally inclined than their female counterparts to relate to psychologically informed concepts, which are the cornerstone of the Rav's philosophy. In "Virtual Volozhin: Socialization vs. Learning in Israeli Yeshiva Programs," Yoel Finkelman tackles the issue of the now commonplace post-high school year [or two] of study in Israeli yeshivot. He proposes that a more skills-oriented curriculum should be considered and afforded the same level of respect and credibility as the classic approach of a traditional shiur (class) with its emphasis on lomdus (abstract Talmudic analysis) and hiddush ("a creative analysis of the sources that serves to answer all the questions raised [by the Rebbe] in class"). Finkelman concludes that the skills-oriented curriculum "...might help make the next generation of Orthodox laymen better able to understand the Torah at a higher level and to participate more fully in the Jews... eternal commitment to Torah study."

    What was missing? The collection does not sufficiently address the tremendous changes that have occurred in the education of women within the Orthodox world and their implications for women, men, Jewish scholarship, and the very future of our people. I would have liked a discussion of how we can best identify, cultivate, train and support excellent teachers who will be able to incorporate some of the intellectually and philosophically challenging approaches suggested by many of the authors. An essay on educational administration -- how to develop and nurture school principals who in turn can mentor, guide and support their teachers -- would have been useful. Adult education -- informal or formal -- is not really addressed, and this may be one of the most critical issues to the dynamic nature of the Jewish people beyond the formal period of "schooling" that may characterize the first 20+ years of an individual's life. The challenges inherent in being committed to offering high quality Jewish education to those with learning disabilities and/or other challenged groups certainly warrants the focus of such a volume too.. And finally, I would love to have read an essay about the possibilities for multi-track smicha (Rabbinic ordination) programs that would recognize the differing needs of those seeking congregational versus pedagogical positions.
    This is a serious book for those who are willing to invest the time and intellectual energy to grapple with a wide range of educational and pedagogical issues that are confronting the Orthodox world, with obvious broader implications to Torah education even from other denominational perspectives. I would hope that this volume is only a beginning for the editors and ATID, and that we can look forward to additional publications that will highlight -- and even celebrate -- that which is creative and innovative in Torah education." 
    -William Liss-Levinson, Jewish Book World

    "So much of religious literature is detailed focused, it's a real joy to engage with the broader thoughtfulness of this volume collected from the perspectives of contemporary Orthodox educators. The writers tackle such issues as teacher-student relationships, religious counselling, teaching values and the post-high school year in Israel, each essay rooted firmly in text but not limited by it. It's great to know Torah education is producing thinkers of not only intellectual but spiritual depth. Let's hope it is taken up by rabbis and teachers at all levels." 
    -Australian Jewish News

    "Looking to the Future of Jewish Education: 
    Wisdom From All My Teachers is an excellent resource for veteran teachers, pedagogues just cutting their teeth, administrators, and just about anyone who has a vested interest in Jewish education. It provides an arena for twenty educators, some just starting in the field and others established experts, to creatively address a variety of pressing issues. Their explorations are well thought out, engaging, and, by and large, compelling. The wide variety of topics skillfully chosen and arranged by the editors, Jeffrey Saks and Susan Handelman, will ensure that any education professional or lay person will find appealing and informative articles that are relevant to his or her concerns.
    Wisdom from All My Teachers is an effective presentation of, in the words of its subtitle, some "Challenges and Initiatives in Contemporary Torah Education." The issues are important and eminently worthy of discussion, and the book opens up fresh and different ways to think about them. Saks and Handelman note correctly in their introduction that "the much-needed reforms in Jewish education will come through involving all those entrusted with this work" (11). I recommend the book to educators in the strongest of terms.
    I hope that by publishing this book, ATID (Academy Torah for Initiatives and Directions) will become in America, as it is in Israel, a force in the struggle to professionalize the craft of Jewish education." 
    -Atara Graubard Segal, Torah u-Madda Journal (see volume 12 for the full, extensive review)