Translating Theory into Practice to Revolutionize the Teaching of Talmud

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Yaakov Bieler

As a Jewish educator and communal Rabbi who has taught Talmud in varied settings over the years, I welcomed Rabbi David Stein’s article. I have long believed that radical changes were in order, at least for those students and adults to whom traditional Talmud study not only does not appeal, but even acts as a figurative “black hole,” draining enthusiasm and commitment for Torah learning from so many of the privileged few that are beneficiaries of the type of Jewish education that includes significant exposure to Talmud. I would only add, that even among those who enjoy Talmud study, the many lapses in moral judgment on the part of ostensibly “learned” individuals that have recently been discussed in the Jewish media, serve as another indication that Jewish education in general and Talmud study in particular, deserves considerable “rethinking,” analogous to the process that general education has undergone since the late 1950s, documented by Rabbi Stein.

The idea of a “spiraled curriculum,” which seems to me to be a refinement of nomenclature that is suggestive of “vertical articulation,” i.e., building one year’s studies on the previous one in order to create a unified and sophisticated whole, rather than constantly revisiting the same material without assuring that it is age-appropriate, is certainly in order.

But as the old adage maintains, “the devil is in the details,” and the very broad description of presenting “general principles, values and questions” followed by applications to specific contemporary issues that are facing the observant Jewish community, is tantalizing, but, at least in my view, lacks the type of detail that would allow for appropriate analysis, conversation and emulation.

How exactly are these principles to be acquired and these issues studied? To what extent are students expected to utilize primary as opposed to secondary sources? Are any and all solutions to the problems dealt with in the upper grades acceptable, or is there an attempt to demonstrate why certain approaches have been adopted while others are rejected? Finally, what sort of data can be provided to demonstrate that this approach is “more effective”—however that is defined—than more traditional approaches?

The action research protocol that was advanced several years ago by the Principals’ Seminar organized by the Lookstein Center of Jewish Education of Bar Ilan’s School of Education, would seem to be a likely methodology for the school’s faculty to investigate whether this approach is actually making a difference in students’ attitudes to Talmud.

The process of action research entails first defining a problem that the school wishes to endeavor to solve, designing an intervention that is intended to address the problem, figuring out a methodology by which to evaluate the impact of the intervention, and then to tweak the intervention in order to produce even more desirable results. The ideal is to enlist as many staff members as possible in the research process, resulting not only in an enlightened approach to improving some part of the educational experience, but also causing everyone involved to become more reflective about what they are doing. In this immediate context, the problem is a general malaise that has been detected regarding Talmud study, and the intervention is the “spiraled curriculum.” What remains to be done is to determine how data could be gathered to reflect whether significant improvement has been achieved utilizing this fresh approach, and how it might be further improved.

I think that the individuals who will be most interested in this project are those who themselves write Talmud curricula and teach the subject, and in order to engage them in the conversation which will hopefully lead to a reevaluation of the Talmud programs in their own respective schools, wherever on the spectrum of observance they may find themselves, as Rabbi Stein notes, this project should be fleshed out to a greater degree.

Yaakov Bieler
Rabbi Yaakov (Jack) Bieler has been engaged in Jewish education and the synagogue Rabbinate for over forty years. Rabbi Bieler was raised in Bayside, Queens, and attended local public schools. Following graduation from Yeshiva College and the James Striar School for Jewish Studies in 1969, he attended Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh in Israel in 1969-71. Rabbi Bieler then returned to Yeshiva University where he was ordained by the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary and received an MA in Jewish Education from the Ferkauf Graduate School of Education in 1974. Following graduation from Yeshiva, Rabbi Bieler served on the faculty and was Chairman of the Talmud Department of the Joseph H. Lookstein Upper School of Ramaz from 1974-1988. During his tenure at Ramaz, he was awarded a Gruss Outstanding Educator award in 1984. Concurrently, Rabbi Bieler served on the faculty of the Adult Education Institute of the Lincoln Square Synagogue between 1971-1977, and as permanent scholar-in-residence of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun from 1977-1988. In 1985, he received a Jerusalem Fellows fellowship and spent the year with his family in Jerusalem. In 1988, Rabbi Bieler assumed the position of Lead Teacher and Chairman of the Judaic Studies Department at the Hebrew Academy of Greater Washington, now as Berman in Rockville, MD. He served as the Upper School Assistant Principal in charge of Judaic Studies in 1991-2005. In 1993 he was appointed as Rabbi of the Kemp Mill Synagogue in Silver Spring, Maryland where he has served until his retirement in 2015. He has been an active member of the Rabbinical Council of America, serving on various committees over the years. In 2013, Rabbi Bieler was awarded the Rabbi Jacob Rubenstein Memorial Award for Outstanding Rabbinic Leadership by the RCA. Rabbi Bieler has published numerous articles on Jewish education and issues facing Judaism today, especially from the perspective of Modern Orthodoxy.