Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Back in High School Again

By: Dr. Gillian Steinberg, English Faculty

I’d cried in gymnasiums plenty of times before.  As a child in tiny Fredonia, New York, I’d failed at rope climbing, waited miserably to be picked last for teams, and was inevitably felled by the weight of the giant medicine ball in endless games of Nuke ‘Em.  But crying in the gym because I was happy?  That had never happened before I came to SAR.

As a college professor for 15 years, I have been asked again and again this year how teaching at SAR high school differs from teaching college.  The answer, as with many things, is that it’s incredibly, profoundly different and that it’s really pretty similar.

The biggest difference is a very practical one: the schedule.  I’ve lost the extraordinary freedom I had before, when I taught only two or three half-days a week as part of a full-time position.  The rest of my time as a professor was filled with writing and scholarship, and the office hallways were generally deserted as professors, myself included, came to campus only for their classes and office hours and spent the rest of their time in libraries or coffee shops, writing in solitude.
I absolutely miss that quiet writing time, but I don’t very much miss the oppressive pressure to publish, which was not limited to my former university but is integral to professorships everywhere.  High school’s commitment exclusively to teaching feels like an amazing gift.  At the university, I always felt a tension in my bifurcated existence: when I focused on my teaching, I knew I should be researching and writing instead, but when I was writing, I worried that I was shortchanging my students, who were entitled only to a fraction of my time and attention.
The enormous upside of teaching the same high school classes every day, rather than two longer or one very long college session per week, is that the teaching is, frankly, better.  Having tried both schedules now, I realize that we can accomplish more in multiple short bursts than in longer but less frequent meetings.  Students (and teachers!) need not steel themselves for hours of concerted attention at a time, and everyday meetings allow for a continuity of learning that I didn’t realize I’d missed until I finally had it. 
Along the same lines, I’m thrilled that, as my university colleagues now reach the end of their semester and begin to prepare for a new batch of students in several weeks, I can continue working with the same students for six more months.  At the college, just as I began to know my students well, they were gone, on to new classes and new learning experiences.  But at the high school, my insight into the students’ unique needs and learning styles is just being concretized, and I can devote the rest of the year to meeting their needs as effectively as I can.  Simply put, we have more time and space to grow together just because of the differences in high school and college scheduling.
Without the obligation to publish, and with the commitment to being present all day, I find that I have many, many more conversations about teaching and pedagogy than I did at the university.  Because I share an office with my colleagues, we have spontaneous discussions about our classes constantly.  We share teaching materials and strategies; we share frustrations and offer each other solutions to our teaching questions.  The isolation of the university environment, which always felt to me like a privilege, has been replaced for me by a much more valuable commodity: the opportunity for spontaneous and ongoing collaboration.
The similarities are notable too: in particular, I love the college students and the high school students equally.  Both groups are deeply committed to learning, have fascinating opinions and ideas, struggle with their busy schedules and the many pressures they face, and bring me enormous joy.  Both groups remind me of how lucky I am to be in a profession that can touch lives, even in a small and local way.  Each group has surprised with its many talents and occasionally frustrated me with its various needs, and I have felt wonderfully challenged in both environments to focus on what students need and how I can best facilitate their learning.
All of these comparisons, though, speak to the difference between college and high school teaching generally.  But SAR High School is its own creature, and I have had to adapt as well to this distinctive environment.  I've had to learn a surprising number of acronyms (SLC, GLC, MPR, PTC, RPT: I keep a running list), become accustomed to a level of ambient noise I haven’t experienced since I was a camp counselor during my own high school years, expect a new special schedule on a daily basis (so much so that the “regular” schedule feels awfully special now!), and develop an almost Pavlovian response to that electronic bell.
More importantly, I’ve had to adapt to levels of joy, kindness, beauty, morality, thoughtful leadership, and meaningful introspection that were foreign to my own high school experience and have never before been part of my work life.  The phrase that often comes to mind when I think of SAR is “intentional community,” which, although generally referring to a municipality rather than a school, suggests organic and communally-based mindfulness about its philosophies and principles.  That environment doesn’t happen by accident, and I have been so impressed by SAR’s empowerment of its constituents, at every level, who are treated with respect and who therefore act with respect.  SAR High School has created a self-perpetuating environment of goodness, in its broadest and most inclusive sense.
Which brings us back to the gymnasium.  It was my first Rosh Chodesh chagigah, another special schedule, another new event.  We began with the students, arms intertwined, circling the entire gymnasium and singing heartfelt praises of and longing for Eretz Yisrael.  Those slow, moving moments gave way to raucous dancing, students racing around the gym with joy.  The event overwhelmed me, initially seeming chaotic.  But then I noticed the seniors purposely separating from their friends to grab groups of freshmen, sophomores and juniors and pull them into the circles, dancing and celebrating their Jewishness and their membership in this incredible community.  Some students grabbed me too, and I danced with them, noticing not the typical high school cliques that have ruined high school experiences for so many of us  but something else entirely: a sense of togetherness, of responsibility for one another’s joy, an arvut that spread through the room in great, crashing waves of love.
I felt Hashem’s presence with us in that room, and, with tears in my eyes, I said a small prayer of thanks: that this place exists, that this moment occurs, that I am part of it.

