Rav Lipschutz's Views on Education

  • Rav Yitzchak Blau

MODERN RABBINIC THOUGHT

 

 

Shiur #02: Rav Lipschutz's Views on Education

 

By Rav Yitzchak Blau

 

 

            R. Lipschutz's commentary on Avot includes important ideas about education.  He notes that R. Yehoshua ben Perahya's maxim, “Make yourself a Rav and acquire a friend” (Avot 1:6), leaves out the third possible educational relationship and says nothing about seeking students.  R. Lipschutz explains that trying to acquire students may reflect a defect in character.

 

            This idea immediately raises a problem.  Did not the Men of the Great Assembly say that a person should in fact “Establish many students” (Avot 1:1)?  R. Lipschutz offers two answers.  a) Perhaps that earlier mishna refers to a situation in which the students seek out the teacher; in such a situation, the instructor should certainly help spread Torah to those thirsty for it. b) Alternatively, the mishna may encourage looking for students when one needs those students to support his family (Yakhin, Avot 1:28).

 

            How does actively pursing students reveal a moral flaw?  R. Lipschutz does not explain, but I suggest that the role of the educator's ego in teaching is the key to understanding this point.  Teachers can justifiably take pride in their work.  However, sometimes this justified pride transforms into something more sinister.  A teacher in search of an ego-boost can neglect all other considerations and factors that constitute proper instruction.  This encourages manipulative behavior and indifference toward the actual needs of the student.  Wanting to teach is a wonderful thing; pursuit of students as a means of self–aggrandizement is not.

 

            R. Lipschutz shows concern regarding the nature of the teacher–student relationship.  Shemaya taught that a person should “hate the rabbinate” (Avot 1:10).  Some commentators think this refers to avoiding leadership positions.  R. Lipschutz explains that a person should not lord over his constituents like a master to a slave.  Rather, he should relate to them with the mercy of a parent for a child (Yakhin, Avot 1:39).  As R. Gamliel said to two of his students who were nervous about accepting positions of authority: “Do you think I am giving you authority?  I am giving you servitude!” (Horayot 10a).

 

            According to R. Lipschutz, Hillel's statement, “Love humanity and bring them closer to Torah” (Avot 1:12), addresses the educator.  A teacher must love his students, including those with less than stellar intelligence (Yakhin, Avot 1:46).  Indeed, a genuine affection for people is one of the pillars of good teaching.  The teacher who dislikes his students will have trouble faking it and no course in pedagogy can teach this trait.

 

            A teacher who loves his students will successfully avoid speaking to them in a constant tone of anger and frustration; rather, he or she will convey compassion and good will.  Students will respond to this much more positively than to anger because “a person does not listen to the counsel of the one he hates” (Yakhin, Avot 1:12). Appropriately, this message comes from Hillel, whose positive interaction with some difficult potential converts ultimately led them to an authentic acceptance of Torah and mitzvot (Shabbat 31a).

 

            R. Lipschutz returns to this point when commenting on another of Hillel's maxims, “A kapdan can not teach” (Avot 2:5).  An instructor who is too demanding or who always gets angry will invariably fail as a teacher because he will not think cogently or explain clearly when angry. Furthermore, his students will be too intimidated to concentrate, and they will not want to pay attention to someone who they think of as a nemesis (Yakhin, Avot 2:41).

 

            The Gemara that suggests that a teacher should “throw bitterness into the students” (Ketubot 103b) seems to contradict this theory.  R. Lipschutz understands that Gemara as referring to a situation in which the students are lazy, but maintains that, even then, the teacher must not become fully angry.   The Gemara employs the verb “throw” because when a person throws something, they no longer hold that item.  The teacher should have a brief burst of anger and then return to calm benevolence.

 

            No doubt, R. Lipschutz does not adopt a shallow approach that assesses teachers solely based on popularity with students.  Students can like teachers for all kinds of bad reasons.  He simply affirms that liking students and having a positive relationship with them aids the educational process.  Schools that create a more adversarial interaction suffer.

