Searching the Torah’s Seams: A Roundtable

May 1, 2012
Share:email print

This month, Sh’ma gathered together a group of informal educators — people who use various art forms to teach and create midrash — to speak about their vision of the creative possibilities for teaching Torah. Our panelists are the founders of several entrepreneurial outlets. In San Francisco, utilizes short videos and games to teach the weekly Torah portion, and now offers a wide range of educational programs. Part performance, part participatory exploration, Moving Torah, based in Los Angeles, presents close readings of biblical text intertwined with movement. In New York, Midrash Manicures offers opportunities to explore the weekly Torah portion through study and nail art. And The Sway Machinery, a band based in Brooklyn, uncorks learning opportunities through music and collaborative projects. David Wolkin, who brings a diverse range of Jewish educational experiences to the Roundtable, served as moderator.

David Wolkin: How important is it for the learner to have a prior connection to foundational subject matter (in this case, the Torah) in order to develop a relevant connection to and understanding of material inspired by it?

Yael Buechler: Prior connection to Torah study is key in order to ensure that students can create the most meaningful manicure. Midrash Manicures is nail art that students design based on their interpretations of the Torah portion. As students are linked to the text of Torah and midrashim, their learning empowers them to delve into designing their own Jewish nail art.

Sarah Lefton: If one thinks that prior connections with the text are important, then we’re basically invalidating art in general. And if the only people who can access something new are the people who understand the old thing, then we cut out most people. It’s like finally reading the book after you’ve been a fan of the movie. In fact, some people will read the book when they see that a movie is coming out. (The Hunger Games and A Game of Thrones are examples of books going mainstream after a film version is announced.)

Andrea Hodos: If we’re creating something compelling, people will come in and then go back to learn the source. It’s very possible that Yael and Sarah are saying similar things; but Sarah is speaking about the consumer and Yael about the producer. To be a consumer, you don’t always need knowledge of the source. But you want the people creating to have a certain amount of background; otherwise, the work is very shallow. In addressing an audience, you want to figure out how to frame the piece to give people enough background to climb onboard with you. Yael is working with people as producers, so a different level of knowledge is needed to create something meaningful.

David Wolkin: Let’s look at the other side of this question. How much grounding will a consumer need to access the work? There is no specific criteria about the background someone needs to connect with what I would refer to as secondary material — something inspired by the Torah. But there’s a tension because people will bring their own understandings to that process.

Andrea Hodos: As an example, let’s look at G-dcast and Moving Torah. The G-dcast material invites the viewer into the text; it’s artistic. It sets up the questions. You can see them right at the beginning. It frames the text for the viewer as part of the piece itself. They know what the issues are, and then they get to see the interpretation.

In Moving Torah, I will often present a short question at the beginning of a piece. But, then it becomes a bit more artistic, more abstract. When I present my work, in order for my audiences to understand the essential part of what I’m trying to get at as an artist and an educator, I need to give them some context in addition to the piece itself, which G-dcast doesn’t have to do because it’s worked into the medium itself.

I’m talking with my educator hat on, now. If the viewers aren’t familiar with the primary text, I need to offer them some guidance so they will understand my midrashic piece as it relates to the text. And even as an artist, I want my audience to understand as many of the nuances of the work as they can.

David Wolkin: That’s a perfect segue to my third question: In thinking about those frames, what are some of the best ways of drawing the learners back to the text if the starting point isn’t the text itself?

Yael Buechler: Engaging students with the text is pivotal. Tapping into their excitement about painting the actual midrash is a powerful incentive to deepen their learning. What’s incredible about the “manicure” is that the same learning model is applied both to the Torah study and to the manicure process. Students work in chevruta, with a learning partner, to study the Torah text or the midrash. Then, they work with their chevruta to create their manicure. Since most students are not ambidextrous, students can help paint each others’ dominant hands.

Sarah Lefton: For G-dcast, because we’re doing YouTube videos, it is essential to speak the viewer’s language. Our most “engaging episodes” — the episodes that most deeply capture the viewer’s attention — are shorter rather than longer. They employ music, and they are humorous. We reach out to all kinds of people, but our sweet spot is teens, so we try to start from experiences that ring true to them.

