Why I Am a Jewish Educator and Jewish Learner

Michael Shire
Dean, Shoolman Graduate School of Jewish Education
May 22, 2013

Michael ShireI have studied and taught Judaism now for about 50 years. The first 15 or so (from age 5) were, of course, primarily about learning, but the rest have been learning and teaching at the same time — from teaching “cheder” in the UK in the 1970s through teaching today at Hebrew College.

This past year, I taught three graduate courses and was a participant in the inaugural Me’ah for Educators course, culminating in an all-night vigil at the tikkun leyl Shavuot with learning and teaching throughout the night! So why do I do it, and why do I think others should do it, too?

My study of Judaism enriches me, and my teaching of Judaism makes the enrichment all the more fulfilling. It can be the history of our people, Jewish thought or, indeed, the very engagement with ancient Jewish writings. They can be hard to unravel, but thrilling when one can do so!

Sometimes I learn “lishma” for the sheer delight of it. Other times I learn to act on a Jewish value or observance. Still other times I learn to make some good in the world become manifest within or because of me.

Three classic texts illumine for me the three paradigms of learning in Jewish tradition. The first suggests that we learn from the things we enjoy. A passage from the Talmud (Avodah Zara 19a) suggests that one only learns from a topic one enjoys quoting Psalm 1:2 ‘For in God’s Torah is God’s delight’.

Only when the study of Torah reveals some meaning for our lives will the love of study be embedded. My favourite Chinese quote says it well: “When the mind is ready, the teacher will appear!” This conception of learning as a means to fulfilment (“sh’libo hafetz”) is a key component of Jewish study and learning. Through study, we make the subject our own, and through study comes a sense of fulfilment:

When Levi and Rabbi Shimon were studying with Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi, Rabbi Levi said, “Let us study Proverbs.” Rabbi Shimon said, “Let us study Psalms.” Rabbi Shimon coerced him and brought out the Psalms. When he arrived at the verse “for in God’s Torah is God’s delight” (Psalm 1:2), Rabbi Hanasi explained that this means a person only learns Torah from a topic he enjoys. Levi got up saying, “Rabbi, you have given us permission to leave!”

The motivation to learn is dependent on the desire to study, and this is only truly fulfilled when choices in learning are made.

A second paradigm is derived from the commentary of the medieval biblical commentator Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, 1040-1104, France) in Leviticus 26:3: “If you walk in my statutes and keep my commandments and perform them.” Rashi expounds, “If you walk in my statutes; this refers to the fulfilment of the Commandments. Yet it also says ‘and keep my Commandments.’ We must conclude that this refers to toiling in Torah study, as it says in Deuteronmy 5:1, ‘and you shall study them and you shall do them.’”

This strong connection between study and practice is an ongoing feature of the purpose of Jewish learning, for Jewish learning has a purpose beyond just studying for its own sake. As a tradition, we believe that study has the potential to be transformative and change people and society for the better.

A third paradigm is set up by Rabbi Gamliel, who said “it is good to join the study of Torah to some kind of work (‘derech eretz’), for the effort required by both robs sins of it power. Torah study without derech eretz will end by being useless and cause sin.” Learning and study in Judaism is not value neutral, it has to lead to a betterment of people and teach us all to learn from our failings and weaknesses. This idea of study with ethical principles in mind is a fundamental feature of our progressive Judaism.

From our reading of these texts, tradition asks, Does our learning delight the heart? (“hafetz b’libo”) for only if it does so, will it sustain and motivate us to want to learn. Do we use our learning to make decisions about our actions in order that we can transform ourselves and the world (“u’lemadetem..l’asotam”)? Do we see our learning as a means to understand our moral dilemmas and act upon our ethical principles (derech eretz)? If we can engage in that kind of learning, not only will we truly find meaning and fulfilment in learning the Torah texts, but Torah itself will be lived through our very lives.