 

            One last quote from Hillel completes this theme.  Hillel also said: “Do not separate yourself from the community” (Avot 2:4).  In his characteristically well-organized fashion, R. Lipschutz lists several ways to identify with the community, including keeping their customs, taking part in their councils, empathizing with their pain, and praying for their welfare.  The final way of identifying with the community applies specifically to the leadership.  While a leader cannot be overly integrated into the community, he should not entirely separate himself either.  This delicate balancing act involves avoiding the two extremes of turning into everybody's beer buddy or remaining aloof, arrogant and apart (Yakhin, 2:32).

 

            R. Lipschutz also offers insightful advice to students.  Commenting on R. Nehorai's teaching that a person should “exile himself to a place of Torah” (Avot 4:14), R. Lipschutz asks why R. Nehorai uses the verb “exile” rather than “go” or “travel.”  He explains that R. Nehorai wishes to emphasize the personal growth that emerges from leaving one's home, family, and friends to seek out a learning institution in another area.  Even if there is a good yeshiva near home, a student should choose to exile himself to a yeshiva in another town.

 

            The benefits of such an approach are threefold. First, a change of scenery encourages a break from old patterns of behavior and childhood friendships.  This need not assume that the earlier patterns were bad, merely that they need to be outgrown and transcended.  Second, parents continue to see their growing adolescents as children even when those children are ripening into mature adults.  Moving away temporarily from the parental cocoon enables the child to truly adopt a more mature posture.  Finally, true educational growth comes from within, from a student taking responsibility and making free choices rather than from the constant supervision of others.  Leaving home opens up this avenue of personal development (Boaz, Avot 4:2).  We can appreciate R. Lipschutz's point when we consider the immensely positive impact that learning in Israel has upon post high school students from the Diaspora.

 

            Educational philosophy impacts on R. Lipschutz's creative reading of another mishna.  Shimon the son of R. Gamliel taught: “I did not find anything better for the person than silence” (Avot 1:17).  R. Ovadia of Bartenura explains that the subject of Shimon's statement is a person who can bear insults without reacting.  This certainly represents the simplest reading of this mishna, which praises silence.  It also accords with the next two maxims of Shimon, which emphasize actions over words.  “Whoever increases speech, increases sin.” 

 

Several commentators mention another version of the text which substitutes “me-shtika” for “ela shtika.”  R. Lipschutz adopts this version and explains Shimon as saying that “I did not find that anything good comes from silence.”  Shimon is thus recommending that a student sitting before a master should not just passively receive wisdom.  Some observers may think negatively of the silent student, judging him either too ignorant or too arrogant to make a comment.  More importantly, silence hinders understanding, sharpness and memory.   Understanding is forged in the crucible of questions and answers and in the give and take with the teacher.  Active involvement also helps a person remember the material (Yakhin, Avot 1:65).  Tiferet Yisrael favors the Socratic dialogue over monologue.

 

Not only do the students benefit from give and take, but the teachers do as well.  R. Hanina famously said that he learned more from his students than from his peers and mentors (Ta'anit 7a).  This statement is counterintuitive; after all, how could students - who know less than and may even be less intelligent than their instructor - teach him more than he learned from his teachers and colleagues?  A simple explanation might focus on the preparation efforts demanded of a good teacher.  True insight comes from those preparatory hours of clarifying the material so that one can both present it clearly and respond to questions. 

 

R. Lipschutz, however, provides an insightful explanation for how this dynamic works and focuses on the students' actual comments.  Even a weaker student can make a significant point which the teacher can then expand upon.  The teacher can bring additional proofs for the idea, sharpen and polish it, or place it into a broader cognitive framework (Yakhin, 4:2, 67).  Learning from one's students does not mean that those students constantly suggest innovative and fully developed theories on their own.  While that may happen occasionally, the more common model is the one presented by R. Lipschutz.  An intelligent comment by a student inspires the teacher to expand upon the point, thus enabling deeper understanding.

