Teaching Midrash in the Reform Sunday School Setting

The study of rabbinic text is essential to not only understanding Jewish tradition but also developing Jewish identity. Studies in Mishnah, Talmud, and Midrash force us to struggle with the reality of being Jewish just as our early sages did long ago. Facing complicated circumstances, our sages had to develop a mindset to ensure the continued transmission of faith, knowledge, and tradition. Studying these texts requires not only constant practice but also a strong foundation in Hebrew and ancient Jewish history. When I learned that I would be teaching this literature to seventh and eighth graders, who had limited to no exposure to this material or the language in which it is written, I was at first very skeptical. My exposure to rabbinic text came only after some familiarity with Hebrew and a thorough historical introduction to the rabbinic mindset. Additionally, this exposure came at the undergraduate level, where the academic efforts were much more demanding. As much as I enjoyed engaging and struggling with this literature during my time as an undergrad, I was pessimistic about how I would convey such complex material to seventh and eighth graders in a Reform Sunday School setting.

Since the inception of Reform Judaism in nineteenth-century Europe, Reform Jews have held that engagement with the rabbinic philosophy and halakhic discourse was viewed as “outmoded and annoyingly pilpulistic.”[1] The rigorous academic and religious lifestyle of our early stages was not attractive to Reform Judaism. According to W. Gunther Plaut, one of the motivations of early Reform Judaism was a desire to “change the content of the Jew’s outlook on life.”[2] Thus, it made sense that the early reformers wanted to distance themselves from halakhic discourse, as they were making efforts to shed the restrictions of halakha from their religious practice and lifestyle. With the absence of this discourse in their tradition, Reform Jews turned to other sources of literature outside of classical Midrash.[3] David H. Aaron indicates how important Martin Buber’s The Tales of the Hasidim (1947) was as a popular source of rabbinic lore.[4] In my experience as a Reform Jew, I have heard many effective divrei Torah and sermons begin with Hassidic stories relating to the parsha or to the issue that they are concerned with. Yet as Aaron mentions, “the religion of that Hasidic sage is no closer to the mentality of the liberal Jew than anything recorded in the Midrashim.”[5] The challenge with rabbinic literature as such is that many Reform Jews are not familiar with the rabbinic mindset in which it is composed. It can be argued that Reform Jews might find the literature created by the rabbinic mindset to be intimidating due to the abundance of halakhic and legal material that they see as outmoded and non applicable to their modern lifestyle. Especially for seventh and eighth graders who have never experienced this material, it would appear alien to them.

While many of the Midrashim deal with interpretations and investigations of biblical verses, a significant portion of this literature includes biographical information, philosophy, and wisdom literature that convey ideological and social issues faced by our early sages.[6] The study of Midrash helps bring the modern Jew into the world of the sages and reveals their imaginative process in grappling with scripture. By studying the Midrashim, we too can grapple with the scriptures and begin to enhance our own imaginations through the investigations of the sages. Through our own investigations of Midrash, we as Reform Jews might find new ways to relate to scripture and can lend our own unique voice to the discourse that Jews across the world engage in every day in Beit Midrashim.

Instead of going to Strack and Sternberger’s introduction for my lesson plan, I had to come up with something outside the box. How could I introduce them to Midrash without having to give them historical background that they could not connect to? How could I make it fun for them? The answer: make it a game. Midrash coming from the Hebrew root דרש, meaning to seek or investigate, gave me an opportunity to let them seek for the purpose of Midrash. I began the first class by teaching them about the word Midrash (its root and meaning), and then giving them a puzzle to solve. The puzzle involved me putting four instructions on the board and telling them that there were things hidden in the room that fit them. For example, one of the clues was, “find comfort in Torah,” which referred to a plush Torah pillow that was hidden in the room. This activity allowed me to convey how Midrash seeks and investigates to find deeper meaning in text. When it came to teaching the actual Midrash material in the lessons to follow, I found myself focusing more on the action of seeking interpretation and not as much on the textual tradition of Midrash. I was teaching them what it meant to participate in Midrash, that is to seek and interpret for deeper understanding.

With my students connecting more to these creative activities more than the texts themselves, I asked myself, did I really teach this text? Did I truly do it justice by focusing more on application than on study? I think my answer now is “yes.” Teaching in a modern Reform context to this age group, it would do more harm than good than try to force them into a situation where they would have to learn how to study at a much more difficult level. Rather than bringing them to the text, I had to bring the text to them. What was most important was teaching my students to understand how Midrash engages the reader into seeking a deeper understanding for practical applications to daily life. It was also important for me to facilitate emotional connections to this material to strengthen an enduring understanding of it. By having them do activities like the one I mentioned, I allowed them to be more creative in their learning and let them choose how they want to connect to the material.

Joseph Rosen is the Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati fellow at Rockdale Temple.

[1] David H. Aaron, “Syllabus Midrash 401: A Selective Introduction to Midrash Aggadah,” January 11, 2016, 7.

[2] W. Gunther Plaut, Rise of Reform Judaism: A Source Book of its European Origins (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2015) xxxi.

[3] Aaron, “Syllabus,” 7

[4] Ibid., 7

[5] Ibid., 7.

[6] David H. Aaron, “Language and Midrash,” Encyclopedia of Midrash: Biblical Interpretation in Formative Judaism, ed. Jacob Neusner and Alan Avery Peck; 2 vols (Leiden: Brill, 2005) 1:403.

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