Sunday, October 11, 2015


By: Rabbi Tully Harcsztark, Principal

In my letter to the school community last month, I announced a new initiative of SAR High School, one that I am extremely excited about and consider to be very important: the formation of Machon Siach* at SAR High School. I take this opportunity to elaborate on the theoretical foundations of the Machon and the first steps it will take in 5776.

The concept of the Machon is rooted in three observations that come together to explain the need for such an institute.

1. There are many issues, some strictly curricular and others that extend beyond the classroom, that require careful study, thoughtful deliberation among educators and parents, and a process for developing an educational plan or program. The first, perhaps paradigmatic, example that comes to mind is sexuality and Jewish sexual ethics.

We are raising our students in an open environment in the United States, one that inundates us and our children with explicit and subliminal sexual messaging. We also raise our children in coeducational environments in schools and camps. We know that helping our children develop a healthy, ethical, halakhic ethos on sexual matters is of utmost importance for them and for us as parents and educators. Still, many of us were raised in environments where sexuality was not discussed; when it was raised, rarely was it through the lens of Jewish texts. Five years ago, we embarked on a project to develop a sexual ethics curriculum for our tenth graders. It is an interdisciplinary halakhic curriculum of about 25 sessions that has now been extended to the twelfth grade as well. I consider it a very important part of our program.

My purpose here though is not to discuss the program but rather, the process necessary to develop the program. It is daunting to consider discussing Jewish sexual ethics in a high school setting - daunting for both teachers and students; and teaching it in a Modern Orthodox setting creates its own set of challenges. To do it well - in terms of substance and sensitivity - requires a serious investment of time and energy. Our process:  a team of teachers spent the better part of a year researching, studying, deliberating, selecting, filtering, translating, and arranging the content to develop a successful curriculum and a trained staff. This process involved a special sort of “pedagogical Talmud Torah” that teachers engage in using a discourse unique to the world of educators.  It involved not only the study of Torah texts, but also figuring out how best to engage students in conversation around those texts, and what interdisciplinary material would be helpful in promoting student engagement. Sexuality was clearly one of the most difficult and most important issues for us to tackle as Jewish educators. We found a way to do the work, it was very rewarding on all fronts, but we were “stealing time” to do it. It became clear to us that there is currently no framework, no structure, no discourse and no time for educators to engage in “pedagogical Torah study” to strengthen our capacities as Jewish educators.    

There are many other issues that teachers should engage in this way. Here are some that are on our agenda at SAR right now: how to teach Israel in the 21st century, teaching Gemara to Modern Orthodox students, the impact of the college process on our children, teaching an “ethics” of technology use to our kids, and developing models of religious guidance and living.

These can be divided into two domains: one focused on the classroom and its curriculum, and the other on school culture and student life. Our school and home environments communicate intended and unintended messages about the college process and the use of technology, for example. All too often, we don’t notice what we are communicating because we are simply reproducing the behaviors and messages that are so much part of the background of our lives. But that is not acceptable. We are obligated to unpack these concepts, behaviors and messages and figure out how best to address them. Once again, all of this takes time and energy. Which brings me to the second observation.

