Wednesday, December 7, 2011

To Engage in Torah

V’hevey mitabek b’afar ragleihem, Sit at the dust of their [the sages’] feet,” we are told in Pirkei Avot. Avot d’Rabbi Natan takes this quite literally: “Don’t sit before him; not on a bed, or on a chair, or on a bench. Rather, sit before him on the ground.” I find the humility a student shows for his/her teacher in this type of dynamic appealing in many ways. It’s full of kavod to the utmost degree. However, compare this with the relationship between Rabbi Yoshiya and Rabbi Matya ben Charash that we learned about in the very first perek. In this instance, despite the fact that the text clearly labels R. Matya as the student and R. Yoshiya as the teacher, they are described as “yoshvim v’oskin b’divrei Torah, sitting and engaging in the words of Torah.” This story contains the Learned and the Learner, the Transmitter and the Receiver, but it also implies a sense of equality. At one point, R. Matya even calls his teacher out for what he thinks is inappropriate behavior. R. Matya prefaces his critique with the phrase “v’af al pee she’atah rabi v’ani talmidecha, even though you are my teacher and I am your student [I am still going to criticize you]!” This is a very different relationship than sitting in the dust, eagerly waiting to be taught.

Today, I completed my last class in a course I have been taking at the University of Pittsburgh. The class was a lecture with 450 students. The professor was always prepared and quite competent. I learned a lot throughout the semester, but I was also continually frustrated by the fact that the class was so large that I couldn’t ask a question. V’hevey mitabek b’afar ragleihem, (although, in this case, referring to an accomplished neuroscience professor instead of Torah scholars) turned out to be less fulfilling than I had thought it would be. I recently read a piece from Pedagogy of the Oppressed, an educational philosophy book by Paulo Freire. In the book, Freire rejects what he refers to as the “banking method” of education, in which students are seen as vessels into which knowledge is poured. He proposes rather a “problem-solving” model of education, in which learners are seen as partners in the process of knowledge-seeking. This reading, and also my class, has gotten me thinking a lot about what actually constitutes education. Is v’heyey mitabek b’afar ragleihem the banking method, and Matya/Yoshiya is the problem-posing method? I am inclined to say no, that there is perhaps a time and a place for both talking to and talking with. I think our modern sensibilities first direct us towards rejecting sitting at the dust of their feet, but, in thinking more about it, having a Teacher like this doesn’t mean that one is excused from serious thought and struggle but that there is a person who can articulate goals and vision with more authority and push us to take that next step. (Question: Can a straight lecture ever count as “problem-posing?” Can a lecture with 450 people ever move beyond “banking?” Can sitting in the dust ever count as active, engaged learning?)

The next piece is one of my favorite lines that we have learned so far. “V’chol davar she’yetzei mi’piv kableihu alecha b’eimah b’yirah birtet u’ve’zeya, kederech she’kiblu avoteinu me’har Sinai b’eima b’yirah birtet u’ve’zeya, And every word that comes out of his [your teahcer’s] mouth, receive it with awe and fear and trembling, in the same way that our fathers received it from Mount Sinai, with awe and fear and trembling.” This is really an incredible statement: Not only is learning from a teacher that same as learning directly from Sinai, but Sinai itself actually reoccurs every time we learn. (v’al niseacha she’b’chol yom imanu!) This line is implying more than that we are renewing Torah learning. It is saying that revelation itself, with the joy and awesomeness that it brings, is within our grasp. Always. This idea brings to mind the story in Shir HaShirim Rabbah about Shimon Ben Azzai. When Ben Azzai learned Torah, we are told, esh melahaete svivotav, the fire flashed around him, v’hayu ha’dvarim smeichim k’netinatan m’sinai, and the words were as sweet as when they were given at Sinai.

The last part of this week’s learning related the famous story of Akiva, at the advanced age of forty, going off to study Torah. I would like to end by mentioning two phrases in this story that we found particularly intriguing. When Rabbi Akiva witnesses the water wearing away the stones of a well, the text tells us that he immediately “dan kal v’chomer b’atzmo”. That is, Akiva said to himself that if something soft (water) could mold something hard (rocks), how much more so could something hard (Torah) mold something soft (his heart). To relate this kind of reasoning back to oneself is incredibly perceptive. If we are to live our lives as a commentary on Torah, then we should apply hermeneutics to ourselves, right? Later, when Akiva goes off to learn Torah, he joins a class of the very youngest children who are learning the alef-bet. After learning every letter, he went and sat “beino l’vein atzmo, between him and himself.” What a great way to describe real learning. He contemplates the meaning of every letter of the alef-bet, and, as he sits between him and himself, he hears the various voice of the tradition arguing and discussing and contemplating. Perhaps problem-posing education can be an experience of immanence, as well.