Models in Jewish and Secular Education
By Yishai Schwartz
I sat bright-eyed and bushy-tailed in my first college seminar (ever!) and awaited the professor’s arrival. The fifteen of us, eager and nervous freshmen attending our first real class at Yale, had arrived ten minutes early and spent the surplus time eyeing one another appraisingly and gradually introducing ourselves. Then our professor walked in. The quiet murmurings stopped instantaneously and I jumped to my feet. It took me a few seconds to realize that – aside from the instructor – I was the only one standing; I sheepishly sank back into my chair.
I figured out what had happened rather quickly. Before coming to college, I had spent a year studying in a yeshiva in Israel. The protocol there is clear and unquestioned: when the Rav walks into the classroom, the students rise. When the Head of the Yeshiva walks into the beit midrash, the entire population, student and faculty, rises and waits patiently for their master teacher, community leader, and cultural icon to take his seat. The habit had become ingrained in me. But as I walked out of that first class, I couldn’t help but wonder how that year of standing up had affected my notion of education and how my relationships with teachers over the course of the next few years would differ from my experience in yeshiva.
A year after that first college seminar, I’m still pondering how community standards of respect and authority differ between secular and religious settings, and the effect that these standards have on the education and growth of students. I am aware both of solid Jewish theological reasons for formal student-teacher hierarchy, and of a natural human inclination for the idolization of teachers. But I am increasingly convinced that in the modern world, the educational price of hierarchy is not worth the theological benefit, and that the secular tendency towards idolization inhibits teachers’ ability to offer real-world advice. In light of these realities, we must highlight and elevate those elements of tradition which emphasize closeness between student and teacher and thereby create the framework where responsible moral guidance can be offered.
Some Sources: Tension
For millennia, the rabbi-student relationship has been at the heart of the Jewish community’s cultural continuity. Yet the textual tradition struggles with how best to conceive of this relationship, and throughout Jewish literature and history there has been a recognition of a practical tension between the rabbi’s authority on the one hand, and the warmth and ability to inspire trust that we expect from an ideal teacher on the other.
The Talmud in Ketubot 96a illustrates the fundamental hierarchy of ancient rabbi-student relationships: “Rabbi Joshua ben Levi said: all of the services which a slave performs for his master, a student must perform for his teacher.” And in Berakhot 27b, the Talmud quotes from a beraita that demonstrates a strict hierarchical relationship between student and teacher that borders on the stifling: “Rabbi Eliezer says: a person who prays behind his rabbi, and one who greets his rabbi, and one who returns greetings to his rabbi, and one who disagrees with the academy of his rabbi, and whoever says something not in the name of his rabbi – causes God’s presence to remove itself from Israel.” These statements represent a harsh and unyielding expression of culturally enforced rabbinic otherness.
Why such an emphasis on the creation of this “otherness?” What values does this practice emphasize, and what educational goals does it achieve? A key element to bear in mind when answering this question – which may be answered (like any good Jewish problem) in any number of ways – is the tendency of classical sources to draw a parallel between the rabbi and God himself. In the Mishna Avot 4:1, Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua urges, “Let your fear of your teacher be like the fear of Heaven.” And Maimonides, in his laws of Torah study 5.1, provides this parallel between God and the teacher as the basis for the services and ritualized expressions of respect that a student must show his teacher.
On a basic level, this God-rabbi analogy presents teachers as a means to a religious end. The distance and “otherness” created in relationships with teachers are tools in the molding of a personality and a form of training for an individual’s relationship to God. The rabbi is not merely a teacher; he is a teacher of Torah, and as such, he is a representative of God on earth. By enforcing the outward expressions of hierarchy between a teacher of Torah and a student, the tradition strives to inculcate society with devotion and subservience to Torah and God.
But the subservience recommended by Jewish tradition isn’t just inculcating personality traits in the disciple; it is also an end to itself. The language that is used by the Talmud and subsequent law-codes is one of debt and legal obligation. Maimonides describes how the honor a student owes his teacher exceeds that which he owes his parent because “while the parent brings a child into this world, the teacher brings the child into the world to come.” The student has a debt to his teacher that he must pay, a debt that is generated by the tangible and critical service that the rabbi has provided to his student. Unlike simple financial debts, this debt is not paid back in money or property, but in service and reverence. Thus this debt and its payment also reflect the God-teacher parallel: just as the human owes God service and respect in return for his acts of creation and sustenance, so too the student owes the teacher for his religious nurturing.