Andrea Hodos: When I’m teaching a workshop and people are creating their own works, I want to let them delve into the text and find themselves, find their own questions, and connect their questions with what’s happening in the text.

It’s different if I am producing something for consumption. Then, I spend more time framing the pieces with questions that I think will draw people in.

David Wolkin: Here is a tension: Some of you create a particular sort of representation of the Torah text to be consumed by others. And some of you are engaging learners in their own processes of creation based on Torah — you have a learning process and product. If, however, the starting point of engagement isn’t the text itself, what do we do to make sure that learners are drawn back to the text at some point?

Jeremiah Lockwood: It also depends on what we’re referring to as text. I see text as an unfolding process. And what we or others create in response to another’s response to the text is a further unfolding of — one more emanation of — the text itself. This kind of dialogic process is integral to Jewish communication; it is how language arts work, how meaning is created. The Torah’s infinite, right? So a priori, all dialogue is contained within the universe of Torah.

Yael Buechler: It is not the application of the nail polish but the enthusiasm about Jewish learning that is crucial. Adults or students for whom Jewish learning is not on their radar may become motivated by the concept of Midrash Manicures. People who visit our Website often come to study Torah and then utilize that Torah learning in their art.

Jeremiah Lockwood: G-dcast fits with people’s desire to seek authentic knowledge. And the Internet is a very good tool for Torah study. It’s like looking at a page of Talmud with all of its hyperlinks. Many people have noted a commonality among the Internet, technology, and Jewish traditional typography. G-dcast recreates the feeling of verbal midrash, a spoken teaching, which is a very important place where Jewish thought can be expressed.

Andrea Hodos: I think that inquiry is what draws people back to the text. It’s the questions at the beginning of G-dcast. It’s the questions that Yael and I pose to our students or adults in chevruta. Participants begin to see that their questions matter.

The Internet is a place of inquiry. We may start in one place and then we’re led somewhere else. The Torah is also like this. Sometimes, people experience Torah as a closed book dictated by God. When we provide them with opportunities to really open the book and see that it’s actually not about answers but more about questions, their own answers can take a variety of forms. Art is also about inquiry, which is why the collaborative opportunities between art and Torah are so rich.

David Wolkin: The four of you are a new generation of interpreters. For a very long time, classical interpreters and classical interpretation controlled the process. There was a sense of: “We need to check what they have to say about the Torah.” And now, we’re in a new era where we hear: “Let’s explore our own inquiries and also see what our learners have to say about this.” When you approach these Torah texts, what are the questions that you bring to it? What are your own points of inquiry?

Andrea Hodos: I begin with: What are the specific questions that the text as a literary or religious work is inviting us to ask? I start with Rashi’s or Abrabanel’s questions and then I invite other people in. I like to start with the text itself and then see where those textual questions connect with questions that I have about myself or the world, or that my students have about themselves and the world.

Jeremiah Lockwood: In terms of my music, I love finding moments of paradox, stories that undermine the sense of hegemony of a total truth. I feel like the truth of Torah is in the places where the seams show, because, to my mind, in order for the Torah to be infinite, it can never be completely correct. I look closely at passages that point to places of conflict and tension. And I love the human stories.

Yael Buechler: When I look at texts, I try to ascertain what the text is trying to achieve. I access and encourage others to explore great teachers, from Rashi to Nahum Sarna to Nehama Leibowitz. These commentators’ insights are part of the process of making the text our own. No matter how challenging the text, I hope to determine how this text is relevant in my own life. I often ask myself: What messages can I gain from this text?

Sarah Lefton: I’m not an educator. I usually partner with an educator on these questions, and that person will vary from episode to episode.

Andrea Hodos: Would you mind if I pushed you a little bit, because it would be interesting for us to hear from somebody who isn’t primarily a text person. What is it that you’ve learned or gained from engaging with the text in the process of making G-dcast?

Sarah Lefton: Making G-dcast has been my Tanach education. I didn’t go to day school. I slept through Sunday school. I have learned how to study text by working with the 55 wonderful people with whom we partnered to animate the Torah. I learned the mechanics of how to talk about a parasha, how to construct divrei Torah.

