Tag Archives: Questions

Getting our B’nei Mitzvah to Understand (and Love) Torah Study

Helping 13-year-olds understand a 3,000-year-old text is challenging, to say the least.

After all, trying to glean lessons from the Torah for 21st-century America is hard enough, even if you have some background in text study. So when you have only 13 years of life experience, go to religious school for only two hours twice per week, and are still learning the skills you need to write and speak effectively, it’s even harder.

Yet as our kids become b’nei mitzvah and create their d’var torah — the teaching they deliver about the weekly Torah portion on that Shabbat morning — we often miss a great opportunity. Not only can we help them understand the content of that particular Torah portion, we can also help them appreciate the process by which we can engage with serious Torah study.

In other words, we have a golden opportunity to use the “what” as a vehicle to develop excitement around the “how.”

Formulating Good Questions

At Temple Beth El, we wanted to help our students truly embrace the process of Torah study. So to prepare our b’nei mitzvah, we decided to experiment with the “Question Formulation Technique” (QFT), designed by Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana and outlined in their outstanding book Make Just One Change.

The purpose of the QFT is to shift how learning occurs: rather than having students respond to questions proposed by the teacher, the students themselves develop the questions that most effectively direct their own learning. After all, if the students are the ones posing the questions, then they will naturally develop a deeper level of ownership over their own learning.

The rules are simple — the teacher begins with a prompt that can lead to multiple lines of inquiry. For example, the teacher might write on the board something like, “Religion does more good than harm,” or “A synagogue should be a sacred and spiritual community.”

Then, in small groups, learners need to come up with as many questions about that prompt as they can. Their instructions are:

• Ask as many questions as you can.
• Do not stop to discuss, judge, or answer the questions.
• Write down every question exactly as it is stated.
• Change any statement into a question.

After creating their long list of questions, the learners then focus on the handful that speak to them the most — and so that’s the direction where the research, the discussion or the conversation goes. And so since the learners create their questions, and the learners then choose the ones that excite them the most, the paradigm shifts radically: instead of the teacher imparting information from the top down, the students are creating their learning from the bottom up.

Sacred Questions about Sacred Texts

In Judaism, questioning has always been a sacred activity. Throughout Jewish history, when we study Torah, we are asking questions like, “What might this verse mean? How can we read it in a new way? What other allusions does it have?” So applying the QFT was a natural way to help our b’nei mitzvah develop their divrei torah.

As part of our family education program, eight families came together about four months before their children become b’nei mitzvah. And we began by having them write a collective d’var torah, in order to help them understand the process. We focused on a passage from Deuteronomy 8: “You may say to yourself, ‘My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.’ But remember Adonai your God, for it is God who gives you the ability to produce wealth…” (v. 17-18).

First, we unpacked what this meant — that we are not the sole producers of our success, but that we need to have a level of humility and gratitude if we have been blessed with wealth. The text doesn’t say, “wealth is bad,” but rather, “if you are wealthy, make sure you remember the true source of that wealth.”

I then wrote up four words on the board: “Gratitude for material things.” And then I told them to write down as many questions as they could about that idea, that they weren’t allowed to answer or discuss the questions, to write down every question exactly as it was stated, and to change any statement into a question. And then I simply walked around eavesdropping on the conversations.

Almost instantly, the families created a flood of questions. In less than five minutes, they had come up with over twenty different questions: “What’s the difference between what we want and what we need?” “How do we show gratitude?” “If we show gratitude, does it have to be towards God?” “What’s the difference between material and non-material things?” “What happens if you don’t show gratitude?” “If you lost all your material things, would you still show gratitude?”

The energy was palpable, as everyone was considering what it really meant to “show gratitude for material things.” After a short discussion, we decided to go in depth about how gratitude acts as a check on entitlement — an issue that is as relevant today as it was 3,000 years ago. We studied commentary, explored interpretations and shared our own opinions. And most crucially, the students now had a process to apply to the study of Torah, discovering ways to find meaning from the text.

So now, it was time to have them use this process on their own Torah portion.

They began by focusing on their specific verses that they would be reading, and came up with an eight-word description of the verses’ gist — “the special clothes Aaron wore,” “the detailed instructions for building the tabernacle,” “the laws of keeping kosher.” As two to three families joined together as a small group, each student’s summary acted as a prompt for creating a list of questions. After hearing and creating many, many possible questions, the bar or bat mitzvah student then chose the one question they would be most excited to research.

We then placed copies of Torah commentaries (The Torah: A Modern Commentary and The Torah: A Women’s Commentary) for all the families and said, “Take a look — see if you can find responses to your questions. What have other scholars had to say about what you’re wondering about?” For the next thirty minutes, families were poring over texts, excitedly yelling, “Oh! I found something!”, and began crafting their own thoughts. They proudly shared with me their ideas, and were so excited about what they themselves had created.

