Current research project 1:
Rabbinic Texts on Learning Interactions
Accepted for Publication by Academic Studies Press
"Real learning gets to the heart of what it means to be human,” writes MIT researcher and educator Peter Senge. In contrast, in today’s predominant educational climate, the definition of successful learning tends to be reduced to a checklist of behaviors, ability to access information, standardized achievements, and measurable outcomes. In this type of environment, texts from the distant past possess unique potential to revitalize our concern with face-to-face relationships and self-refinement within the nexus of teaching and learning dynamics.
This is the first book to utilize classical rabbinic texts to explore aspects of "attuned learning," a mindfulness that fits present-day sensibilities while hearkening back to ancient times. Attuned learning emphasizes the individual’s alertness to his or her mental, emotional, and physical workings, and awareness of others within the complexities of learning interactions. This book offers reflections on transformations that can occur during teaching, the impact of facial expression in teachers-student interactions, disruptions in learning relationships, and moral self-refinement through argumentative and paired learning. Analyses amplify the texts’ subtle refrain regarding the pivotal role of attuned learning in the growth of all teachers, learners, and co-learners. The book culminates in a discussion of the relevance of attuned learning for contemporary educators and for educational thought.
Part One brings intellectual frameworks and methodological foundations to bear on the concept of attuned learning and on contemporary readings of rabbinic texts related to education. Parts Two and Three provide a literary analysis of eight late-antiquity rabbinic texts, supplemented by subsequent interpretations. The analyses reveal various intra- and interpersonal dimensions of learning interactions for teachers, students, and co-learners, which unfold into an expanded conceptualization of attuned learning. Part Four examines potential contributions of attuned learning to contemporary educational thought, both Jewish and beyond.
This book is a complement to my most recent book, A Philosophy of Havruta (Academic Studies Press, 2013). Like its predecessor, it will appeal to both experts and non-experts in rabbinic literature – everyone who teaches Jewish learners of any age, as well as educators in non-Jewish settings. This book makes the intricacies of rabbinic texts accessible to all. The concepts and the examples it discusses will help teachers and educators reflect critically on the cultural contexts of their own practice. The book also will be eye-opening for students and scholars of rabbinics, as it is the first to discuss an unexplored aspect of learning within rabbinic literature. And, finally, it will be compelling for many in the broader public who are interested in rabbinic literature and in the contribution of ancient learning traditions to contemporary educational thinking.
The longstanding cultural grounding will be enlightening for non-specialists and familiar to scholars of rabbinics. Since late antiquity, rabbinic culture has prioritized the study of Torah as a central cultural and religious pursuit, not only for scholars but also, ideally, for every (male) Jew. Learning has been the touchstone of Jewish culture and religion throughout the centuries. This may explain modern scholars' significant interest in the study of education within rabbinic culture. Marc Hirshman (2009) surveys the major 20th-century scholarly works that have used historical and sociocultural methodologies to study the historical shifts, institutional developments, and evolving cultural norms of education in late-antique and medieval rabbinic Judaism. He combines historical, sociocultural, and literary approaches in the analysis of late-antique units of legal and non-legal discussion (sugyot) to bring forth educational ideals such as the value of havruta (paired) learning and the social mechanisms that engendered the establishment of this learning culture. Published anthologies on various aspects of Jewish education have presented collections of relevant sources from different historical periods and various rabbinic works. (Assaf, 2001) Scholars such as Admiel Kosman (2002) and Jeffrey Rubinstein (2010) analyze midrash aggadah (rabbinic legends) as a window into self-reflective and self-critical views of rabbinic learning culture, and Susan Handelman (2011) uses midrash aggadah to study the relationships of master and disciple through the case of Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus.
It therefore is surprising that no research to date has focused on uncovering the insights and values this culture has yielded in regard to the cognitive, psychological, and moral aspects of the learning experience. Such studies would explore normative elements of teachers’ and learners’ self-awareness vis-à-vis their modes of interaction during teaching and learning. Attuned Learning seeks to address this void. While existing scholarship has contributed significantly to our understanding of many aspects of Jewish education and of Jewish learning in rabbinic culture, this book is the first to zoom in on rabbinic texts about individuals’ introspection and their attitudes toward each other and toward the subject matter, within the actual learning dynamic. It is in this carefully hewn context that attuned learning can serve as a corrective of the prevailing technological and calculative modalities of contemporary educational thinking.
Inquiry into this experiential aspect of learning defines both this book’s scope and its methodology. Attuned Learning discusses a selection of short midrashic sayings, as well as one legend, that reflect elements of attuned learning. When appropriate, the analysis of these primary texts is supplemented with parallel and/or later midrashic, medieval, and early-modern rabbinic texts that reflect a concern with attuned learning.
