Monday, December 6, 2010

Follow-up to Why Teach Gemara

After I posted my essay on why we teach Gemara, my colleague Rabbi Pesach Sommer contacted me with what I would consider to be the obvious response - do I really expect high school students to be impressed with my view that Gemara is important because it teaches us how to expand our horizons while still remaining tethered to certain basic rules and principles? Doesn't that all sound a bit high-minded, perhaps to an adult and certainly to a 17-year old who is trying to figure out things such as college applications and plans for the summer?

On one level, there is no doubt that I agree with Rabbi Sommer's critique. While there are certainly some high school students who are capable and willing to discuss issues of broader hashkafa in a serious way, there are many, many more who are in no way interested in such discussions. To the extent that that is true, my comments are really directed more towards the teachers. I believe to a certain extent in a trickle-down theory of education. By that I mean that on some level teachers are salesmen (and saleswomen). The best salesman does not present you with a cogent and rational argument for why you should buy his product; instead, he shows you how much he loves the product and how much he really wants you to enjoy all of the benefits that he is already receiving.

Teachers operate within a similar framework. We are charged with not only imparting knowledge, but with making the students want to receive the knowledge. In a word, we are in the sales division. How do we make a convincing case? By showing the students the coolest aspects of our subjects? By giving them good grades? Of course not. We sell a discipline to students by convincing them that it is, in a word, awesome. And the best way to make that case is to show that we truly believe in that as well. A teacher who is asked to teach something that he does not really care about can manage to present decent or even really good lessons, but without the passion for the subject matter the chances are that the students will pass through the class without gaining any true inspiration.

Back to my essay. My goal was to offer a rationale for teaching Gemara that went beyond Gemara itself, and perhaps even beyond formal study itself. I was aiming to articulate a higher purpose for the study of this most difficult text that could serve as a focal point for a teacher bogged down in the minutiae of actually teaching key words and punctuation. If a teacher can formulate for his or herself a notion that Gemara is important for the intellectual-religious development of the students (and the teacher!), then all of the details become important steps in the path of that development.

On the other hand, I believe that my reason for learning Gemara is one that teachers discuss with their students all of the time, beginning perhaps in Middle School. The notion that Judaism is a religion of responsibilities, not of rights, and yet still has room for personal expression, is an issue that I have found to be very important to a lot of students. Certainly in an age where so many people do whatever parts of religion appeal to them, our students often have a hard time dealing with tidal waves of halachic minutiae. While we may not always explain that Gemara is training for appreciating this approach to Judaism, if the point that I made in my previous post is one that we make in different guises to our students on many occasions, then I feel that we have a chance to show them that Gemara is relevant for exactly this reason.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The gemara is non other than the most intimate connection with Hashem. all the intellectual mumbo jumbo reasons are just the perks that we get as a result of this interaction with the Almighty. It is a dynamic relationship that changes every day. We must realize that the sugya is just a way for Hashem to communicate to us the premises we need to know according to that specific time. We can appreciate the creator from the world itself , but the world pales in comparison to what Hashem will reveal to us in the Torah. If this is not communicated to the student then it is inevitable that the student will simply lose interest. Who cares about sacrifices in this day and age or ancient rituals.