Struggling with the Talmud’s Educational Ethic
By Yasha Magarik
“Once during a seder Rav Nachman asked Daru, his slave: ‘In the case of a slave whose master set him free and gave him silver and gold, what should the slave say to his master?’ Daru replied, ‘He should thank and praise him.’ Whereupon Rav Nachman said, ‘You have exempted us from reciting the Four Questions,’ and then began the narrative of the Exodus, saying, ‘We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt…’” (Pesachim, page 116a).
This story, which appears in a discussion of exemptions from recitations of the Four Questions, has troubled me for years. It resembles the story in chapter 6 of Esther, in which King Ahasuerus unintentionally tempts Haman with great honor, only to reveal that the man he wants to privilege is Mordecai, Haman’s enemy. When we read Esther on Purim, we root against Haman, so the temptation amuses, rather than bothers, me; when I read this story in Pesachim, I wonder why Rav Nachman does not take the obvious step of freeing Daru on the spot. Whereas Ahasuerus—mocked throughout Esther for his idiocy—seems unaware of the implications of his question, it seems strange to me that Rav Nachman, a sage, does not connect the dots: he has a slave, Passover celebrates freedom from slavery, and elsewhere in the Torah the Exodus is used as justification for helping oppressed peoples in Israelite society: the orphan, the widow, and the stranger. Why dangle the possibility of freedom before Daru, only to snatch it away?
A concordant passage in the same discussion clarifies the situation without making the power dynamic between Rav Nachman and Daru any less troubling. Abaye, while still a child, sees the tables being removed at the seder and asks his teacher why this is happening; his teacher replies, “You have exempted us from reciting the Four Questions,” and then begins the narrative of the Exodus, saying “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt….” In a narrative sense, Daru and Abaye fulfill the same role: the inferior whose curiosity is piqued for pedagogical purposes.
No one who knows the definition of slavery can ignore the irony of a story in which a master asks his slave, on the eve of a holiday celebrating freedom from slavery, what a slave does when freed. Having established that the text accentuates that power dynamic (without claiming that the text criticizes Rav Nachman through that emphasis), I want to explore my own feelings about such a power dynamic, and in what ways the story of Abaye actually has similar subtextual concerns with authority.
In “The Temptation of Temptation,” a lecture delivered by the Lithuanian-Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas in the late 1960s, Levinas asserts that “The temptation of temptation is knowledge.” What he means by this is that Western civilization urges us to follow the Ulyssean credo: to experience and learn as much as we can, without fully engaging with any of those experiences; Judaism, predicated on an acceptance of the Torah before we know its contents, replaces the broad sweep of western civilization’s project with a deep but narrow experience.
In one sense, the Passover seder circles around the specific knowledge that lies at the core of the Jewish narrative: the Exodus. We were slaves in Egypt, and God took us out with a strong hand and an outstretched arm. But we do not get much more specific than that. No Moses, no Aaron, and—until feminists put her cup on the seder table—no Miriam. The Exodus is pared down to the least interesting and least convincing parts (‘God saved and will save us’ ringing hollow in the face of history) and stripped of its best literary feature (a story of Moses’ individual struggles as a synecdoche for national liberation).
Before we tell that anemic story, however, we first tempt the children with the offer of knowledge—showing them icons to provoke questions, then answering (or not answering) those questions in roundabout ways. Our Haggadot—no matter which versions—establish a dialectic between those who possess knowledge and those who do not. The former tempt the latter with odd rituals, goading them by exclusion. The wise sons ask nothing; they exchange signals with their elders, gloating while their counterparts feel alienated, confused, and overwhelmed by the shibboleths.
The temptation that Daru faces is not only the prospect of freedom but also acceptance into the inner sanctum of the seder ritual. Like those children who still think they will hear the full story of the Exodus, Daru expects so much of the seder at the beginning of this story that he cannot help but be disappointed.
Lest we read Rav Nachman’s question as the substitute for the Four Questions, the Talmud in Pesachim contains the following midrash: God commands the Red Sea to throw out all the bodies of Egyptians onto dry land, so that the Israelites can see them. The sea replies, “Is there then a slave who was given a gift by his master, and was then deprived of it again?” In other words, the sea can never really possess anything, since all that it owns is God’s. This resembles Rav Nachman’s choice to dangle Daru’s freedom before him; one of the many pernicious elements of slavery is that the master owns any “property” of the slave’s. Insofar as knowledge is property, Rav Nachman’s question does not replace the Four Questions, since he cannot be tempted by that which he already possesses.
Must we then conclude that Daru’s statement is a form of the Four Questions? Perhaps. After all, his response points to the distinction between what he expects and what actually happens—a form of surprise around which the entire seder is based. The seder is designed to provoke us into noticing oddities, and digging deeper for answers. But the oddities we provide—almost all culinary—are not the sort to provoke an obedient slave to wonder aloud. Slaves and servants protect against their masters’ fickle tempers by being innocuous, discreet. To inquire into the rites of Passover might violate the wall with which forced servitude separates the master and the slave. So Rav Nachman must open the discussion to allow Daru to respond.
