Eilu Ve-Eilu Divrei Elokim Hayim:
A Model for the Thinking Classroom

Michael Olshin

In the introduction to the latest volume of Igrot Moshe (Vol. VIII) a fascinating incident is related that occurred to Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l as a young child just entering into the cheder to learn Talmud. Until that point, the young Moshe Feinstein’s entire exposure to Torah had been through the study of Tanach with his father. On his first day, the melamed, while pointing to the word איתמר, asked the class if anyone could read this word in the Gemara. The young Moshe said that he could and read it as Itamar (one of the sons of Aaron). All the other students, who were older and had previous exposure to Gemara, began to laugh knowing that in the Gemara it should be read Itmar. The melamed admonished the other children for laughing since Moshe was looking at it from the perspective of one whom only knows Torah Shebechtav and in the Torah that is the correct pronunciation.

Later in life, Rav Feinstein would say that he learned two life-long lessons from this incident. Firstly, that one must examine any question from many different aspects. In addition, one must search for possibilities of understanding that were not previously known. Such became his practice in his study and dissemination of Torah and Halakha. Secondly, as a result of the painful experience stemming from his classmates’ laughter, Rav Feinstein was extra careful never to ridicule or embarrass a person in any fashion even if the person would say things that were foolish.

These two important ideals, namely, on openness to a number of different understandings and a sensitivity towards those who may, even mistakenly, have a different understanding is often lacking in many classrooms today. Many students have a difficulty grasping the idea that there may be more than one approach to any given issue. This may be a result of the fact that a large number of Jews, notably many traditionalist Orthodox, that deny that personal autonomy has any value at all. They believe that little good, and perhaps much harm, can come from working things out on one’s own (Sokol, 1992).

The adage ‘Eilu va-Eilu Divrei Elokim Hayim’, ‘both viewpoints are the words of the Living God,’ as understood by the classical commentators mentioned in this paper, applies, at the very least, to the first of the two stages of the Halakhic discourse. The first stage is the discussion or argument that precedes the final decision of law, at which time, all viewpoints are considered legitimate. Again, even taking the most conservative approach to this concept, all would agree that a climate where multiple opinions are voiced encourages greater learning and deeper levels of understanding. However, at the second stage of the halakhic discourse, that being the stage of pesak or post-pesak, there is a major dispute over the applicability of the concept of multiple truths.

Using current educational strategies that believe that the student is his own greatest teacher, this paper argues for the implementation of two distinct stages in any classroom learning experience that parallel the stages mentioned above.

The first stage is for divergent thinking. In this stage, students after having read a biblical or talmudic text are asked to share their difficulties and/or analyses of the text with the class. At this stage all comments are legitimate and are very much encouraged. No one is subject to ridicule or harsh criticism like in our previous story as each student must listen and record what his peers in a non-judgmental fashion. In addition, the classical commentaries are withheld at this stage, in order to encourage that students to have direct ‘contact’ with the text and that they produce their own ‘constructions’. The students in the class are also exposed to many different approaches and perspectives to a given question or text. In short, this stage maximizes students’ creative thinking

The second stage is for convergent thinking. A teacher does not promote understanding by permitting students’ constructions to stand even though they clash with experts’ constructions (Zahorik, 1997). At this stage the ‘experts’, namely, the classical commentaries are brought into the classroom to assist the class in the constructive criticism that is necessary in order to arrive at the final ‘product’. This does not mean the students’ constructions are altogether discarded. By comparing and contrasting their constructions with the ‘experts’ constructions, the students gain insight into both and begin to reconceptualize their constructions in direction of those of the experts (Zahorik, 1997). Additionally, after arriving at some conclusions, the class may reexamine their own ideas to find the ‘divrei Elokim’ in them (as in the story about R’ Moshe his answer was correct and true but it was the wrong question). It is at this, the second stage, where the students can hone their critical thinking skills while at the same time maintain and even gain respect for the ‘experts’ in Torah.

The author stresses the view of Postman and Weingartner that ‘the medium is the message’. Everything in the classroom must reflect this balance between developing intellectual self-confidence and reverence of religious authority. The process is, as important, if not, more important than the content or product. But ideally, we should aspire to a synthesis of the two. This is the goal of the close of the paper where a model lesson in the topic of Eilu va-eilu is presented.

Download Article (MSWord 107K) Back to Journals 00 Bio

Copyright © 2000-2010 ATID. All rights reserved.