2. High school educators - and, I would add, our high school educators in particular - are uniquely situated, given time and space, to develop thoughtful approaches to these matters. Our teachers are situated at the nexus where generations, cultures, theory and practice all meet. Teachers are uniquely positioned to bridge these worlds, and their voices must be cultivated and heard. We seek to develop a local scholarship of teaching - that is, public presentations on Jewish education that are subject to the critique of colleagues upon which others can build.

I often formulate it in terms of a “pet peeve” of mine: university professors spend much of their time doing research and some of their time teaching. High school teachers just teach - or prepare for teaching. There is no expectation, no sense that it could be meaningful and important for them to engage in serious research as well. If some interested and talented teachers would be supported to invest ten to twenty percent of their time doing some of this work, the contribution to Jewish education would be enormous. The developing of such a discourse would just continue to build on itself and grow.

I must emphasize that the nature of educators’ research differs from that of a university professor. It is certainly no less important; but it is an unrecognized and almost non-existent enterprise. In a word, it is a work of “translation”. Here is an example: our network of high schools must teach Israel in all its dimensions. That is a very large task. It is true that high school teachers are not the experts on any single aspect of Israeli life - not its history, its politics, its security, or its challenges as a Jewish and democratic state. However, we are the experts in a very particular field: how to educate high school students. In order to develop best practice in education, scholarship on Israel education must be “translated” for use in school. This is a process that requires an understanding of four components: the particular students in the school, the capacities of the staff, expertise in the content, and insight into the community’s position and self understanding. Engaging these four dimensions first requires the intensive study of content. That is followed by intense deliberation on the content in terms of the three other elements (students, teachers and milieu). The faculty must then “translate” the content into “useful knowledge” for the classroom and the community and then develop a process through which to share the content. This is the process that we engaged in to develop our sexuality curriculum. In each area there is more to do.
This is an exciting and energizing process. It creates a vibrant, constantly growing school community and will allow us to realize the SAR mission in yet a more powerful way. Yet it takes time.

I am not suggesting that we change the paradigm of what it means to be a Modern Orthodox high school teacher - not yet, anyway. I am suggesting that we should support educators in developing a Faculty Beit Midrash focused on teacher learning, research and publishing on issues of Modern Orthodox education, curriculum and culture. Central to those issues is the question of how to shape a community that integrates deep knowledge and understanding of Jewish texts and practice with the opportunities and challenges afforded by (post)modern Western culture, in the spirit of the Grand Conversation.

3. Finally, parents and graduates - This conversation should not be one that is only internal to SAR faculty and students. We deeply believe in the richness of Modern Orthodox life. In order for it to flourish, we must all engage in meaningful learning and dialogue together so that we develop shared vocabulary, a common set of challenges that we talk through together, a communal set of effective practices and strategies. Returning for a moment to the sexual ethics curriculum, while we have taught the program to our students, we have not yet opened it up to dialogue with parents on the topic. While we offer adult education classes on a range of topics, we have yet to seriously try something like this: not just teaching a class but convening serious dialogue around Jewish texts; shared study of text with the goal of developing shared vocabulary, meaning, questions and practice on issues of central importance to the education of our children.

All of these dimensions of Machon Siach will take time to develop and implement. Building an “arm” of SAR High School dedicated to this type of work can serve as an important contribution to SAR and Modern Orthodox education. This year, groups of SAR staff will be working on each of the areas mentioned in this blog. I look forward to updating you in the future with the goals and products towards which they are working.

* A Machon is an institute; Siach is the Hebrew word for conversation, in the spirit of the Grand Conversation.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Poetry Pedagogy: On Discovering Poetry in Our World and Traditions

By: Mr. Hillel Broder, English Faculty 

What makes a poem a poem? Must a poem have a rhyme scheme, follow a poetic tradition, or contain a particular poetic technique? Must it be written by an author whose intention is that it be read as poetry?