 

Interestingly, R. Lipschutz applies this principle to secular wisdom as well.  “Ben Zoma taught: Who is wise? He who learns from everyone” (Avot 4:1).  Here, too, the learned person stands to benefit from the intellectual interaction with others, including weaker students.   Most commentators would not feel the need to comment on the broader world of wisdom.  R. Lipschutz did so because he is favorably inclined towards this wisdom, a theme we shall return to in later shiurim.

 

            R. Lipschutz also asks a fascinating question based upon an apparent Talmudic contradiction.  When is it educationally legitimate to ask questions about hypothetical cases that could never happen?  Some Talmudic passages see such questions as fully legitimate, while other passages criticize them. 

 

When Pelimo asked on which head the two-headed man should place his tefillin, Rebbe told him to either exile himself from the beit midrash or to accept excommunication (Menachot 37a).  R. Yirmiya received a similar reaction. The halakha is that pigeons found within fifty cubic meters of a dovecote belong to the dovecote's owner, while those found further away belong to the finder.  R. Yirmiya asked about a pigeon standing with one leg on each side of the fifty-meter border, and they expelled him from the beit midrash (Bava Batra 23b). 

 

On the other hand, the Gemara thought it perfectly legitimate to ask what happens if a weasel enters a pregnant animal's womb, swallows the fetus, and then emerges from the womb with the fetus still inside the weasel's mouth.  The weasel then climbs back in to the womb and spits out the fetus, which eventually emerges from the birth canal.  Is this newborn animal considered to have come from the womb and therefore have the sanctity of a firstborn?  Another passage (Yevamot 54a), analyzing the obligation of levirate marriage, raises the following question: what if the surviving brother accidentally falls off a roof and lands directly on his deceased brother's widow, intimately penetrating her in the process.  Does such an act make them husband and wife according to the laws of yibbum, which require (on the biblical level) only the physical act of marital relations, and not a wedding ceremony?  No sages in either of these passages show any irritation about Talmudic analysis applied to impossible scenarios.

 

R. Lipschutz explains (Boaz, Avot 5:1) that a question about an impossibly wild case is not deemed out of bounds, even if the case could never happen, as long as some conceptual principle emerges from raising these far-fetched scenarios.  Rabbi Yirmiya's picayune question of the chick straddling the fifty-amma line, though possible, does not deepen our understanding of the underlying concepts.  On the other hand, the case in Yevamot helps us clarify what role intent has in the forming of a union between the brother and the widow; similarly, the case in Chullin forces us to more carefully define the legal definition of "peter rechem" (Shemot 13:12).  In instances like these, the Talmud does not object to these questions; quite the contrary, it revels in them.

 

            Students of secular law and philosophy will recognize the value of unusual cases in sharpening legal principles.  For example, Immanuel Kant claims that acts that are wrong must be so universally ("the categorical imperative").  In a famous essay on truth-telling, he raises the moral conundrum of a person with murderous intent who asks another about the whereabouts of his potential victim.  Clearly, the philosophy student who objects at this point because such a case rarely occurs misses the point.  Irrespective of whether or not such a question is practical, it perfectly highlights the question of how far to take the categorical imperative.

 

            When should an educator object to these types of questions?  According to Rav Lipschutz, this would be appropriate when the question has no conceptual implications.  The problem with such questions is twofold: first of all, focusing on unusual cases that shed no light on central concepts represents a waste of time and intellectual energy; furthermore, an educator might justifiably begin to suspect that the student asking such questions just wants to make trouble.  Indeed, Rashi explains that Rabbi reacts harshly to Pelimo's question about the two-headed man because he assumes that Pelimo is simply mocking Rabbi's halakhic discussion.

 

            R. Lipschutz provides educators with plenty of food for thought.  His concerns about teachers overly eager for students, his emphasis on the need for teachers to genuinely love their students, his noting the growth that comes from independent responsibility, and his understanding of the value of a more active and discursive learning process are all worth remembering in our batei medrash and our classrooms.