Torah Games? Bringing Torah to Life Through Game Design

For many Jews, the Torah seems inaccessible. It is distant historically, culturally and linguistically. The Biblical figures seem far removed and unapproachable and the scenes and vignettes do not seem applicable to everyday life.

Yet this sense of distance from the Torah may be as much a function of religious education as it is of the ancient nature of the text itself. Hebrew schools face structural problems in engaging students, since many classes are convened on evenings and weekends, when already over-programmed young people are either tired or less receptive to further learning opportunities. Much of the same may be said for adult learning programs.

Teachers are pressed to overcompensate for the inherent timing challenges with programs that entice and engage students and draw them into learning. But these are often difficult lessons to prepare.

It is increasingly becoming recognized that if the Torah is to guide the lives of young Jews, it must itself come alive, and be an experience rather than just another objective in an already long day of school and extracurricular activities. This notion is supported by a Dr. Jack Wertheimer's landmark study, Schools that Work: What We Can Learn from Good Jewish Secondary Schools. According to Wertheimer, successful supplementary Jewish education programs exhibited at least three major characteristics, in addition to several administrative aims: they "develop a community among their students, staff and parents"; emphasize "taking Jewish study seriously" and "engage in experiential learning."

In truly rabbinic fashion, a new question has emerged to answer the longstanding challenge of Jewish education: Could it be that all three of these goals could be achieved through games -- not simply by playing them, but also in designing them?

Rabbi Owen Gottlieb certainly thinks so. A resident faculty member at CLAL and Jim Joseph Fellow at NYU working towards a Ph.D. in Education and Jewish Studies, he founded ConverJent to be an oasis of "Seriously Fun Jewish Games for Learning." ConverJent provides workshops and training in Torah learning through game design and has organized a new Jewish Games Roundtable, as well as designs digital and offline games for Jewish learners.

To Gottlieb, process is as important as product -- notably, in meeting young Jewish learners where they already are. "According to a Pew study, 97 percent of today's teens are digital or online gamers. And more girls play online games than boys. If we want to reach Jewish youth, we have to meet them where they are and enable them to experience the Torah as a source of meaning," he notes.

WATCH Rabbi Owen Gottlieb on Jewish Gaming and Education:

Gottlieb suggests that Torah and rabbinic literature are replete with attributes that make up gaming systems: legal systems (rules) with deep understanding of resources, consequences, and objectives, as well as narratives (stories with roles, or "players"). By designing and playing games rooted in Torah, Jewish youth can come to understand Judaism through an experiential learning process.

Gottlieb indicates that Jewish education may renew itself through the careful study and adaptation of online gaming: "Ancient wisdom becomes accessible when it is translated into the contemporary vernacular. Today's ascendant vernacular is the game system, which is often collaborative and online. It is critical that we learn the meaning-making techniques of game designers so that our offline learning is as rich and complex as our online and game-based learning."

I found his theory compelling and invited him over to study and design a game together about several chapters in Deuteronomy that contain significant legal concepts. We spent about three hours together studying and designing a game. It was a relaxing, enjoyable time -- and I was struck by all that I learned. Even as a rabbinical student who spends a good amount of time studying text, I gained new insight into the Torah and found myself able to experience concepts that undergird otherwise perplexing scenes. There was also something unique about personalizing ideas and bringing canonical Jewish figures into dialogue with contemporary dilemmas. The chapters of Torah went from the distant to the personal by way of the abstract thought that is essential to gaming and rabbinic Judaism alike.

Religious laws of uncertain applicability to Jewish life in the Diaspora gained immediate relevance when used to structure a game and pushed me toward greater engagement with the Torah text. Who was involved in the story? What laws were present? How would they shape society? How could they be interpreted and refracted through the lens of a game to shape the characters within that gaming system? The process of abstracting honed my own understandings of the text.

While I doubt you'll find the game Gottlieb and I created on your next Internet search, I sensed that the collaborative processes of design could reshape the way Jewish community is formed. It could go a long way in helping students develop social bonds and find ways to bring their learning home with them. By making Torah accessible, games can help students internalize its messages and begin to take it seriously as a part of their lives, and social lives. Even when online, games, like the Torah, are rooted in human interaction.

Much as the Torah is a process that guides living, well thought-out rules provide a process to guide gaming. The creation of games enables young people to understand the inner-workings of Torah as a system that undergirds Jewish life and imbues it with meaning -- and enjoyment. Students wrestle with the same philosophical systems that the rabbis confront in rabbinic literature and engage in a way of thinking that has enlivened Judaism for millennia.

If a Jewish education is to accompany learners throughout their lives, it must first meet them where they are and demonstrate its inherent value.

This post has been modified since its original publication.