But I find this reading unsatisfying. Many scholars have already noticed that the Four Questions ask not four questions but only one: What is the difference between this night and all other nights? It then declaratively lists four differences, leading us to wonder whether the connotation of the question is: “In which ways is this night different from all other nights?” or “Why is this night different from all other nights?” If the former, the questioner has just answered his or her own question; if the latter, the question must be answered by the narrative, beginning with “We were slaves in Egypt….” Yet Daru’s response lacks the introductory question of the Four Questions. That is Rav Nachman’s job.
And Rav Nachman does not merely engage his slave with any old question, such as “In which ways is this night different from all other nights?” He asks him a question that strikes to the very core of their relationship, as if a partner of a law firm brings an associate into a large empty office on the well-known anniversary of the partner’s ancestor becoming partner of the firm and asks “What would an associate do if a partner granted him partner status?” The analogy, however, is unapt because Rav Nachman’s question is also open to attack in the same way that Frederick Douglass took issue with Fourth of July celebrations in 1852: while the master celebrates national liberation, his slave toils to bring him bread. The matzah served at Rav Nachman’s table that night is indeed the bread of affliction.
To return to the parallel text about Abaye, I think that the exchange between Rav Nachman and Daru should be read as a dialectic between slave and master that bears an uncomfortable resemblance to the dialogue between parent and child at our seders. Rav Nachman asks a question, Daru replies, and Rav Nachman asserts that such an interaction allows them to move on with the seder. In Hegelian terms, Rav Nachman has faked a synthesis—advancing a thesis, having Daru respond, and moving on, but all the while knowing which direction the synthesis will take. In practical terms, he knows from the beginning that he will not free Daru; the meal has not yet been served, and without Daru who will serve it?
Maybe it is not only the form of Daru’s oppression that troubles me, but also this similarity to the way that our parents tempt us with knowledge, only to snatch it away. Traditional pedagogical techniques, like those of the Socratic method, dictate that far more knowledge is promised to the student than ends up being granted. The teacher teases the student with what the latter does not know, making him or her feel a mixture of shame and envy that will hopefully drive them to seek that knowledge. But once on the other side of the hedge—once in the orchard of wisdom—the student realizes just how little wisdom can be gained, and more broadly, how nonsensical the world is. Should our condemnation of Rav Nachman not be limited to the simple fact that he does not free Daru, but also the way he dangles freedom in front of Daru? The process of education is inherently traumatic in the way that students are tempted and then disenchanted, without advocating the abandonment of education—just the recognition of that suffering.
Levinas devotes the main part of his lecture, “The Temptation of Temptation,” to a discussion of a Talmudic story about the Revelation at Sinai, in which God dangles the mountain over the Israelites’ heads, compelling them to give the much parsed biblical acceptance of the Law before they have heard its contents. Faced with a choice between life and death, the Israelites choose the Torah, much the way Daru must choose a reply that flatters his master, and the student or child chooses to avoid shame by seeking out the wisdom that will grant him a seat at the table with his elders. All three cases represent a formulation of the dynamic between inferiors and their superiors, in which the inferiors must do that which Levinas ascribes to the Israelites:
“To receive the gift of the Torah—a Law—is to fulfill it before consciously accepting it. … But, here, when we look more closely, we see that this free acceptance amounts to practicing before adhering. Not only does acceptance precede examination but practice precedes adherence. It is as if the alternatives liberty-coercion were not the final ones, as if it were possible to go beyond the notions of coercion and adherence due to coercion by formulating a “practice” prior to voluntary adherence. Consequently, it is as if the adherence given under constraint revealed a beyond-freedom-and-constraint, a commitment leaving no room for what we normally call adherence.”
Education, this paradigm suggests, is a process of accepting humanity’s body of knowledge before having seen it. Such an observation is borne out in the academy, where we accept some canon (whether it is the Western or a more multicultural one) before we have even encountered the details. Much as he or she might like to bullshit from time to time, no true student can render judgment on a book before having read it. Similarly, Daru cannot know freedom (or the brutal lack thereof) until he has acknowledged his role in the imagined liberation: gratitude made manifest. Only once he has committed to such a fantasy can his hopes be dashed and temptation prove nothing more than an elusive shadow.
This interpretation of education—in which the student must be excluded, tempted, and convinced to commit, before being cruelly disillusioned by the Ecclesiastes-esque futility of the search for knowledge—resonates with me for personal reasons. When I became bar mitzvah—the preparation for which involved quite a bit of rote memorization—I did not fully appreciate the tradition I had received. Looking back, I find my approach to the ceremony immature, untested. I recently tutored a student who seemed deeply ambivalent, if not utterly reluctant, about the approaching rite. He expected that knowing how to read Torah and Haftarah would grant him membership to a club. In a sense it did; he has become a Jewish adult. But there was a cost: his frustration as he tried to measure up to my reading (which had been attained only with the same frustration), his alienation when he considered the entire community of Jewish adults, and his disappointment when he was still unable to make sense of the world.
Part of me wonders whether there is another way to teach our children; part of me thinks there is not—that there is no way to inspire them except through temptation. Although this dynamic seems more pronounced within religious education—in which inclusion and exclusion, via ritualistic signifiers, are not just the tools, but perhaps the very goals, of the pedagogical project—it is certainly present in every educational enterprise. Insofar as all temptation deceives the tempted into believing that there is something worthy of attainment—only to reveal a void, maybe teaching our children requires tricking them. Let us hope that they recover from it.