Teaching Non-Traditional Texts in a Traditional Setting

Toby Rotenstein Einhorn

For centuries, the texts that have been studied at yeshivas have been traditional ones; texts that have been sanctified by the Mesorah. These include the Gemara, Rashi, Ramban, and R. Hirsch, among others. My paper examines the propriety of the use of other texts. Texts that have not been traditionally taught at yeshivot. These include texts such as the myths of the Ancient Near East, the Apocrypha, Karaitic interpretations to the Torah, and the work of the Biblical Critics.

The jumping board for this topic is a class that I taught at Midreshet Moriah in May of 98. The class was on the history of Biblical Exegesis, beginning with pre-biblical times, and culminating in the exegetes of our generation. My aim was to show the continuum of Biblical Exegesis, its different periods, and the concerns of each period, which lead to different exegetical methods and conclusions.

When evaluating the class at its culmination, I realized that many of the exegetical text that I had discussed had not been very traditional. We read part of the epic of Gilgamesh, sections of pseudopigraphical works, non-official Targumim, and parts of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The very fact that I began the class with pre-Biblical works is not the usual way this class has been taught in yeshivot. I could have started with Chazal, moved to Rashi, and ended with the Netziv. And yet I did not do that.

Upon a second evaluation, I determined that I had to examine the matter more closely. I had to ask myself serious questions. Is this material harmful to naive souls? What are the starting assumptions of my students? If this material is appropriate, at what age should it be taught? Could I classify and categorize the material in different categories, and are these categories different from each other? And finally, what are my pedagogic aims, and does the teaching of “non-traditional texts” subscribe to my aims?

In order to accomplish this goal, I had to first research the background sources to this topic. I examined the ban on studying Greek wisdom, because I felt that the texts that I was concerned with are similar to this topic. I discovered that the ban is no longer relevant to my class, because apparently it concerned adults and not children, men and not women, and in general it is not relevant today, because the fear of “informers to the government” no longer exists.

Using my research, as well as my own introspection, I concluded that “non-traditional texts” could be taught in a traditional setting, but that one should use them with more caution. Perhaps with more detailed introductions, perhaps utilizing less of them and more traditional texts; whatever the situation calls for, but the key phrase is “Proceed with Caution”!

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