Teaching Biblical Scholarship in a Modern Orthodox High School
“But what do you believe?” That was the question usually hurled at me by my high school students after teaching them about the documentary hypothesis in an introductory biblical scholarship course called “The World of Tanakh.”
From 2010 to 2015 I taught the half-year senior elective course at a co-ed Modern Orthodox high school. The self-selected group of students had at most limited exposure to the world of academic Bible study from their families or friends. In fact, the idea for the course came about from lunchtime conversations with students who wanted to explore other areas of Bible study not discussed in a traditional Tanakh class. The school did not have specific guidelines about how I should teach the course other than a directive from the principal to “be responsible.”
My Personal Journey
While teaching these students, I was on my own personal journey, trying to formulate a theological framework that respected both tradition and academic scholarship. As someone who was raised in the Orthodox educational system and discovered academic scholarship later on in life, I was searching for a convincing philosophical basis of obligation and commandedness. The task was an exhausting and overwhelming journey of introspection and self-discovery.
My career path as a teacher in a Modern Orthodox school was linked with a certain ideology and bound by sociological boundaries, so there was the added layer of apprehension and anxiety. Nevertheless, my connection to Torah grew as I delved into biblical scholarship and Jewish philosophy. The text became richer and contradictions finally made sense, while the fields of archaeology, philology and history added color to the black and white words on the page. My conception of God was freed from the constraints of having to believe in a perfect Torah.
Avoiding Theological Questions
For the most part, my syllabus went out of the way to avoid creating any existential religious crises. We focused on the canonization of the Bible, early translations, the Masorah, ancient Near East historical context, and biblical philology. I introduced the history of biblical scholarship and briefly mentioned the documentary hypothesis.
I was comfortable teaching most of these topics but did not feel confident approaching the issue of Torah MiSinai. After all, that is perceived as the core of Orthodox belief. Perhaps more significantly, I was at a loss as to how to reconcile the scholarship with traditional belief and thus did not have any Orthodox resolutions to offer my students.
Thus, I became adept at dodging any theological questions, resorting to bland pronouncements and subtle dismissals. Most of the time, I was able to segue into another topic, such as the riveting story of the Dead Sea Scrolls, with the hope that they would forget to follow up the next day.
Nevertheless, avoiding the theological issues left me feeling irresponsible and dishonest; irresponsible because I was exposing my students to a field of study that was antithetical to their belief system, and dishonest because I undoubtedly gave them the misimpression that I was not struggling with traditional Orthodox beliefs about Torah MiSinai. The inability to share my own religious journey made my talks feel stilted—at least, that is how they felt to me. When students later came to my home, I regretted not being able to share my library with them or to speak openly about what I was studying.
Survey of the Course’s Impact
Considering that the course was exposing students to new academic approaches without dealing with the theological implications, I was curious if my class had any effect on their religious outlook. So after teaching the course for two years, with the support of the school and the principal, I decided to track my students’ religious growth during the course of the semester as well as through college by surveying current and former students.
I asked them about their personal belief, their practice, what they took away from the class, if they recommended the material be taught to a wider audience in high school, and what impact it had on their religious lives. I also compared how my students described their religious beliefs at the beginning and end of the course. Additionally, I interviewed some of my students’ parents to help me understand where the parent body stood theologically. In total, I surveyed over forty students, and had extended conversations with fifteen of them.
My students were aware of the controversial nature of some of the material being taught and wrestled with the theological challenges that ensued. They were happy to contribute to my informal survey, and they were thoughtful in their responses. (For some of the highlights from this survey, see Appendix.)
Takeaways from the Survey
My students enjoyed the course, but it had minimal impact on their religious lives. While many students found it both jarring and intriguing to learn about the documentary hypothesis for example, the introduction to this approach was not substantial enough to nudge them to investigate it more thoroughly. I was relieved that I did not cause my students to leave an observant lifestyle, and a little surprised that my course did not have any ramifications on their religious growth during their important years of religious identity forming.
When speaking to alumni in college, one common reaction I repeatedly heard was that they had found the class interesting, thought-provoking and challenging, but that ultimately their religious affiliation was determined by their community and family. Many were proudly Orthoprax and didn’t seem to care too much about the Orthodox part, for better or worse.
I was more surprised to hear from a large percentage of college students that when confronted with the problems of biblical scholarship in college, they were able to shrug it off “because we had already dealt with that in your class.” This response surprised me since I felt that we hardly dealt with this issue, as I had avoided engaging in any real theological conversations and shied away from any neatly packaged “answers.”
It seems that for many of them, just having a teacher speak openly about these issues neutralized the problems for them; they figured I must have a working theology that answered their concerns, even if I did not share it with them. Reviewing the results of my survey confirmed that while I was successful at showing the relevance of academic scholarship to Torah learning, the students did not come out with a theological framework allowing them to tie together academic and traditional study of Torah. This is no surprise, of course, since I could not offer them what I had not yet developed myself.
