These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

learning at Pardes

Posted on March 30, 2011 by Zach

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After my first month at Pardes, I started getting into the routine of classes, and developed a pretty good sense of how the rest of the year would look.  

They way we learn here is very different from the way we learn in college; in college, classes meet two or three times a week for an hour at a time, and the bulk of the work is done at home, alone.  Study here is much more communal.  After shacharit (the early morning service), and breakfast together, we all break off into classes for the rest of the day.  The way most classes work is that the teacher gives a short lesson at the beginning of class, and then sends us off to the beit midrash (literally something like “house of searching/interpretation” – actually a library), which is stocked with all sorts of Jewish texts.  There we study the source texts for the bulk of class time in chevruta (study pairs) – reading and discussing the texts.  Then we reconvene, and the teacher goes over what we should have discovered, and adds his/her own interpretation of the text.

The chevruta style of learning really appeals to me – while I do appreciate lectures, this is a much more active way of learning the material.  We are given the sources, and the opportunity to take whatever we want from them, discussing and exploring issues that interest us.  When it’s a good match, I feel like I can almost learn more from my chevruta than from the teacher’s recap lesson (although they always call us to points that we missed in the beit midrash).  I’m lucky to have two very well matched chevrutas, Daniel and Aviva, and I’ve been learning so much from them.

Pardes has a few different tracks of study, which allows students to personalize their learning a little more. Last semester, I took the Intensive Tanakh track, which meant that my classes were focused on aspects of Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) and its interpretation by the later commentators, and that I didn’t have a Mishna or Gemara class (late antique and early medieval rabbinic discussions), as most other students did.  My morning classes were “Themes of the Prophets” where we started with a close reading of Isaiah, and then used it as a jumping block to explore the same themes as discussed by other prophets; and “Bamidbar” (the book of Numbers), where we used the late Medieval commentators liberally to gain an understanding of the text.  My afternoon classes were “Bereishit” (Genesis), where our teacher liked to compare similar seemingly contradictory stories from elsewhere in Tanakh; “Intellectual Immersion in Halachah” where we took issues in Jewish Law and tried to understand what guiding principles were being kept in balance when halachic judges make rulings; and “Parshat HaShavua” (weekly Torah portion), which was a short one hour class taught in Hebrew discussing interesting points in the weekly reading.  Finally, I took a class on Jewish Philosophy, where we compared differing views on philosophical issues in Judaism.

Outside of the set, 8:30 to 5 classes, there are other opportunities for learning, as well.  Once a week, my friend Daniel and I would sit down for a few hours to study Maimonides‘ “Guide for the Perplexed,” an absolutely brilliant Medieval philosophical work, drawing heavily on Greek and Islamic traditions.  Daniel was a philosophy major in college, which helped us a lot, since that was my first introduction to the subject.  Last semester, this was probably my favorite study time, since we really could take it in whatever direction we wanted.

I also took a couple night classes in the Fall – one learning how to chant the book of Esther, which is read on Purim, and another on scribal art, where we learned to write Hebrew calligraphy, using quills and parchment.  Both were lots of fun, and not so intensely academic as the rest of the week’s classes.

So that’s a sum up of what my classes looked like last semester.  I’ll try to write a bit more in depth later.  If there’s anything you want to hear more about in particular, let me know and I can write a post on it!