Jeremiah Lockwood: I have a hard time understanding why you don’t include commentary in G-dcast. I see you want people to go straight to the text. But commentaries are not really separate from the text. For me, they’re part of the same body. It’s an interconnectedness of different periods of history. I can’t understand any one aspect of a story without being open to what other people have said about it over time.

Sarah Lefton: I’m open to commentaries. It’s just complicated in a short video presentation. And our initial funder asked us to stay focused on the primary text rather than bringing in midrash and commentary. And yet, I do want people to see that the text is an open-ended question: What Rashi said is interesting and informative and what another commentator says may be equally informative and might even give an opposite answer to the question.

Jeremiah Lockwood: By taking away the power of the commentators, you’re undermining the Jewish historical belief in the power of individual commentary. Why should the words of some guy who lives as a wine farmer in France be as powerful as the words that have been revealed through divine revelation on Mount Sinai? That tension is the essence of the Jewish notion that an individual can turn around and utterly alter what has been revered truth for thousands of years. The fact that individual creativity can become part of the canonical tradition is fascinating and beautiful.

Yael Buechler: What we’re hearing in this conversation is that we allow our students to take ownership of their own Torah learning — whether it’s through creating a movement or painting a manicure based on their understanding of a sacred text.

Sarah Lefton: Just to clarify, we do include Rashi and Ramban, but they are noted as commentators in the video. Our guest storytellers, who create each segment, place themselves in that larger historical conversation of commentary: The goal is for everybody to be in the conversation.

Jeremiah Lockwood: That goal is different for me. I’m okay when people are a bit confused. And because I’m attracted to paradox and my format is the concert hall, there’s a lower expectation of coming away “educated.” It’s more experiential. So, yeah, it changes the game plan a bit.

David Wolkin: How do you conceive of the importance of classical interpretation, which has been canonized, and balance that with empowering either yourselves or others as modern interpreters? And, what are the implications where modern voices don’t necessarily get enshrined as they were historically? Will these voices survive?

Jeremiah Lockwood: Do you think our voices are important? I don’t know. I’m not sure my voice is important. It may be enjoyable, but is it important? I have some resistance to thinking about myself as a Torah commentator.

On the other hand, if I sang in a quiet room by myself, the words would disappear as soon as they were out of my mouth.

Part of the Jewish community, in the Orthodox world, still looks to rabbinic teaching as an unambiguous place of connection to the divine. Outside Orthodoxy, the unboundedness of our thought processes are an amazing impetus to creativity; they are also potentially an impediment to belief in the agency of our Torah inquiry.

Yael Buechler: I try to empower others through the models of the ancient and modern interpreters so that my students can form their own questions and find their own meaning in the Torah.

Today, we’re living in a world with the canon in 3D. And it’s up to Jewish leaders and educators to help pave the way to preserve and organize our own works, and to ensure that future generations have access to them.

David Wolkin: What is the responsibility to preserve and organize? Who determines what needs to be preserved — especially when there’s so much of mixed quality out there now?

Sarah Lefton: If I’m having trouble with something, I bet others are, as well. When I spoke with some of my hardcore yeshiva friends, I found out that even yeshiva bochers have trouble keeping track of the commentators. So now we’re bringing the commentators to life and fleshing out their characters. We’re trying to bring some of these dudes — they are mostly dudes — into sharper focus so that when we read one commentary we can connect it more broadly — and not just have it be some floating piece of wisdom.

David Wolkin: As I’ve been listening to you, I’ve thought of a question that I’d love to have you answer. As interpreters and artists in your own right and as translators of a text for other people, how do you address difficult texts — texts that you wish you actually hadn’t happened upon?

Andrea Hodos: I hope to get people to recognize that the text offers a moment of inquiry, that this is something to struggle with — going back to what Jeremiah spoke about in terms of paradox and places of conflict and tension.

This text is our inheritance, and it is both our right and our obligation to engage it. I would let people sit with it for awhile. People will respond in different ways to difficult texts. I have a solo theater show called “Cutting my Hair in Jerusalem,” about reengaging the tradition in Beit Midrash Pardes. In it, I talk about struggling with feminist issues, especially “Sotah.” And I talk about it being a satisfying struggle.

I hope to get people to a place where they can also experience this satisfying struggle; that it’s theirs, that they have a sense of ownership, and that they can ask questions and can talk back to the text.

