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 d’var 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.

(This post also appeared on Sinai and Synapses.)

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