Teaching both the writing and reading of poetry is no easy task: too often, students assume that a poem must rhyme, possess a certain form or shape, contain parallelism or metaphor, or present as enigmatic or riddling in its meaning. No wonder that the study and creation of poetry are both perceived from the outside as arcane tasks or obscure pursuits.

In teaching poetry, then, I begin with the opposite assumption: poetry is not a lofty or obscure art form that is only achieved by the most eclectic or romantic. Just the opposite, in fact—poetry is the very music that underlies all language; it is the confluence of cadence, coinage, and sheer surprise that we find in pop songs and sonnets alike.

To start, I ask students to find poetry in everyday, mundane, and “low brow” language. They might find a startling, alliterative phrase in a news report headline, magazine ad, or television show title. They might locate an isolated but embedded rhetorical flourish that moves, entertains, or inspires within a sea of facts, technicalities, or clichés.

None of this is new in the history of poetry, in particular, and in the arts, in general. Building poetry from the language all around us is akin to the work of the museum curator and collage artist. And discovering poetry underlying certain linguistic expression takes a certain confidence—it is to read the world and all of its “Stop!” signs—with a certain poetic lens. The Russian Formalists described this essential literariness underlying poetry as that which defamiliarizes the familiar—that which makes the familiar, new.

In our world of verbal expression, popular songs and avant-garde poetry alike have been crafted out of new constellations of found and collaged language—on a personal note, my grandmother’s cousin, Robert Feldman, jotted down the hit single “My Boyfriend’s Back” on a bar napkin after overhearing that song’s chorus shrieked overhead. And of course, T.S. Eliot’s modernist poetry is built on a tradition of allusion, as much as John Ashberry’s Tennis Court Oath and Hart Seely’s Existential Poetry of Donald Rumsfeld draw on the language of popular media and politicians, respectively, in a tradition of satirical form.

This is not to say that poetry is solely an attempt to build upon a consolidated literary canon, or an ironic political jab. Nor is it solely a recreational form—a leisurely activity of recollecting experience in tranquility as Wordsworth might have it, or an expressive means for the obfuscating riddler and wit.

On the contrary: As engaged Jews, our students appreciate the complex historical engagement with the immediacy of our verse, as a language of the soul at its most immediate and most pressed —in the cries of David in Psalms and the laments of Ecclesiastes, we derive the very prayers that we harness when most fragmented and broken. In more modern terms, the fragmented rhythms of Paul Celan’s “Deathfugue” in Auschwitz, and in contemporary terms, the simply arranged lists of names in Billy Collins’s 9/11 commemoration “Names” speak directly to loss, to the experience of shattered selves and stories. If anything—and against the infamous pronouncement of Theodor Adorno to the contrary—there might only be poetry after Auschwitz, as poetry doesn’t demand that we impose meaning, form, or narrative.

Our challenge, as students and teachers familiar with Jewish texts, might mean making these comfortable works strange to us—so that we might hear their poetry anew. Instead of reading through the usually paragraphed Siddur or abstracting the Bible’s narrative arcs and moral principles, how might our students hear and speak the rhythms, the strikingly spun repetitions, and the shocking language in these traditional texts? How might they hear the song underlying the Bible, and the music in our Siddur? They might start, as I have suggested above, by collaging, translating, and elaborating upon the striking phrases in Psalms in the form of a found poem, thereby generating their own prayerful intentions (kavanot)—and prayers—within the bounds of the tradition. Later, they might find the unfamiliar and strange—or the familiar and moving—poetry in the language of the Siddur itself through a mindfully versified recitation.

These are some of the exercises that I envision in the Jewish humanities and arts: students rendering their own translations of the Siddur and building their own personalization of the siddur through translation work of liturgy into poetry. And in a similar vein, these are some of the questions that I encourage aspiring performance poets to consider in writing religious poetry for a Sermon Slam: How might they discover their tradition’s spoken rhythms and rhetorical forms when crafting their own verses of exaltation and lamentation?

