Students choose a biblical commentator to study and analyze throughout the year. Each student creates an online portfolio of their chosen exegete, by selecting commentaries, translations and offering their own analysis. Students intimately learn the methodology of one exegete and in turn become a commentator in their own right.
I want my students to love learning Torah and I believe that in order to create this love and passion – students need to master specific skills in analyzing the biblical text and its rich tradition of biblical exegetes. Very often students either feel that the commentaries are an extension of the biblical text and that the commentaries must be accepted or alternatively that the commentaries are making up solutions and that their ideas are not textually grounded. As a Chumash teacher I want my students to appreciate the biblical text on its own and yet recognize the need and the value of interpretations. I model for my students how to study commentaries in class by pointing out the textual difficulty or ambiguity the commentator is dealing with, how to dissect the answer and evaluate the methodology at play. Whenever more than one approach is given in class we spend time differentiating and comparing the approaches – from the techniques to the content.
In order for students to gain mastery in appreciating the biblical text and the various types of biblical commentary – they need more exposure and they need to do study the biblical text alongside a commentary. It is not enough for the teacher to teach them Rashi’s approach or Ramban’s approach, students need to see these approaches for themselves and learn to analyze commentaries on their own. Once students are able to analyze a commentator they realize the value of interpretation and they will contribute to the ever increasing world of biblical commentary. As the Rashbam in the 12th century wrote in his commentary in Genesis הפשטות המתחדשים בכל יום – there are new interpretations that are created each and every day. The Bible might be old but there are always new ways to approach the text and our students need to realize that they have an important role to play in analyzing biblical texts and commentaries.
I begin each year with giving students background about different ways to approach the biblical text- from midrash omnisignificance to pshat minimalism, different ways to derive pshat of the text, drawbacks of a pshat approach, the goals and tools of a midrash approach, thematic approaches and modern literary approaches. Once students are introduced to different ways to approach the text and the methodologies at play in each approach- I introduce the year long parshan (exegete) study.
(Step 1) Students choose a parshan based on what they like to learn and what style they enjoy.
Students can choose a targum (an ancient translation of the text), medieval commentary or a modern commentary. There are so many commentators available online at www.alhatorah.org or www.sefaria.org that students now have access to and can utilize. I help students choose a commentator if they need help in making a decision or figuring out what type of exegete would appeal to them most.
(Step 2) Biographical Information and Basic Exegesis
Once students have chosen their parshan they research and create a short biography of their exegete. In addition to the historical background, they need to include some descriptions of the commentator’s methodology.
This background and research is important because it shows students the historical context and makes each commentator more real. They often are able to draw connections between a commentator’s comments and what was going on at that time or the type of biblical study at that particular time in history. Students also realize that there is so much that we don’t know about the biblical commentators and much more research that needs to be done about the various methodologies of each exegete. This a field that is only beginning to be explored and much more analysis can be done and spread to the average Tanach student. I believe that my students are contributing to this emerging field and that they feel that that their study is unique and enriching. They can’t just look online or in a book to find all the stylistic features of Radak, Ibn Ezra, Abarbanel, Rav Hirsch or Nechama Leibowitz’s commentaries or an analysis of their comments on any particular text. Yes, there are wonderful works and essays discussing Rashi, Ramban and some of the more well known exegetes but these works are often too scholarly, too simplistic or simply not catered to an audience who wants to learn methodology in a clear and organized fashion. My student feel that they are contributing to the world of Jewish learning and that their comments have value.
(Step 3) Ongoing Study
- For each פרק that we learn in ספר שמות each student will prepare one/two commentaries from his/her commentator. Students are encouraged to choose commentaries that answer questions that they have on the chapter or that they find most interesting. I am available to help each student if they need help with a specific commentary. Students can set up a “chavruta” meeting with me or email me with specific questions.
- Create online blog or google doc of your commentator. For each assigned chapter students create one blog entry – where they explain one or two commentaries depending on length, explanations and their own commentary to the exegete’s commentary. For each commentary they explain the commentator’s question, his/her sources or proof texts and evaluate the type of answer he/she gives.
- I give specific feedback as online comments to each parshan post. I will let students know what they got right and what areas they might need to work on improving for the future. Very often students have a hard time on the analysis section at the beginning of the year since they are often not taught how to analyze a commentator.
- Small group assignments: group parshanim together. Mix it up – sometimes divide based on time period, other times divide by methodological approach. In these groups students work together analyze how your exegetes are similar/ different and present their findings.
(Step 4) Small Presentations
For assigned topics each student will present how their exegete deals with the issue at hand. At these times, students will present their commentator’s approach to the specific chapter or topic to the class. In addition, if a student posts a wonderful explanation of his/her commentator in the blog – that student might be called on to present the information to the class.
Students feel empowered and invested in their learning. I find that the level of sophistication of student learning has increased because of this project and student centered learning as well. Students will often add to the class discussion about how their exegete adds to the conversation at hand or will pose a question to the class based on their research. Students feel like experts and can share their expertise with a room full of other experts. The dynamics and class discussions are incredible when each student feels mastery over material that they chose and analyzed on their own prior to the class.
(Step 5) Final Un-seen
The final exam includes a passage from your exegete or another commentator – students are asked to explain the commentary and demonstrate knowledge about their exegete.
Yael Goldfischer is the Chair of Frisch’s Humash department, as well as the Director of the Israel Guidance department for women. Mrs. Goldfischer graduated valedictorian from Stern College and holds a dual Masters' degree from Bernard Revel Graduate School of Yeshiva University in Medieval Jewish History and in Bible. Yael is a sisterhood board member of her synagogue as well as the co-president of the board of education of the Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey. She lectures in various communities and for the past fifteen summers educating campers and staff at camp Morasha. Yael and her husband David live in Teaneck with their their five children.