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Integrating Midrash into the Teaching of Torah She-Ba'al Peh in Secular Schools

Chaviva Speter

This paper studies some of the problems existing in teaching oral law in secular schools: curriculum, attitude of the students to religion which is influenced by their attitude to religious people, ignorance of basic (Jewish) concepts, and teacher training. The suggested direction to solve part of these problems is the introduction of the study of "Midrash Aggada" in the curriculum. The assumption is that the world of Midrash could open a window to recognition of the world of Chazal and their values. Similarly it could enlighten the students on the significance of the oral law, by the Midrash being a commentary on the written Torah explaining the present reality and an attempt to explain the present through the past.

The Midrash presents a variety of different and even conflicting ideas and thereby exemplifies the value of tolerance -- "These and these are the words of the living God".

The hope is that by becoming acquainted with the world of Chazal and the learning of the topics whose significance is relevant even to people in our days, the student will identify with his Jewishness and his heritage.

The study of Midrash shows our Sages' understanding of the complexity of the soul of man in his troubles and doubts. Recognition of this facet is particularly important at a time when the religious person is viewed in a stereotypical fashion as someone who acts automatically without any thought or hesitation.

In this paper, the focus is on Biblical topics from the perspective of the Midrash. The topics chosen were those that raised ethical dilemmas and presented clashes between various values that the protagonists had to grapple with.

The topics that were chosen:

  1. The Sacrifice of Yitzhak
  2. Joseph in the house of Potiphar

In the Midrashim on the sacrifice of Isaac, two attitudes in the Midrashim and in the commentaries to the sacrifice are dealt with.

  1. The moral view -- Ethically, where the tension between the command and moral values exists, the resistance or protest against the command to sacrifice is expressed, the climax of the story being viewed particularly in the command: "And he said: 'Lay not thy hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him".
  2. The sacrificial view -- This is the prevailing approach, central to the Midrash and to the commentaries as well as to modern thought. It praises the acts of Abraham, his preparedness to sacrifice is son, his feelings and the decrees of his conscience, and sees in his actions the basis for bringing sacrifices and religious service in general. Similarly the topic of Sarah is dealt with in the Midrash stories of the Sacrifice. In the Biblical narration, Sarah is absent from the Sacrifice; however in the Midrash, she has a significant role.

Through the development of the motif of the Sacrifice in the Israeli and Jewish culture, and its literary and artistic expressions, students can similarly understand and appreciate the Midrash.

By means of several examples from poetry and art work from different periods, the students can respect the present-day commentaries of the Biblical story.

An examination of the changing Israeli reality shows a transition from the heroic ideal that the Sacrifice had been viewed as in the past, to the poetry of protest representing opposition to sacrifice as well as to pain and mourning.

The second topic deals with Joseph in the house of Potiphar. The central idea brought in this chapter is the attitude to evil inclinations and control over them. The Midrashim that are presented deal with Joseph and the Potiphar's wife and with the factors that enabled Joseph to overcome his desires.

This paper includes methodological appendices with suggestions and remarks to the teacher but the main part of the paper is the presentation of the theoretical background that could be a basis for the preparation of classroom lessons.

This paper also includes a discussion of the difficulties in the implementation of a study plan in Midrash.

Follow-up suggestions are raised, among them the need for a training program for teachers of Midrash, the building of a curriculum in the area of Midrash in which the student will recognize the different genres in the world of Midrash: tales of the wise men, homilies based on the verses, parables and proverbs.

It is important that each program that is presented be interdisciplinary and should incorporate the following subjects: Bible, Jewish thought, literature, art, oral law, and history.

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