The importance of teaching in Judaism

After almost 20 years of being in the classroom, I still enjoy teaching. The reason I love teaching is because I have the privilege of teaching Judaism in Jerusalem to college freshmen who spend their sabbaticals in yeshivots and seminaries.
Judaism is for me the greatest idea in the history of the world and the opportunity to share this idea with my students, whom I consider to be my extended family, is a powerful and electric experience for me. While I realize how cliché this sounds like, I truly consider each of my students to be a younger sibling. I really care about them and encourage them as they make their way in this world.

My own Jewish view of things is fairly straightforward. I truly believe that at least one of the following must be true:

Either there is a God who is playing an active role in this world, the same God who made a covenant with Abraham nearly 4000 years ago, promising that we would be a people to Him and He would be a God to us. He played a special role for us – the children of Abraham. It comes with special obligations and charges, but grants the gift of eternity to its members.

YESHIVA STUDENTS in Jerusalem use computers to study university subjects. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL / FLASH90)

Or, maybe there is no God. God never made this alliance, which was only a fiction created by a tribe of desert nomads, a group of religious geniuses who stumbled upon a narrative, a theology and a system of rituals that preserved them in as a distinct and separate people for nearly four of the millennia. And in their distinction, they have enriched the world through philosophy, science, mathematics, ethics, medicine, theology, literature, physics, astronomy, and the arts.

Anyway, I want to be part of “Team Jew”. Team Jew is a formula for morality, ethics and eternity.

I remember reading once that a great philosopher pointed out, almost as a moral condemnation, that those Jews who did not convert to Christianity in the 19th century and remained true to their Jewish identity and observance condemned their offspring to be murdered during the Holocaust. My immediate reaction was to be confused by the thought, until a second later I realized that the philosopher was completely wrong.

While Jews who did not convert saw their descendants murdered during the Holocaust; those who converted and assimilated to become Christian Europeans condemned their children to be the murderers! Between the two options, I think the choice is clear.

When it comes to a teaching method, I find that too many teachers use a top-down approach. They enter the classroom with an agenda. The agenda could be to dictate your own thinking about a student. Or the agenda can be to poke the topic or the course into the student’s head. I fear that there are too many teachers of Judaism who think they “have the truth” and it is their job to convince their students of the same truth.

When I walk into a classroom, my first thought is how can I share my enthusiasm for Judaism in a way that will be as exciting to a teenager as it is to me as a middle aged man? I wonder what questions I would like to ask if I was their age? I ask these questions out loud and I’m not afraid to say I don’t have the answers. I don’t know why the Holocaust happened. I don’t know why bad things happen to good people. I don’t know why we were created. I don’t know what the purpose of life is either. I am honest with my students about my own failures as a human being and as a Jew. Although I think it is important for students to have tzaddikim, righteous individuals whom they admire, I do not play in that role.

My role is that of a thinking colleague. I share their doubts and offer my students a way out of its darkness. I share with them, not a reason to believe in the Oxford Debate Club, but a really down to earth way of getting a feel for God and the Torah. If my students came out like me, I would fail as a teacher. I want them to come out as better versions of themselves.

I understand that my classroom is just one of the many distractions that occur in their life. I understand more than the allure of the frenzy of watching a show on Netflix and even though I don’t have a Hollywood “writers room” to put my script in place, I purposely try to make my class as engaging as their favorite shows without watering down the Torah. I try to provide meaning and purpose to their lives as young humans and young Jews, which even their favorite shows cannot.

When God chose to translate his ideas into the world, he chose the method of storytelling to impart his divine teachings. I try to emulate that, also framing my lessons through the prism of history.

And it is through the history of the Jewish people that I help my students find their role and help them draw their line on the next stage in Jewish history. ■

The writer holds a doctorate in Jewish philosophy and teaches in post-high school yeshivot and midrashot in Jerusalem.

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