Teachers, Students and Judaism
It is out of the notion expressed in earlier essays that my philosophy on Judaism has gradually emerged. It is a slow process that has yet to be solidified. Many of my ideas are in flux, and I am still searching. For this reason, I consider my essays and lectures far from ideal. They should be more creative, focused, and challenging. And for similar reasons, I am currently dissatisfied with many aspects of our academy. It has not yet formed its full existential shape and, in many ways, still lacks sufficient originality. It has not yet fully incorporated the spirit of the Bet Midrash of Avraham Avinu.
I call on our teachers and students to join me in developing our academy into a worthy representation of the Abrahamic faith, searching for the authentic soul of Judaism. We must, in every way possible, stay away from intellectual and spiritual dullness. Surely during the course of our search, we will make mistakes, but we should never forget that by shutting the door to all error, truth will be shut out as well. There is no greater failure than not trying.
I am fully aware that such an approach to the quest for exploration does not appeal to everyone. In fact, there are many individuals who are quite satisfied with the more established way in which Judaism is presented today. I completely understand that. We actually need people who are comfortable in their emunah (faith) without all these intellectual and spiritual pursuits. But at the same time, we cannot continue to believe that Judaism will survive, both spiritually and intellectually, without the concept of chiddush (novelty). Furthermore, we cannot ignore the need to elevate Judaism to new dimensions, as we are provoked by a new world that continuously challenges us to ensure that our relationship with God remains our primary concern.
To start a movement, we need disciples and young people who are prepared not only to jump into the sea of uncertainty, as did Nachshon ben Aminadav into the Reed Sea, but who also have strong emunah in the greatness of Judaism. We primarily wish to create a new generation of rabbis and teachers, men and women, who are thoroughly acquainted and imbued with the spirit of the Bet Midrash of Avraham Avinu and who live with a flame in their souls. To reach that goal, we must rethink the purpose of education, its dimensions and challenges, and the relationship between teachers and students.
We have to therefore ask ourselves two serious questions. First, what does it mean to be a student? Secondly, what does it mean to be a teacher? Answering these questions is far from easy. On a superficial level, the student needs to learn the art of listening, while the teachers must learn not only how to speak but, above all, how to respond. Listening and responding are both an art, made up of many crucial layers and dimensions, and posing many challenges. Listening means hearing not only what is said but also what is alluded to; that which remains unspoken and that which cannot be expressed in words.
Judaism realized this fact long ago. There is a good reason why we sing when learning Torah. The niggun (melody) of lernen (the Jewish way of learning) is one that cannot be expressed with words, since the written word takes on a completely new meaning when set to music. By singing, we perceive what is otherwise beyond comprehension. It is the art of bringing heaven down to earth. It is entering a realm that lies beyond the grasp of verbal capacity. Words often become slogans, even idols. Music, on the other hand, is the refutation of human finality. One needs to become smitten by music and never recover. So it is with learning Torah.
A sentence without a tune, without a musical quality, is like a body without a soul. The secret to constructing a good sentence is in the creation of an all-encompassing quality that corresponds to the deeper meaning of words. A song is the expression of the soul’s nakedness, and that is what the student needs to learn — to put the teacher’s words to a tune. The Hebrew word lishmo’a means to hear the entire spiritual background of what is being said, both with words and in their absence.
The teachers’ task is to set the tone and the intonation of what needs to be heard. They are like chazzanim (cantors), becoming commentators to the words they sing. They must make sure that their community sings what they initiate.
But that’s not all. The teacher must also respond to questions that the students do not ask, even when they should. They don’t always know how, and are often afraid to ask. Many people are even unaware of the deep questions they have, which could be repressed or hidden. One of the major reasons that people fear asking questions, whether consciously or unconsciously, is that the answers may possibly challenge their lifestyles or attitudes. As Abraham Joshua Heschel once said, man is a questioner, but he has lost the questions. Perhaps we should add: because he wants to lose the questions.
Indeed, the teacher’s task is to rediscover the question that hovers in the mind and heart of the student, which the student may not be consciously aware of and may even fear.
It is just as important that teachers show their students how they themselves struggle with questions. In some Jewish religious circles, especially in certain outreach programs, we have created a cult mentality, by which the teacher is believed or expected to have all the answers. Not only is that impossible, but it is also undesirable. Those who are not constantly searching can never become authentic teachers, since teaching can only thrive in an atmosphere of questioning. In Erich Fromm’s words, “The quest for certainty blocks the search for meaning. Uncertainty is the very condition to impel man to unfold his powers.” A philosophy of finality has disastrous consequences for any spiritual and intellectual growth.
Often the assumption is that one merely needs to ask the teacher and then everything will fall into place. Problems will cease to exist. Anyone who has studied the Jewish tradition knows that such an attitude is a complete misrepresentation of this very tradition. It is the ongoing search for truth that stands out and is at the core of Judaism. The task of the teacher is to point the students in the right direction but refrain from giving a final answer.
Even when teachers feel that they have a comprehensive response, they must encourage the students to discover it on their own, guided by the teachers’ suggestions. Consequently, the class will become a think tank, an approach that is at the core of our academy. Teachers should take the steering wheel, but they ought to invite their students to be co-travelers and involved in the steering. It’s true that there is not always enough time in the classroom to do so, but it should at least be possible for the students to continue thinking and arguing about what they are learning, even beyond the classroom.
While it is true that in the sciences there are often definite answers, this is not the case with religious studies, general philosophy or spirituality. This may not be to the liking of all students, as some would want to see religion as a hardcore discipline not much different from science. However, to those who have a keen insight into matters of faith and philosophy, it is clear that the only way to remain spiritually honest is to understand that subjects like faith cannot be empirically tested. Would such a test be possible, much of the value of faith would be undermined. This is indeed the risk.
There is no authentic life choice that is risk free. All such decisions entail uncertainties, and even dangers. To live a life of faith is to be prepared to live a committed religious life according to an inner belief of the heart, and not because there is absolute empirical certainty. I find it altogether frightening when students tell me after a lecture that “everything has fallen into place.” Rather, there is a constant need for questioning and rethinking one’s beliefs, which is a crucial component of teaching. In many ways, religion must be warfare — a fight against the indolence and callousness that stifles inquiry and makes drifting with the current become standard practice.