In so doing, we might reorient our relationship with the Bible and Siddur, and thereby reorient our own selves. For our traditional texts stand as a reorienting mirror, reminding us of our sometimes unfamiliar potential within.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

A Season for Questions

By: Rabbi Kenneth Birnbaum, Performing Arts Department Chair 

It’s Monday evening, cold and dark during these winter months. Yet, as most of the school community boards their buses and carpools for the commute home, there is a group of seniors who are just beginning their SAR day. This group of seniors, all survivors of the Holocaust, are members of SAR High School’s inaugural Witness Theater program.

Witness Theater, a program conceived of by Irit and Ezra Dagan in collaboration with JDC-Eshel in Israel and currently run in the US in conjunction with the UJA and Selfhelp, pairs Holocaust survivors with high school juniors and seniors in a therapeutic and collaborative environment. Working with social workers, a drama therapist, and a drama director, the Holocaust survivors share their rich and often horrific experiences with the students and collaborate with them to create a dramatic presentation that reflects each of their unique stories and experiences.

The Torah commands us: שְׁאַל אָבִיךָ וְיַגֵּדְךָ זְקֵנֶיךָ וְיֹאמְרוּ לָךְ: “Ask your father, and he will teach you; your elders, and they will inform you.” In this season of asking questions, just following the Passover holiday, we are commanded to ask questions of those who came before us. And yet, what are we supposed to do when we know the questions have no answers and the conversations are too painful?

Each week since the start of the year, our group of students work with the survivors to revisit their painful memories. All at once, the kids are transported back to Heidelberg at a Nazi youth rally, on the death march from Auschwitz, or imprisoned in Theresienstadt. We experience each of these events through the lens of an eyewitness who relives and sculpts the scene before our very eyes. We are introduced to beloved parents, siblings, and friends, many of whom were killed long before our students were born. We discover emotions we never knew we had nor had the desire to feel. Guided by drama therapist, Jessica Asch and our drama director, Dorit Katzenelenbogen, we ask probing questions. What was your father’s posture like during the selection? What did it feel like to wear a yellow star? How did you hug your parents goodbye when you were separated for the final time? We ask challenging questions, and we do our best to hold on to uncomfortable, incomprehensible answers. The survivors are supported by the wonderful social workers of Selfhelp, Roni Miller and Mikhaila Goldman. The group of survivors, students, and staff support and nurture each other through this process, a journey of self reflection, history, pain, tears, and joy.

The survivors ask questions as well. Is it fair to burden the next generation with our stories? How can we share our nightmares, the horrors of the past, with these beautiful children? On these cold winter nights, both students and survivors bask in the warmth and mutual strength provided by the conversation between the generations. Students look to the survivors who provide meaning and perspective. Survivors look to the students who provide hope for the future and proof that Hitler did not complete his task.

After dinner and casual conversation, we jump into the process of reimagining the past. There are warm ups. A favorite - placing an empty box in the middle of the circle as we name and symbolically place our stresses or concerns into the box in an effort to unburden ourselves. In the beginning of the process, this would lead us into taking the detailed testimony of each of the survivors in the group. Later, this becomes the space where we reenact the events of the past based on a script culled from the testimony of the survivors. 

We are currently in the process of rehearsing as we prepare for our performances on Yom HaShoah, April 15th for the SAR community and April 16th for the SAR HS students. I have no doubt that the performances will be special - a unique event not to be missed. Tears will be shed, and we will experience the horrors of first hand accounts of the Holocaust, as well as the bittersweet joys of survival. However, that is only the public face of Witness Theater. The private face of Witness Theater, the weekly meetings, is what truly makes the program special: a program where warm food is the appetizer for warm and spirited dialogue. Here is where senior and student converse over the most important questions and the most superficial. We explore the past as we also bond over the present. How are your grandchildren? How was that AP Biology test? At Witness Theater, these questions are no less important. Deep, lifelong friendships are formed. 

Through it all, we’ve learned that the most important question that a younger generation might ask an older one is: How was your week?

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Essential Vulnerabilities: A Thought on Freedom for Our Seders, Our Schools and Our Lives

By: Rabbi Aaron Frank, Associate Principal

As the sun set on Shabbat Parah at Young Israel Ohev Zedek  a few weeks ago, Ms. Shuli Taubes, Machshevet Yisrael Chair here at SAR High School, was leading a discussion on faith with our shul.