It was simply remarkable. Afterwards, the parents and the students shared how much they loved learning as a family, how much they enjoyed researching commentary on the Torah portion, and how smart and successful they felt as they drew lessons from the Torah. Not only did the quality of the divrei torah improve dramatically, but the students had clearly gained a new set of skills they could apply to study a whole range of texts, and perhaps most importantly, truly owned their learning process.

Building Skills for Life-Long Learning

Too often, preparing students to become bar or bat mitzvah feels like “studying for the test.” And as anyone who has ever “studied for the test” knows, the day after the test, all the information goes in one ear and out the other.

Instead, becoming bar or bat mitzvah should truly be about making a transition — namely, from being a child in the Jewish community to becoming an adult. And so as our 13-year-olds grow and develop, and as we celebrate their entrance into the Jewish community, we have an opportunity and a responsibility to teach them skills for life-long learning.

What are those skills? To be able to connect the present to the past and to the future. To be able to add their voice to a Jewish conversation that is 3,000 years old. And most of all, to be able to formulate good questions, since after all, what we learn is simply defined by the questions we ask.

So let’s help our students learn how to ask good ones.


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IBM’s Watson and “Jeopardy!” — “Intelligence” versus “Wisdom”

First of all, some exciting news — you will now be able to find some of these blogposts on the The Huffington Post’s “Religion” section! My last post has gotten quite a buzz, with over 400 comments, and you can see it here.

But I’m sure this is what you really came to learn about:

I’ve been a fan of “Jeopardy!” since I was in middle school, and I took (and even passed) the test to be on “College Jeopardy!” when I was a senior. So I’ve been very excited and interested to see what happens with IBM’s Watson this week, as it battles Ken Jennings (he of the 74-game winning streak) and Brad Rutter (he of the highest prize winnings on the show).

Watson’s big test has been to see if computers can become “intelligent.” Humans (and even most animals) can be seen as “intelligent” in some form– they gain new knowledge, they learn from mistakes, and they experiment with trial and error. The question surrounding Watson is — can a computer be seen as intelligent?

That’s actually much harder than it looks. As human beings, part of our intelligence is our ability to understand statements without much context — “Hey, did you get my e-mail?” is often perfectly understandable, because we know the reference point. But computers don’t have context, and often tell us things that are totally unrelated to what we are looking for:

And that’s why Watson’s challenge has been to see if it can win on “Jeopardy!” — it’s a show where the clues are often ambiguous (if not downright misleading), and so if Watson can get those types of answers right, it will be a big step towards an “intelligent” computer.

But to me, Watson’s “Jeopardy!” challenge leads to a deeper question — is “intelligence” the same thing as “wisdom”? Or, to phrase it another way, if computers can become “intelligent,” is there any way they could become “wise”?

And here, I would say “no.” Wisdom, in my mind, entails knowing what questions to ask in the first place. Watson may be able to get all the answers right — but only humans know how to ask the right questions.

That’s something that Judaism has had a long history with. Ever since the time of the Rabbis, Jewish tradition has tried to come up with the kinds of questions that would challenge us to look at things more closely, to see what we can learn from them, and to examine topics from multiple perspectives.

My favorite example comes from the story of Noah, who is described in the book of Genesis as being righteous “in his generation.” It’s actually a totally unnecessary phrase, but rather than ignoring it, the Rabbis focused on it, and asked, “Why is it even in there in the first place? What does it mean that he was righteous ‘in his generation’?”

Well, we know the generation of the flood was pretty bad (they were all killed). So maybe Noah was simply the best of a bad lot. But on the other hand, we also know how hard it is to be a decent person when everyone around us is behaving badly (I live in New York, so I can tell you some great subway-shoving stories). So maybe Noah was incredibly righteous — after all, he was able to be righteous even in his generation. (Genesis Rabbah)

Which is it? Was Noah righteous, or wasn’t he? Well, it all depends on how we read the text — and so there’s no clear, single, correct answer. And that’s the real hallmark of wisdom — to know what questions to ask in the first place, and then to recognize that there may be a multitude of responses to them.

Indeed, the biggest and most important questions we face for us and our world are ones that don’t have a simple, correct answer, the way a “Jeopardy!” question does: “How can we most effectively address global poverty?” “What’s the appropriate role for government?” “How should we respond to the new reality in the Middle East?” Those are questions where information and intelligence are necessary — but they are not sufficient. Instead, it takes wisdom to know what questions to ask in the first place, in order to make a difference for ourselves and our world. And only human beings know how to do that.

So yes, Watson is crushing the carbon-based competition, and may even be showing that computers can become “intelligent.” But we can feel comforted by the fact that one of the uniquely human gifts we have is our ability to pose the kinds of questions that make things like Watson even possible.


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