The book adopts methodologies developed in the modern scholarship of rabbinic literature. (Fraenkel, 1981; 1991; 2011; Boyarin, 1990; Stern, 1996; Rubinstein, 2010) It uses literary analysis to examine carefully how ideas arise in and through the interpretive, literary, and metaphorical constitution of these texts, or in "the grayish no-man's-land between exegesis and literature" that characterizes midrashic literature, to borrow the words of David Stern, a scholar of rabbinic literature. (Stern, 1996, p. 3)
In this book, I adopt the theoretical framework that best suits my brand of interpretive analysis of rabbinic texts. The authors of exegetical rabbinic literature seem to be aware that earlier texts appeal to the reader and, likewise, that the reader expects these texts to teach him something. (Banon, 1987) Thus, in the texts discussed throughout Attuned Learning, ancient rabbis themselves refer to biblical texts, which are part of their own cultural environment, and through them express an awareness of and encourage the cultivation of norms and standards for interactions among learners and teachers.
The modern theories of interpretation I employ in this book are consistent with these characteristics (Stanley Fish's concept of "reading community") as well as the idea that the way a reader understands texts cannot be separated entirely from his or her Lebenswelt (Paul Ricoeur, Hans-Georg Gadamer, and Wolfgang Iser). Thus, in addition to using some of the concepts and tools of the modern scholarship of rabbinics, I consciously approach the selected rabbinic texts from the perspective of an educational researcher. I also read and analyze these texts not only as reflecting educational insights but also, by design, as cultivating heightened awareness by teachers, students, and co-learners to modes of behavior in learning interactions.
This book makes two distinct contributions, to educational thought and to the scholarship of rabbinics. While "attuned learning" is a broad term that has been used in reference to teachers' attention to students' different learning styles and capacities, this work enriches the term as a disposition, the humane dimensions of learning interactions, which apply not only to teachers but also to students and co-learners.
In addition, by incorporating the critical theories of educational philosophers and researchers as an interpretive lens – especially David Hawkins, Carole Rodgers, and Miriam Raider-Roth – it is the first work to demonstrate various aspects of attuned learning within rabbinic texts.
Current project 2
Scientific abstract- Transformative Learning of Hasidic Homilies: Developing an Ethics of Reading Sfat Emet
The current cross-denominational quest for Jewish spirituality is reflected in growing interest in the study of Hasidic homilies throughout both Israeli and American Jewish educational settings, especially for adults. Yet, this nascent phenomenon has not received the scholarly attention accorded to the study of other Jewish literary genres. There is a lack of discussion about an ethics of reading, that is, the spiritual, experiential and pedagogical aspects that might be appropriate to the study of this distinctive hermeneutic, spiritual, and literary genre. New questions arise: What might the study of Hasidic homilies provide for learners? What manner of reading, interpreting, and discussion might contribute to the contemporary learner's spiritual self-cultivation?
The proposed research explores some potential underpinnings for discussing an ethics of reading Sfat Emet as a sample case of the Hasidic homily. Hasidic masters and their followers employed this genre, which is literarily, interpretively, spiritually, and educationally distinctive, to inspire devotional/spiritual consciousness and practice. R. Yehudah Arieh Leib Alter (1847-1905), a leading figure among Polish Jewry and Hasidism, authored and dated the homilies collected in the Sfat Emet. These are characterized by their abbreviated form, their innovative and aphoristic interpretations of traditional sources, a subtle interplay of the hermeneutic work and homiletic structure, and a profound understanding of sacred and religious life.
This research aims to make a seminal contribution to the field of Jewish education with regard to textual study of the Hasidic homily. More specifically, it aims to offer a comprehensive model for an ethics of reading of Sfat Emet, to include practical tools relevant for learners and teachers. As a byproduct, it also intends to contribute to the scholarship of Hasidism by offering a comprehensive analysis of central themes in the Sfat Emet, related to interpretation, learning, and spirituality.
The research breaks new ground from three perspectives: by situating the Sfat Emet's homilies in contemporary theories of interpretation, literature and reading as a self-cultivating spiritual practice; by treating the study of textual homilies as composed of pedagogical, interpretive, and spiritual practices that can be curricularized; and by offering conceptual and practical tools for understanding and advancing the study of this particular spiritual literary genre.
This research will build on my recent work regarding the ethically formative aspects of reading and text-based study. It is informed by three sets of literature: the scholarship on subject-matter knowledge as part of Jewish learning; the existing scholarship on both the Sfat Emet and the Hasidic homily; and literary theory and philosophical hermeneutics. It will use an interpretive methodology grounded in close reading, seeking first to conceptualize the Sfat Emet's own treatment of key concepts and topics relevant to reading and transformative learning. Second, it will provide a conceptualization of the literary, exegetical, and structural characteristics of Sfat Emet and their potential impact on the reader. Third, it will adopt a phenomenological analysis to discuss practices of reading and engagement with the homilies, what these practices hold as potential for ethical and spiritual self-cultivation and to offer practical tools to learners and teachers for the study of textual homilies. The research process will include “consulting conversations” with four Sfat Emet scholars who are deeply interested in the ethically and spiritually formative aspects of text-based learning. These conversations are designed to provide extra depth and grounding to this new research framework, which lies at the intersection of educational research and the scholarship of the Hasidic homily.
 "Torah" in the broad sense includes the Bible and the vast, subsequent rabbinic tradition in its wide variety of literary genres.