Emergence of Religious Identity in Adolescents
I imagine that, like myself, many adults come to this kind of open inquiry later on in life. My friends who have also embarked down this road are committed to continuing an Orthoprax lifestyle, whether for the sake of their marriage, strong communal connections, warm feelings towards tradition and history, or some combination thereof. But this is not the case for high school students.
Adolescents are in the developmental stage of forming their own religious identities, separating from the parents, challenging the status quo, and pushing the boundaries of self-autonomy and authority. This is natural and what they should be doing. Is it then sensible, at this point in their development, to introduce a new discipline of study that might further alienate them from a Torah-centered life? Do I not have a responsibility to educate them in religious thought that is consistent with their parents’ decision to send them to an Orthodox institution?
On the other hand, I felt obligated as an educator to teach truth and to expose my students to a variety of thought from within and outside our tradition. How am I preparing them for a life of deep Jewish meaning if I am depriving them of the broadest points of entry into Judaism? And how could I responsibly send my students to college without ever discussing the academic treatment of Torah?
Moving Forward: Practical Suggestions
During my last year of teaching we decided to spend the year in Israel, and taking time off from teaching allowed me to reflect further upon these matters. After spending a year speaking to scholars and thoughtful individuals, reading books on the Bible and philosophy, I offer the following suggestions that could be helpful for those who want to deal honestly with the challenges of biblical criticism in the context of an Orthodox day school education.
I. View It as an Opportunity
Academic biblical scholarship issues do not need to be addressed in an explicit head-on manner. And it need not be a “crisis” to be addressed. Rather, this should be regarded as an opportunity for greater intellectual growth within our community and enrich the way Tanakh and Jewish philosophy is taught in our schools.
II. Subtle Shift in Pedagogic Language
Teaching a nuanced approach to Torah MiSinai from a young age will prepare the student for the more complex teachings of modern scholarship later on. Even subtle changes in the language we use can change the visual imagery children currently are instilled with (i.e. Moshe holding a Sefer Torah at Har Sinai) and instead stress the idea of viewing the Torah as emanating from God (Torah Min Hashamayim). We can focus more on metaphorical understandings of the text, and less on the Bible as history. By doing so, we move our children away from a fundamentalist understanding of religion and prepare them for a deeper, more sophisticated approach to Judaism.
III. Introduce Lower Criticism
We can include the study of lower criticism (variations in the text) at a young age to dispel the notion that the biblical text is perfect. This opens the door for respectful critique, a more careful and nuanced reading of the text. It is important for our students to understand the history of the biblical text, and to view such study as non-threatening and as helping us understand the Torah better.
IV. Instill Love and Respect of Torah
While emphasizing new approaches, it is crucial to stress the values of tradition and obligation, and instill awe and love of God. Students should be shown the deep emotional and spiritual aspects of learning Torah. We should not shy away from the profound religious experiences that Orthodox life offers.
V. Start Young
Many argue that biblical scholarship should be reserved for twelfth grade only. They argue that the more sophisticated thinkers will be able to handle the inherent schism created, and that the “non-thinkers” do not need to be challenged. I believe this is poor education, unrealistic, and does a disservice to our students and causes them to lose respect for their former Judaic Studies teachers.
Many students come to scholarship only after high school. Do we want to miss the chance to engage them in a religious school setting? More importantly, avoiding these modern perspectives perpetuates the myth that there must be a clash between Torah observance and modern scholarship, when such a schism could be avoided by introducing more open intellectual approaches at a younger age. Students should be exposed to the wide array of traditional and modern Jewish thought and see the plurality of ideas that make up our religious worldview. Young students should be encouraged to understand the text in a variety of non-literal ways; this is suitable for them since children use metaphor all the time.
VI. Be Honest
We must be honest with our students about the limits of belief: there are no answers or proofs when it comes to religious life, and it is okay to live with doubt. Living a life of uncertainty can provide a dose of humility and the space for exploration and growth.
The Bind of Dogma
I recently hosted a few female students studying at a Modern Orthodox gap year program in Israel. One student said that she is not observant, but she values tradition and is looking for a way to return to Orthodox practice. The only problem is that she stopped believing that the Torah was given at Mount Sinai by God to Moshe. The only way she can imagine re-entering the Orthodox community is to believe that this dogma is true. She finds herself in a bind—trying hard to believe what she cannot believe. When I asked the other students what they thought was given at Sinai, they were dumbfounded. No one had ever asked them that question before. They sheepishly admitted that their high school education did not prepare them to think about such questions, or more broadly to ponder religion in a sophisticated manner.
Many parents confided in me that they agree with my approach to the Bible and Judaism but believe that it is better for their children to live in ignorance rather than confronting the dangers of modern scholarship, especially since raising religiously committed kids today is hard enough. As a Modern Orthodox approach, I find this to be shortsighted and counterproductive. Introducing biblical scholarship and a rational Jewish theology at a younger age might offer a truly positive non-reductionist rationale for Torah observance.