She taught the following selection from Chagiga 14b:

 ארבעה נכנסו בפרדס ואלו הן בן עזאי ובן זומא אחר ורבי עקיבא...בן עזאי הציץ   ומת...בן זומא הציץ ונפגע...אחר קיצץ בנטיעות רבי עקיבא יצא בשלום 
The rabbis taught: Four entered Pardes (Paradise): Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, Acher, and Rabbi Akiva. Ben Azzai gazed at the Divine Presence and died...Ben Zoma gazed and went mad... Acher "cut off his plantings" (i.e., he became a heretic). Rabbi Akiva departed in peace.
I have read and learned the words of many scholars on this text over the years, yet the most powerful commentary I have ever heard on this source came from a man sitting in shul during Ms. Taubes’ talk. He suggested that maybe Rabbi Akiva was able to handle seeing the ultimate Truth of the Divine Presence because of his life experience.  We all know that Rabbi Akiva had not studied Torah until the age of 40.  Being open to, and transformed by, new paradigms was something that he was used to.  He had a strong muscle of openness and receptivity. Because of this, he was able to leave Paradise unscathed, in peace.

Certainly, the concept of openness is something often discussed and debated in our society, our schools and our religious settings. Are we not open minded enough?  Are we too open minded? 

In order to answer those questions, we need to understand what openness really means. Dialogue about openness typically centers around being pluralistic and non-judgmental. However, I think being truly open means something more than that. If we dig a bit deeper, we see that at its root, openness is actually a manifestation of humility, and even more than that, a willingness to even show vulnerability.  When I am receptive to new ideas, to new people and to new truths, I am saying that I am not complete.  My comfort zone is not a totally safe, secure and perfect place.  To be truly open, I need to feel strong enough to leave my structures and be receptive to new voices and ideas that may change and transform what I previously thought to be true. As Parker Palmer writes in his incredible book, The Courage to Teach:
Openness to transcendence is what distinguishes the community of truth from both absolutism and relativism…..it is a complex and eternal dance of intimacy and distance, of speaking and listening, of knowing and not knowing….We must be involved in creating communities where we are willing to be upstaged by the grace of great things.  (p.108)  
Pesach is a night of questions.  Many have said that this questioning is a manifestation of freedom, for slaves cannot question, they must only obey. I would take this a step further. Our questions at the Seder are an expression of our freedom because they show our ability to be receptive to the new paradigms and new realities that may emerge as those questions are answered. Questioning is not just for our children to learn about the truths that we and our tradition hold dear; it is an expression of our willingness to be fallible and to be overwhelmed with truths that may come our way. Indeed, it is only with the confidence and power of freedom that we are able to show our vulnerabilities. Just as our most committed and strong human relationships are enhanced when we are able to expose our vulnerabilities, so too our most committed and strong intellectual and spiritual pursuits are most enriched when we utilize our freedom to truly explore with receptivity and openness. 

On Pesach, just the mere act of opening our doors and inviting every family member and every type of child -- even the the wicked one -- to our table and hearing his or her voice is an act of openness and vulnerability. It may make us realize a truth that we, as individuals, as families or as a Jewish community, may have been responsible for shutting out differing voices in our personal, educational, religious or national conversations.

On Pesach, just the mere act of opening our story and telling of how once we were slaves is an act of openness and vulnerability. And while it leads us to great feelings of salvation, it may also make us realize a truth that we, too, as a people, may be complicit in the enslavement and deep pain of others in our community and in our world. 

While our daily commitments are the expressions of our greatest aspirations, passions and beliefs, sometimes they can also bind, shackle and shut out the new. Whether it is here at SAR with our incredible students, through our ongoing conversations in Machshevet Yisrael, Beit Midrash and History Socratic Seminars (just to name a few) or at our family Seder tables, we need to not only question, but to practice receptivity.

Of course, practicing receptivity comes with certain dangers and must be done carefully, thoughtfully and responsibly.  When entering into these types of conversations, we need the grounding of our mesorah, the voices of our teachers and role models, and the valuable life lessons we have learned at home and in school. It is essential that they act as a strong force as our guides and our lights along the way.