Jeremiah Lockwood: Thank you. That’s very beautifully put. And just add to that, I find it to be more satisfying and more conducive toward personal growth to “look” at something disturbing than to try to change it. I’d prefer to look at a text and allow it to be ugly and to try and gauge my own responses to it and use it as some kind of test of my own mettle as a human being.

David Wolkin: If we were dealing with a text that didn’t make us uncomfortable, how would it push us to grow? As educators, such a huge part of the process is pushing people outside of their comfort zones rather than providing them with something palatable and easy to process.

Yael Buechler: When conveying a challenging text to students, I always provide the historical context and relevant information about the text itself. It is gratifying to discover that this material has challenged others before our generation. Many commentators help us frame responses through history and empower us to channel our reactions and interpretations.

Sarah Lefton: I was hoping I could just hide from the question. But, four years ago, when we were G-dcasting the Torah, there was a certain flurry in my inbox of messages: “Can’t wait to see what you do with Tazria-Metzora — the Torah portion when God instructs Moses about the purification rituals for mothers following childbirth.” We slam-dunked it in a way that was great for third graders. We talked about dermatology and how awkward it is to see the priest when there’s something wrong with your skin and how, in biblical times, gossiping could give you skin problems. We decided against focusing on the ritual impurity of women. We didn’t duck it exactly; we just didn’t dive into controversy — after all, we’re making three-minute videos for 10 year olds. We also did the Sotah story, and we just told it like it was in the Torah. For a lot of people, G-dcast is an entree into Jewish learning. We’re trying to introduce Torah to a new audience. I would hope that the educator using our Parshat Naso or our Parshat Tazria would take our piece and then leap into whatever difficulties that the educator wants to address.

David Wolkin: Each of you specializes in translating Torah into another medium. What do we gain from this translation? What is potentially lost?

Sarah Lefton: Here’s what’s gained: In Parasha Terumah, we get a bunch of architectural details about the building of the mishkan, the dwelling place or tabernacle that accompanied the Israelites during their wilderness wandering. G-dcast shows exactly how the planks in the mishkan were interlocked. We also use cool technology to describe the building process. We offer a great window into divine architecture. What’s lost? It may be a bit lazy to watch a video of the construction. We could encourage children to build the mishkan out of Play-Doh or to paint it, which would provide a more visceral experience.

Yael Buechler: It may not be easy to paint cherubim on one’s nails, which I did this week. Yet each design of creative nail art is an application of the text in our lives. My students are completely absorbed in the translation process. If a picture is worth a thousand words, our manicures become bold expressions of the volumes of Torah translations and interpretations that are close to us.

Andrea Hodos: What I find is that embodying the text provides both a visual and a kinesthetic experience. Interpretations are uncovered that we may not have discovered without the physicality of the experience.

Jeremiah Lockwood: Let’s say the text is a cantorial piece from the 1920s that’s been sitting in the back of a bin in a Judaica shop in Borough Park for the past 30 years. The piece is rather obscure to most people. So, even if what I do with it is absolutely terrible, it’s still going to be doing a service to the source material. I use this line of thinking to bolster my recklessness and encourage my experimentalism.

Andrea Hodos: We have to be careful that we don’t present a commentary as the commentary. I want people to see this as one response, one commentary on the text, and I hope they will feel invited in for a longer conversation.

Share:email print
Related Topics:

Rabbi Yael Buechler is the founder and CEO of Midrash Manicures (, an educational venture that features workshops for students of all ages and weekly manicures for the Torah portion and holiday. Buechler is also the coordinator of student life at the Solomon Schechter School of Westchester, where she brings experiential education to the lives of middle school students.

Andrea Hodos is the creator and director of Moving Torah (, where she uses traditional study methods combined with movement, theater, and writing to interpret text.

Sarah Lefton is the founder and executive director of G-dcast (, which is dedicated to raising basic Jewish literacy through online videos and games.

Jeremiah Lockwood leads the band The Sway Machinery ( A recipient of a 2007-2008 Six Points Fellowship for Emerging Jewish Artists, he lives in Brooklyn with his wife and two sons.

David Wolkin is executive director of Limmud NY: Jewish Learning Without Limits (

Post a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>