Students study topics in psychology and integrate new concepts with an analysis of the characters and plot from a Biblical text to write a modern, psychological Midrash. Students use social media to contact experts in the field, then work in teams to deploy new understanding to construct and refine “interventions” for the Biblical character.
Perceptive students often react strongly to the choices and behaviors of Biblical characters, especially when they conduct themselves in ways that are anathema to students’ ethical sensibilities. Rather than steering around problematic characters, or apologizing for or explaining away their behavior, we can help students to develop their compassion and their critical skills by isolating and analyzing biblical characters’ struggles: we can use contemporary psychology as a lens to learn to empathize with their struggles, appreciate their pain and suffering, consider the origins of the Biblical character’s psychopathology, and consider how real-life psychology seeks to help real people with struggles to cope with and mend from the past.
The “You Are Dr. Sacks” project is the culmination of a four week unit in the 10th-12th grade Tanach course called Power and Perception (largely focusing on Shoftim and Shmuel 1), and this project focuses on Shimshon, but the approach could be applied to any Biblical unit and can be scaled down for younger students or could be applied piecemeal to shorter units in any Tanach class. The project ties together skills from close reading, research and interviewing, design thinking and collaboration, creative writing and psychology.
Part 1: Exploring The Case Study — Shimshon: “Case Study”
1) Students learn reflective listening skills to develop their ability to empathize with a chevruta (and prepare for interviews with professionals in the field).
2) Students read the introduction to Shimshon – Shoftim 13. The barren mother/angel imagery sets up the auspicious birth of a wonder-baby, reminiscent of the Avot, to redeem the Israelites from oppression.
3) Before going any further, students are oriented to the project via a flipped-classroom video. The video frames the project by jumping to the end of the story: why does an auspicious baby like Shimshon end his life with suicide, having accomplished little of his life’s mission. And using wisdom gleaned from modern psychology, how could that have been prevented?
- I have applied this project’s structure to other texts, for example, beginning with Bnei Yisrael at the border of Canaan, apparently ready to enter and claim their homeland, then jumping in the text to Bnei Yisrael’s punishment: 40 years in the desert — asking: what went wrong in between, and how could that have been prevented?
4) Students read the story of Shimshon [Judges 13-16].
- Here, I have linked to my abridged text with built-in comprehension and discussion questions (and with hyperlinks to images for terminology and vocabulary) in order to allow coverage of the material in the time allotted, and more importantly, to ensure that as students explore they text, they will encounter interpretations that can scaffold towards the project.
- Teachers will likely create their own texts or can read from the sefer (even asking students to write their own questions), but in any case, should provide guided questions to point towards and explore some of the psychological topics that the project will address.
5) Each day, students read a range of articles, selected to illustrate the struggles and psychopathologies that might be building in Shimshon, always asking: how might we understand Shimshon’s conduct, reactions, behaviors and personality through the lens of the article.
- Note: students must be reassured that there are numerous ways of interpreting the text because this project considers a range of interpretations but intentionally excludes other interpretations [such as: Shimshon is perfect and never does anything wrong, per se]. This is an opportunity to teach that all rational interpretations grounded in the text are valuable and can be kept “on the table” for class discussion, even if they wouldn’t be used in a project or assessment.
6) At the “halfway mark” and when finished with the Biblical text and articles, students break into teams to review: a) what are the psychological struggles / psychopathologies, b) what are the behaviors of people struggling with them, and c) what evidence can you find in the text for Shimshon struggling with those issues. For examples of student work and a model study-guide, click here.
Part 2: Prototype 1.0/2.0 R&D
7) TIME TO MAKE A DECISION: Students select the psychopathology / struggle they’d like to study more deeply – selecting a first and second choice.
- The first and second choice is an important tool to set sudents up for success: if the research or case-study development for the their first choice doesn’t go well, the student can weigh between pivoting to their plan B or trying further on Plan A.
- This is a valuable skill for teaching general project management.
8-10) These 3 steps can be done in any order:
- TEXT CASE STUDY AND ANALOGS: Student develops a hypothetical “analogous” real-world situation, to allow him/her to contact experts in the field and discuss a personality with a psychological struggle – without explaining the Biblical story.
- The process of translating a Biblical story to a contemporary milieux is also an important higher-level thinking strategy to aid in the student’s understanding the deeper meaning of the text.
- DESIGN PROTOTYPE 1: Student develops a 5-step prototype to help Shimshon’s “real-world analog” to deal with his/her psychological struggle.
- In some cases, the original articles poses some suggestions for people dealing with the struggle.
- PREPARING TO CONTACT EXPERTS: Student does preliminary research, using the internet and twitter to locate experts in the field. Sample tweet is provided on slide.
- This flipped-classroom video walks students through the process of searching for an expert.
11) TWEETING AT EXPERTS / RESPONSES: Students tweet at authors/bloggers and make initial contact.
12) MOVING FROM CONTACT TO CONVERSATION: Using a provided template, students follow-up with email. Students may invite the expert to join a phone call or may stay on email as they ask for “warm and cool” feedback on their proposed 5-step Plan.
13) SUMMARIZE FEEDBACK: Students assemble and reflect on the “warm and cool” feedback the experts provide on their 5-step program prototypes. Students meet in design teams to brainstorm ways to incorporate feedback into prototype 2.0
14) SUMMARIZE FURTHER READING: In some cases, experts will redirect students to review an additional article on the subject, to help the student understand their feedback. Here, students share their findings.
Part 3: Creative Application
- Students familiarize themselves with the story, “The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat” by Oliver Sacks (1983).
