I have this adult Talmud class that has been going for more than fifteen years and that has been more or less the same people for five years. We were studying a passage from Sanhedrin that discusses the end of time, specifically resurrection of the dead. My class hated the text. It kept confronting them with ideas that they did not like, with ideas that challenged their own belief system. It fell into this rhythm where they ganged up on the text, shooting it as fool of holes as possible. Essentially, even though they knew that I was not imposing the Talmud belief system, they were uncomfortable differing with it dramatically. Meanwhile, I began defending the text, explaining its thinking on its terms again each of their challenges. The discussion got a little heated. At one point as the voices on both sides began to be raised, and the tone got harsher, I asked, “Are we fighting?” It was a joke, thinking of my relationship with different people in my life, but on a certain level it was a serious comment. The class protested, “no we are actually learning more tonight than most nights.” I think there are a couple of big lessons that comes out of that moment.
First, when we teach text, we need to invite our students to really engage the text. That means not just learning what the text says, but using the text to learn what they believe. Here was a text that could seem obscure that made big difference to those in the room.
Second, there is a difference between speaking for the text and speaking for yourself. This does not mean that the teacher cannot share their own thoughts (if they are clearly stated as such) but a text teacher has a responsibility to speak for the text on its own terms. That is a big part of the process.
Three, the Jewish tradition celebrates arguing, not fighting. Inviting your students to get passionate about their beliefs—and fairly challenging those beliefs—is powerful teaching. When we act as Jewish teachers, we are never merely conveying information or simple understandings, instead, we are always inviting dialogue—and that dialogue when it is honest, sometimes involves arguments. Conflict can make for good teaching and good learning.