Monday, June 19, 2017

The Mishnah - A Reading

Dorothy lived in Kansas a wind destroyed four came seeking home the rabbis say wisdom

This is how the Gemara might tell the story of the Wizard of Oz. This is not to say that the Gemara is a bad story teller but that it is not a story teller in the way we are used to. It is a notebook written in short hand. The rabbi is supposed to tell the full tale. The Gemara just reminds him of the barest elements of the story.

The Mishnah is even more succinct. Here's how it might describe the USA's constitutional system:

Three groups. One enacts, one judges, one wages war.

Is there more to the subject? I think there's a little more to say about a political-legal system that came to dominate the planet earth.

Let us not forget what we often forget that the Oral Torah was not supposed to be written down, so when the danger of losing it all due to exile necessitated redaction, the redaction was kept to a minimum. The Talmud is not a textbook. In our era of computer based publishing, it's pretty darn easy to put many words on a page, much easier even than in the movable type era, where is was incomparably easier than in the era of monks writing in long hand, which was easier still than in Mishnaic times where paper was a commodity. We are used to books spelling out every detail of a message. This is not how most Torah commentary was written over the centuries.

This means that a shiur cannot consist merely of reading from a text. However, that is exactly what some shiurim have become, particularly regular shiurim. Sometimes, you get the photocopy of sources which the speaker uses to patch together a lesson of some kind. That he reads the sources too quickly without telling you where to find them on the page is a separate problem of our problematic approach to Hebrew instruction. I have discussed that elsewhere. But the regular shiur, the kind we experience most of the time, is oftentimes a reading. Whether it be Daf HaYomi, Mishnah, Mishneh Berurah, Duties of the Heart, or Tanya, the "maggid shiur" just reads without offering much in the way of background, explanation, or insights.

For baal habatim attending an hour a week class, it's survivable, even though not edifying. For children in school it's soul murder. The boredom is crushing. The kids - boys in particular - go 8-5 in a crowded barren classroom listening to a reading of cryptic material. Some rebbes don't explain. It's almost as if doing anything but reading straight text is considered "goyish." when really reading straight from a text without adding anything is goyish. But mostly it's just ignorance.

Many rebbes today are not educators. Some are warm people but that doesn't make them interesting, doesn't mean they know how to teach. Teachers have to get into the minds of students. They need technique. Oftentimes, the best teachers were not the best at their subjects. Thus, they developed tricks for acquiring the material. The gifted student is often the worst teacher. A teacher, like anyone in any profession, needs skill.

This involves more than warmth and even caring. I think many of the more well meaning people in Jewish education or rabbinics have gone a little bananas with personal warmth, stories, and song. I once spent a Shabbos with a family that does kiruv at an elite university. I was shocked to see this very well meaning nice guy fail to share with the students any Torah at his Shabbos table. His whole angle was warmth, singing, and showing off his children in an attempt to advertise the joys of family life - as if non-frum people cannot have family life. Is he really going to compete with the world of secular entertainment with a few zmiros? What he needed to do was say something meaningful before these very bright and intellectually included college students.

Perhaps because Torah Jews, particularly the children, are a captive audience, some schools don't make an effort to be engaging. After all, you have no choice but to attend the school and they can always threaten you with gehennom, that catch all for religious motivation. The focus, particularly in Israel, seems to be more on gaining admission to school, ie the family winning over the school, rather than the school winning over the family or the student. Also, there is an assumption today, an arrogant one, that the yeshiva world conquered Reform, is sitting pretty, and can wow anyone with the magic of Torah. By magic of Torah I don't mean the magic of true Torah thought, but anything connected to Torah. A cold reading of a cryptic text will do. Just open the book and the magic just flies off the page. This is magical thinking and results in part from excessively mystical understandings of the effects of limud Torah.

What is the connection to Torah Im Derech Eretz? Just look at Rav Hirsch's writings, he makes ideas come alive. He doesn't just recite pasukim. The German approach is to focus on the world that we actually live in, not mysterious higher worlds. As Rav Hirsch wrote:
God's Law does not deal with things that are supernatural or not of this world; instead, it includes every aspect of a full life which can be lived here below. Therefore these laws are עדות, the testimony of God's truths for all our earthy relationships, and hence they are עדות, because they crown all our earthy affairs with the ornament of human nobility which find favor in the eyes of God. The prerequisite for the true fulfillment of God's laws is knowledge, as thorough as possible, of all the realities of human affairs on earth. (Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch on Tehillim 119:99)
I fear that the contemporary focus on the kabbalistic effects of limud Torah have produced an other worldly approach to it. This combined with our forgetting that the Oral Torah is Oral even when printed in books has resulted in some very poor educational practices, not by everyone obviously, but by too many.

No comments:

Post a Comment