The Ethnopoetics of Jewish Study
STEPHEN HAZAN ARNOFF
My training as a teacher of Jewish text has been earned as a student in two kinds of institutions: the university
and the beit midrash.
As an undergraduate at Brandeis University
and a doctoral student at the Jewish Theological
Seminary, I learned Jewish text through the
lens of Wissenschaft des Judentums. The
“Science of Judaism” required that when I
began to teach, I did so conscious of the historical context of the material. I learned to engage
Great texts and stories and also great teaching transcend
labels of “secular” and “religious” and create a space
where anyone should be able to enter, explore, and thrive.
Stephen Hazan Arnoff is
executive director of the 14th
Street Y in New York City, where
he founded and runs LABA:
The National Laboratory for
New Jewish Culture.
a text through the lens of its author(s), the society in which it emerged, and the systems and
mechanisms that provided its basic infrastructure. In between my undergraduate and graduate study, I participated in two batei midrash.
The first, the Pardes Institute of Jewish Study, is
a co-ed yeshiva-type program where halakhic
seriousness and commitment animate discussion and form practical communal boundaries.
While Pardes learners are critical thinkers, the
close reading of classical texts in the original is
driven by a fusion of religious and spiritual desire and love and curiosity for the text; neither
were primary in my academic experiences.
After Pardes, I spent several years as a
member of the Jerusalem Beit Midrash in Elul,
where I discovered more about teaching than
anywhere else. A pluralistic beit midrash
grounded in the belief that secular and religious
people learn best when learning together, Elul
offered me a template in which both academic
and beit midrash approaches work in tandem.
It also gave me the formative experience of creating pedagogical seamlessness in a learning
community of multiple backgrounds. Along
these lines, “Oral Torah” ties together my pedagogical approach with my experiences of the
university and the beit midrash.
In facilitating groups of learners new to
Jewish study, we educators often gain a certain
amount of pedagogical traction by introducing
the malleable cultural oddity of “Oral Torah”
very early in our teaching engagement. The
pattern goes something like this: Even if the
Bible is written in a completely foreign
language and is completely out of contempo-
rary context for novices, we explain the tradi-
tion — that Jewish learners bring their own
lenses of experience, belief, language, and aes-
thetic to crafting a personal vision of tradition.
In practice, “Oral Torah” in traditional circles
may be more ossified than some of us would
prefer. However, when traditional halakhic con-
versation or practice are neither the means nor
the end of Jewish study, “Oral Torah” offers a
compelling and powerful set of tools for those
new to learning text. Particularly for those who
might define themselves as secular, a certain
contemporary spin on the concept of “Oral
Torah” frees Jewish content from the black and
white lines of the pages of ancient texts and
places it into much more familiar mouths and
imaginations of the contemporary world.