Jewish Learning Outcomes: A Text Study

During the recent “Striving for Shlemut” convening, I had an opportunity to learn from educators who were part of the Fellowship in Educating for Applied Jewish Wisdom. As they presented their new paradigm for Jewish education and modeled teaching using it, I was struck by the humility of the teachers and the brave willingness to shift focus from achieving particular outcomes to embracing questions and process. In this paradigm, learning is both a process and an outcome, a means and an end. These educators found the purposes of Jewish learning to be growth and striving towards wholeness, an orientation that lets go of perpetuating a particular type of Judaism. This is learning to help people thrive and, in turn, shape a community that contributes to shlemut (wholeness). This understanding of instruction (torah) is related to the way a parent (horeh/ah) raises a child– modeling ways of being and growing, providing fertile ground for exploration and development, and delighting in the surprises that inevitably develop. In light of this experience, I present three texts for educational leaders to consider. Where do you fall in your understanding of the purposes of Jewish learning? How does it affect the work that you do, the way you learn, and the way your learners grow as a result of your teaching?

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Three stories from the Babylonian Talmud about teachers’ and learners’ responses to unpredictable outcomes relate to the discussion about the goals and outcomes of Jewish learning. The first text is found in Ta’anit 23a. After sleeping for seventy years, Honi the Circle-Drawer finds himself in the back of a classroom, hearing his own name invoked. “I am he!” he calls out in desperation. But the scholars do not believe him and give him no respect. This pains him so deeply that he prays for mercy and dies. Honi gives us the example of a teacher fixated on continuity; ironically evolution hurts him, while the students seem indifferent. Honi’s story stands in contrast to that of the man he encounters at the beginning of the text, confidently planting a seed that will not bear fruit for 70 years. Although this man will never see the fruits of his labor, he is committed to participating in the process.

In the second text, from Menakhot 29b, Moses asks God to show him the man who will one day interpret meaning from the crowns on the letters in the Torah scroll. When God allows Moses to see Akiva’s classroom, Moses cannot understand what is being said. When Rabbi Akiva’s students ask for the source of his teachings, Rabbi Akiva answers, “This is law given to Moses at Sinai.” This calms Moses. The continuity here is not in content but in identification, a voluntary binding to a tradition. This soothes the teacher and the student, as they both derive meaning from seeing themselves as part of something bigger. The outcome is unpredictable, but the process is constant.

The final text is Bava Metzia 59b, in which the kashrut of an oven is being debated. In this argument between Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabbi Eliezer, God supports the ruling of Rabbi Eliezer repeatedly through miracles that defy nature (a carob tree uprooting itself and moving, a stream reversing its flow) and finally a voice from heaven that clearly expresses support for Eliezer’s argument. But Rabbi Yehoshua declares “[The Torah] is not in heaven,” meaning the teaching is now in the hands of the students to interpret. The story concludes with Rabbi Natan encountering the prophet Elijah years after the incident. He asks how God (so clearly overruled!) reacted at that time to Rabbi Yehoshua’s behavior. Elijah’s response is, “God smiled and said: ‘My children have triumphed over Me, My children have triumphed over Me.’” Here we have a Teacher who delights in the continuing revelation manifest in the ongoing adaptation and changing understandings of the teaching.

As you consider these stories, locate yourself on the spectrum of process and outcomes, questions and answers.

Questions to consider:

  • Which depiction resonates most with you?
  • When have you found yourself reacting as Honi, Moses, or God? As Rabbi Yehoshua or Rabbi Eliezer? What were the factors that contributed to your reaction?
  • In a situation like the debate in the third text, what other reaction can you think of that would be in line with your understanding of learning and learning outcomes?
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