Textual Study as a Means of Religious Instruction

Michael Olshin

Textual study of the Bible has been largely ignored in the Yeshiva high school and post-high school Yeshiva curriculum. By textual study I mean, searching for p’shuto shel mikra through reading the text itself while paying close attention to the use of language, syntax, style, and structure. It also includes being mindful of recurring themes, imagery and ideas.

It can be argued that there are three major reasons that textual study of Tanakh has been forsaken in the traditional setting. In short, these reasons are as follows:

1. The Academic/Scientific approach to the study of the Biblical texts has generally left the text void of any religious or theological message. Or worse, at times it has implied messages considered threatening to traditional Jewish values and beliefs.

2. The Written Torah was given together with its commentary, the Oral Torah. Therefore, there is no need for any other interpretation.

3. The texts, understood on their own, can often be critical of some of the Bible’s personalities. It would be educationally counter-productive to allow our ‘heroes’ to be understood this way.

It is the goal of this paper to present an approach to Tanakh as a means of religious instruction through textual study, which intends to breathe new life to the study of the texts by focusing on the deep moral messages that can be understood by the contemporary reader. It will also attempt to alleviate some of the concerns of the religious Bible instructor mentioned above.

Effective Bible teaching must include a careful analysis and study of language, content, and structure of the Biblical texts. However, the religious Bible teacher must focus on the acquisition and appreciation of Biblical moral concepts. The ultimate goal being that this understanding will in turn lead to an internalization of these moral concepts (see: Roberta M. Milgram, “A Study of the Inquiry-Discovery Method in Teaching Moral Concepts” in The Synagogue School 28:3 [Spring 1970]: 25).

I would like to suggest that as educators we should be less concerned with the debate over whether the Avot may have sinned or not, and more concerned with the religious and moral messages that each approach has to offer. Even if one were to take the position, discussed earlier, that the true portrayal of our Avot is not that of the written Torah but that of the Oral Torah. There is still value in studying the text itself to gain an additional insight. This is exactly similar to when the halacha contradicts the simple ‘pshat’ of the biblical text. The classic example is “ayin tahat ayin”, ‘an eye for an eye’. The Oral Law stipulates that this is not to be taken literally, rather, it obligates the damager to compensate the victim monetarily. Yet many of the classical commentaries have learned additional lessons from the simple meaning of ‘an eye for an eye’. Similarly, we may, and should learn out the hidden messages from the revealed words of the text even though we may not ‘pasken’ like the ‘pshat’.

Another aspect of this approach is the primacy it gives to the development of the student both intellectually and spiritually. Using current educational strategies, which believe that the student is his own greatest teacher, this method calls upon the students to encounter the text directly and formulate their own answers to the questions that emerge. This will allow for a greater chance for internalization of those values that the Torah is trying to inculcate, will transform the students into active learners, and enhance their sense of being connected to the learning process.

Finally, I will demonstrate this approach (of teaching values through the perspective of Pshat) with two examples of thematic and textual analysis of biblical schemes in a classroom setting.

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