Teaching Talmud with Film: A Creative Curriculum

A teacher’s guide to BimBam’s film series, adapting selections from the Babylonian Talmud.

Studio G-dcast was a 2012-3 program that immersed artists in Jewish texts. Together, two cohorts worked through sources. Through the act of conceiving, planning and producing animated films from them, cohort members mastered the sources and learn about their context and interpretations.

Samuel Hayes and Judith Prays: Lonely at the Top: A Bromance (Bava Metzia 84a-b)

This curriculum was designed to accompany the 11 shorts produced at Studio G-­dcast. The films presented are the product of 24 independent Jewish artists, ranging in age from 18-­29, who were in residence at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco working under the direction of BimBam (then G-dcast) in the summers of 2012 of 2013.

The artists worked within strict guidelines; their goal was to retell the stories as they appear in the Talmud while remaining true to, and respectful of, the original texts. Not to say what they thought a story meant, but to reproduce the story in a way that allows viewers to come to their own conclusions about meaning; to attempt to maintain as much of the rich ambiguity of the original texts as possible. If necessary, the filmmakers could incorporate information about the story’s characters from other Talmudic passages. At the same time, they were given creative license to interpret the story visually and symbolically; they were invited to alter the story’s narrative mode as desired.

In other words, their objective was to retell a textual story by rewriting it as a film.

The authors of the Talmud never envisioned their tales being retold through this medium. And that is why it is appropriate that BimBam’s forays into the world of rabbinic literature explores the themes of “Tradition Versus Innovation” and “Relationships.”

One can argue that the Talmud’s authors never intended the text to be written down in the first place. They certainly never would have imagined its mass production through print. In a way, a return to the oral performance of these Talmud stories, by the actors in these films, represents a return to the mode of the Talmud’s original transmission. Unlike the Bible, whose text was fixed early on and copied word for word over generations, the Talmud comes to us through a fluid process, a discourse of conversations.

Each retelling of a story changes it in some way. When artists take on the responsibility for the weight of a venerable tradition of transmission, their art has the potential to become an important part of the ongoing dialogue in that tradition. We hope that these films reflect that potential.

Who is this curriculum for?
The Talmud is an esoteric text. To say that it is less accessible than the Bible is an understatement. Anyone can pick up an English translation of the Bible and read it cover to cover and have a pretty good idea of what is going on in the text on a surface level. The Talmud’s rhetorical structure and narrative style is far more complex. It is the kind of text that requires a teacher to guide the student through its nuances, even when read in translation. It is for this reason that the Talmud has become all but forgotten in most supplementary Jewish education curriculums in America. G-dcast wants to address this problem – this project is an attempt to put our twist onto introducing the world of the Talmud back into the cultural vocabulary of Jewish youth.
The themes addressed in these films are mature ones. We therefore suggest that these films should be incorporated into curricula for adolescents and young adults, ages 15 and
older. This is a rough guideline; educators should decide after review what materials are appropriate for their own students.