I do not want to continue teaching my own children that events in the Torah are historically factual, or teaching the literal understanding of Torah MiSinai with the intention of reeducating them later—this is poor parenting and poor pedagogy. I believe in open dialogue with my children. I believe that we owe it to our children to offer them a coherent theology that is intellectually compelling. I do not want to continue living a bifurcated life and hiding my true beliefs from my children. I do not want to live in fear of my children or students discovering what lies outside of our cloistered batei midrashot(study halls) or homes, but instead I want to welcome every academic insight as a means of furthering their understanding of Torah.
Even if only some of these ideas are implemented by a few teachers, over time we could slowly change the landscape of Jewish education. By changing Jewish education, we can change Orthodox discourse and allow biblical scholarship and a cogent theology to take a place within traditional Orthodoxy.
Time to Begin a Conversation
The time is ripe to have an open conversation about the tension that so many of us experience between reason and belief. What a shame that we want our schools to approach secular studies with an open mind but not make full use of our critical faculties when studying Torah.
Furthermore, in today’s age of universal access to information and of boundary crossing, we cannot shield our children from a wide variety of perspectives and expect them to simply follow all our beliefs and practices. If we want them to cherish tradition and value halakhah, then we must offer them compelling options that respect their intellect and don’t shy away from the pursuit of truth.
As teachers, educators and parents, we must consider how we teach our children Torah and impart a love of Judaism and tradition without closing ourselves off from rational inquiry. It is a difficult task, but the conversation must begin.
Highlights from the Survey
The following are some highlights:
To Teach or Not To Teach? — One student believed that this course was important for those like himself but questioned whether it was important for the rest of the grade.
There is a risk to expose yourself. At the same time, I am grateful that I learned this. It was a big step for me to be more informed, to be more educated about my religion… Some students are sensitive to these issues. Modern Orthodoxy is straddling between tradition and modernity. High school needs to be a place for those who don’t care about these issues [modern scholarship] and those who seek out truth.
In other words, he was happy he had the opportunity to attend my class but didn’t feel it was something that needed to be taught to everyone. However, others thought that this course should become a required class for the entire high school. As one student wrote:
Kids after twelve years are disenchanted with Torah…they don’t have classes like these. They aren’t inspired. They don’t know why they should be learning or religious. Those are the people who need this class. There are some kids who might freak out, but at least they’re thinking about it. The kids who are already asking — need this. The kids who aren’t asking — they would grow. So you need it for everyone.
The Divinity and Transmission of the Torah — Many students pondered the nature of a divine Torah and came up with some sort of working theory that allowed for the majority of the text to be humanly inspired but insisted that the core commandments (like the Decalogue which serve as the basis of many Rabbinic laws) had to have come from God in some shape or form.
Some stretched their imagination to reinterpret what Torah MiSinai could mean. One student suggested,
Moshe is the name for all the people who wrote the Torah. [A Torah with] many authors can still be divine.
Others rejected Torah MiSinai outright.
I think [the concept of] Torah MiSinai is made up, it wasn’t originally in the system…. I do it [observe halacha] for tradition. There’s something about keeping something that my great grandparents did. For me, I like my heritage.
Crisis of Faith — Only one student had a religious crisis. During the class she became depressed, disenchanted with religion, resentful that her Jewish education didn’t prepare her for this, and mourned the loss of her childhood conceptions of Torah. However, during her post-high school year of study in Israel, she found comfort in the Breuer methodology of multiple voices of God in the text (aspects theory), which helped her retain her faith in a divine Torah while also reading the text with a critical eye.
While she appreciated her newfound approach to religion, she was also looking forward to starting university and was insistent on avoiding any classes relating to Judaism or Bible in a secular setting, as she did not want her faith challenged again. She wrote to me:
Firstly, I want to thank you for opening my eyes to this world and introducing me to many important questions. I have recently come to realize that because of these questions, a lot of the way that I relate to Judaism has shifted, and I am now very skeptical of rabbinic doctrine… Thank God, I have amazing, intelligent, open-minded teachers here [in Israel], who are willing to sit down with me and open my mind to the many possible answers to my questions. However, if this wasn’t the case, I’m pretty sure that I would still have a crisis of faith and that is not how someone should walk out of a yeshiva high school…
I am starting to appreciate the long journey of searching that you have put me on, but this would not be the case for everyone… I would be very cautious opening other students [to these questions] because they might not have the time, energy or support system to search for the answers, like I do.
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June 11, 2018
July 29, 2020
Sara Susswein Tesler has taught Tanakh and Jewish Identity at the high school and post high school level for over fourteen years. She completed her M.A. in Bible at Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies at Yeshiva University, and studied at the Drisha Institute’s Scholar’s Program.
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