- Students take comprehension quiz on story, to ensure basic understanding.
- Using the provided outline, write your creative, psychologicalMidrash in the style of “The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat.”
- Share with chevruta – proofread, edit, revise and complete second draft.
Part 4: Samples of Student Excellence:
Part 5: Teacher’s Reflection — Goals, Impact, Success, and Growth Areas
The “Shimshon Mistook His Wife For a Hat” integrated project was born out of an essential, career-spanning goal: opening Biblical characters up to students as complex, psychological beings. I have discovered over 15 years of teaching Tanach that one of the greatest obstacles to students feeling connected to Biblical texts is that Biblical characters can present as flat and hard to relate to. Many teenagers already tend to see things in black and white; indeed, one of the goals of high school is to help develop a sense of nuance that which seems one-sided, and to appreciate hidden complexities. Teaching the story of Shimshon, year by year, I discovered that students took the story more seriously when they were required to move beyond the epic battles and lion-slaying, to explore Shimshon’s motivations, emotions, and inner-world. Slowly, a laughable comic-book character became a lonely individual, suffering from depression — or a coward with a distorted sense of his own disempowerment — or a tragic hero who longs only to connect to the heart of another human being. Shimshon entered the third dimension.
My second reason for developing this psychological project has to do with sending an important message to students about the relevance of Tanach study, as a whole. Just as the characters may seem hard to relate to, many students initially relate to the Tanach as a book about the relevant past, rather than an ever-relevant mirror to the present. One way to challenge this notion is to introduce contemporary ideas and bring them to bear on the Biblical text. Students discover that not only is Shimshon easier to relate to, but more importantly, the Bible has something to show and to share about what it means to be a human being. They can see themselves in Shimshon, and they can see the Modern World in Timnah, circa -1300 BCE. In short, the study of Bible takes its place in their academic day as a powerful, meaningful, and challenging lens to make sense of the world around them.
Though students’ enthusiasm over the psychological approach to Shimshon had been steady for years, the development of the “Shimshon Mistook His Wife For a Hat” integrated project had an even stronger impact on students’ interest: not only in Tanach, but also in the field of psychology. I owe this to the project positioning the students as psychological sleuths, assembling clues, consulting expert colleagues, and entering into the characters’ world in a deeper and more emotional way than a paper can allow. Recreating the story of Shimshon as a real human being in a research-driven modern midrash brings Shimshon’s inner world to light, and students’ efforts to heal his prior traumas, intervene in future violence, and redeem his character aids in developing students’ compassion for the struggle of others.
I decided to prototype a design thinking approach to the Shimshon unit. For one, it seemed to me that this would be the most effective way to allow students to go beyond “absorbing” the psychological lense to understand Shimshon – it required them to construct a Shimshon of their own, and through building this psychology, to invest themselves in his story and his struggle. Secondly, the design thinking approach (prototyping, gathering feedback, multiple-iterations) pushes students out of a conventional academic mindset and positions them as problem solvers: “Shimshon’s impending failure and suicide are the problem. How can the problem be prevented?”
One student, Daniel R. (for students’ work, click here), remarked: “Up until this course and really, the “Shimshon Oliver Sacks project,” I didn’t have a lot of interest in the Bible because it doesn’t seem that realistic or believable. But then the project made me see Shimshon as a person with real feelings, and I was like – Oh, he’s got depression – and then I started researching depression and talking to people who wrote about depression, and now I’m thinking about studying depression – especially in teenage boys – as part of my Keystone [senior project]…I want to keep learning about this stuff and maybe even help people dealing with it.”
A second student, Ben. M, said: “The [project] was no typical biblical character study; we explored sides of Shimshon that I had never considered in anyone else, let alone a biblical character like Shimshon. We explored modern, intriguing possibilities for Shimshon… and [recreating Shimshon’s character in a Modern Midrash made me see] Shimshon as a [model] for how to interact with the world: thoughtfully, compassionately, and from multiple perspectives.”
The main “pain point” for this project centered around students’ abilities to follow through with experts to arrange interviews. As seniors at JCHS, they are required to find, contact, and run prototypes of their projects by experts. This project is a worthy scaffolded step – but still a challenging one: students are uncomfortable reaching out a second time to people they don’t know and are anxious that experts in the field won’t be interested in their projects. To aid students who encounter roadblocks next year, I have assembled something of a portfolio of helpful experts (many who were enthusiastic about last year’s students) as fallbacks for students in need of a prototype review.
While the text, the readings, and the pedagogical tools attached are customized for Shimshon, I have used this approach for other Biblical texts, and I believe it can be applied to any narrative where humans’ inner struggles contribute to suffering, for themselves and others. Indeed, a unit on numerous Biblical texts could benefit from this approach: from Yaakov and Esav to Yirmiyahu, many Biblical characters could be “the Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat” – benefitting from the wisdom, creativity and kindness of our students.
Evan Wolkenstein is a Jewish Studies educator in San Francisco. Originally from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Evan received his Bachelor’s degree in creative writing from the University of Wisconsin at Madison. He then studied at the Pardes Institute for Jewish Studies in Jerusalem for 4 years, and holds a Master’s in Jewish Education from Hebrew University.
Evan teaches Jewish Studies at the Jewish Community High School of the Bay, drawing from his background in Teen Crisis Counseling, Experiential Education, and Design Thinking and is also a Kevah Educator, teaching Hebrew Bible to adults through the lenses of literature, psychology, and sociology.
Evan has been published in Tablet Magazine, and the Washington Post, creates animated cartoons for teaching pedagogy, and is currently at work on a young adult novel.