However, in order to truly be as free as possible, we need to enter into conversations that may not simply validate our preconceived notions, but ones that may even be a bit risky and will allow us to be vulnerable, open and receptive to being upstaged by truths that we otherwise might never have encountered. This Pesach, let us embrace our freedom not only by questioning -- but also by listening with an open ear to potentially transformative answers. 

Monday, January 26, 2015

Torah She’ba’al Peh and Jewish Values

by Mr. Yair Daar - Judaic Studies Staff 

Eventually, every student of the Talmud will (or at least should) ask themselves, and others, the simple question “why?” Why learn Gemara? What is the value in analyzing legal conversations that often contain rejected opinions and halachot that don’t apply to us today? Why can’t we just be told what to do? Many of those who have sought answers to this question have heard some or all of the following: 

Gemara helps us appreciate where our practices come from. There is no substitute for the sharpening of the mind that comes with learning Gemara. Gemara is the ultimate in Talmud Torah because it requires complete dedication of one’s time and intellect. It purifies the mind and the soul because of the effort required to learn it. Because that’s what we do.

And the list goes on.

One angle which I appreciate the more I learn and teach (and that is less-commonly referenced) is that the Torah She’ba’al Peh is a conduit for teaching Jewish values. Our sages’ halakhic thoughts and rulings were not born in a legal vacuum, devoid of religious meaning. The Torah She’ba’al Peh is, by its very essence, driven by the will to actualize Jewish values.

We don’t’ normally think about the Torah She’ba’al Peh in this manner. To many, the Torah She’ba’al Peh is a process in which Jewish sources are analyzed, compared, contrasted, and questioned to determine proper halakhic practice. The outcome is really the important goal, and how we get there almost seems unimportant in the grand scheme. Even the halakhot are commonly viewed from a practical standpoint; that they represent a way of uniting Jews through ritual, and that is all. However, if we view the process and halakhot as a way of transmitting Jewish values, study of the Torah She’ba’al Peh becomes a much more meaningful venture. 

I’d like to provide one example of how this came up in my 9th grade Torah She’ba’al Peh class.

At the end of the 2nd chapter of Masechet Bava Kama, a number of halakhic scenarios and rulings are provided by Rabbah. In one of these situations, Rabbah provides a puzzling ruling:

Rabbah further said: If someone throws an object (belonging to someone else) from the top of the roof while there were underneath mattresses and cushions (for it to land on) which were removed by another person (while the object was in the air), or even if [the one who had thrown it] removed [the mattresses and cushions] himself, there is exemption from payment…

Here, Rabbah rules that the one who damages is completely exempt from payment because neither of his or her actions can be defined as a “destructive act.” The act of throwing the object from the roof doesn’t meet the criteria because when it was released, it was projected to land safely. The act of removing the cushions is not an “act of damage” because it does not involve exerting any force (direct or indirect) on the object itself. 

At first, this ruling seems absurd; how can we exempt someone from damage if this person is completely responsible? However, if we take a values approach, we can make sense of Rabbah’s halakha. 

Perhaps Rabbah is teaching us that there is a Jewish value of avoiding looking for a people to blame when disaster strikes. A society in which blame defines responsibility can become a society where there always must be “someone else” at fault. If so, we can almost always point to one person or event and say “there is the cause!” when in fact, there may not be a true cause, or maybe the fault lies in us. Halakha may require a stricter definition for responsibility due to this value, even at the expense of giving the one responsible a way out in certain situations.

Taking such an approach to this Gemara helped many of my students (but not all) come to grips with Rabbah’s difficult ruling. This approach also facilitated a nice discussion about the importance viewing halakha as “Jewish values put into practice.” It was interesting to see certain students react when faced with the possibility that halakhic observance cannot be divorced from living with Jewish values.

Not every unit of thought or halakha mentioned in the Gemara is driven by an easily-detectable value or set of values. However, we owe it to ourselves, our students, and our children to be on the lookout for meaning in our religious learning and rituals. This is the true tradition of the the Torah She’ba’al Peh and the one to pass on to the next generation.