Problem Solving vs. Lecturing

At the Course Development Workshop, I made up a few classroom activities for my Western Religions course. Last week, I tried one out. The class was studying rabbinic literature; in particular, the relationship of Tanakh, Midrash, Mishnah, Gemara, and Talmud. Here’s an exciting diagram that explains everything:

But apparently my diagram is not exciting enough. Nobody was jumping up and down, exclaiming, “Wow! Now I finally understand!”

Things were different when I gave them their in-class assignment. The goal: to devise a way of accomplishing important tasks on the sabbath without doing any work. Talmud defines work as “writing two letters , erasing in order to write two letters, building, demolishing, kindling, extinguishing, hammering, transferring [a burden] from one place into another” (among other things). So can we observe these restrictions and study Torah on an ebook reader? Push our child in a stroller? Carry stuff out of our burning house? If so, how?

Solutions started to fly. Use a touch-screen ebook reader so you don’t have to type in commands. Get a Gentile to turn the reader on and off. Get a Gentile to save your stuff from the fire. The students were thinking like rabbis. We discussed other creative rabbinic solutions like putting on all your clothes and then walking out of your burning house, or storing valuables in a case with your holy books and then saving the case (which is perfectly legal). Transferring a child from one place into another was a bit more difficult to figure out until I suggested ways to define “place.” If you could fix it so that your “place” included a large neighborhood, then you could take a walk with your child on the sabbath.

We like rabbis, now that we’ve spent some time in their heads.

About Jocelyn McWhirter

Jocelyn McWhirter is the Stanley S. Kresge Professor of Religious Studies at Albion College in Albion, Michigan.
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