Beyond the quid-pro-quo exchange of services, the obedience and reverence that a student owes his teacher might also be a function of awe of the rabbi’s wisdom. In this formulation, a being can command respect and demand service simply by virtue of its own identity and power. This too is remarkably similar to visions of God. Just as the God of Aristotle or of the Psalms moves the world to worship through sheer might and awesomeness, so too the teacher’s very identity necessitates the distance between teacher and student. Although absolute hierarchal obligations (based in debt or personal status) may be threatening to contemporary, independent minded individuals, and although they often cause irreconcilable pragmatic injustices, hierarchy is an irremovable piece of textually valid theological Judaism. Thus the teacher is not simply a set of training wheels for a student to learn respect for God, but embodies a diluted version of the very same qualities and activities that mandate our worship of God.
The God-rabbi analogy in rabbinic literature has suggested a few basic goals for the hierarchal rabbi-student relationship:
- the conscientious development of an individual’s character in a manner conducive to worship of God,
- the satisfaction of a debt to someone who has provided a service of value, and
- a requirement that we fulfill an absolute obligation that derives from the very nature of authority and power.
However, in contrast to this strong hierarchal strand, other traditional texts reflect a desire to back away from heavy-handed authoritarianism. In multiple places, the Talmud and subsequent sources compare a student’s rabbi to a parent, and urge students to feel similar emotions towards the two. When a student’s teacher dies, he is supposed to tear garments and mourn as a child for a parent. The same Mishnaic statement of Rabbi Elazar that urged students to fear God as they fear Heaven begins: “Let your student’s honor be as precious to you as your own.” There may be distance and hierarchy at play in the teaching relationship, but there is also an intense personal connection, such that students cry out in genuine pain when their teachers are gone.
My Jewish Education: Two Contrasting Models of Intimacy
My personal experience has never precisely mapped onto the legal prescriptions indicated by many of these sources. But I imagine that they shed some light on this second strand in the rabbinic tradition, that which preaches intimacy and closeness.
I attended a modern Orthodox high school in which rabbinic faculty members were referred to by title and last name, but these teachers never asked that the students stand for them. The school fomented a personal and homey learning environment where teachers and student huddled on the floor, played sports, ate lunch, and schmoozed in the hallways together. When I argued that we should abolish titles and address teachers by their first names, my case was not merely humored but genuinely considered (and ultimately, only denied on the grounds that “people would think we’re weird”). The institution placed a premium on trusting student-teacher relationships and so intentionally tore down many hierarchical barriers. In this, I see little resemblance to the Talmudic discipleships of the previous millennium.
My high school did make tradeoffs. Few of the faculty assumed a status of “otherness” and inspired me with an awe and admiration that I could later feel for God. I rarely (if ever) felt a profound obligation and need to repay a vast debt resulting from the education and wisdom they had given me. At the same time, the accessibility of these educators had a deep impact on my religious development. I continue to feel comfortable approaching those teachers to discuss theological and experiential difficulties, and the proximity of our relationships allows me to feel confident that I understand their advice in the context of their personalities and of our relationship.
When I graduated, though, I was exposed to a very different model. Israeli hesder yeshivot, even those firmly committed to engaging with the outside world, tend to hew closer to tradition in their respect for rabbis. Students were not expected to shine their teachers’ shoes, but there was a clear expectation of deference and a conscious embrace of authority. Rabbis were not only stood for when they entered a room but also addressed in the third person (e.g., “What does the rav think about…?”).
At the same time, simple and formulaic rabbinic authority doesn’t encompass the yeshiva’s method of interaction. Rabbis may not have sat on the floor with their students to casually discuss their personal lives and thoughts, but there was an expectation of intimacy grounded in the assumption that students should feel comfortable turning to their teachers for personal guidance. Often individual students huddled in the corners of the cavernous study hall, animatedly talking to rabbis to whom they felt particularly close. Sometimes they would ask about faith and practice, but nearly as frequently they requested guidance regarding their relationships, professional trajectories, and general life choices.
How is this degree of personal trust possible in an environment in which hierarchy and distance are so assiduously maintained? And does this model truly retain both Talmudic ideals of intimacy and hierarchy as my high school clearly failed to do?
The key, I think, is a subtle nuance in the nature of the intimacy that develops. The coziness of my high school, and the trust I had in my teachers, derived from a comfort of peers. I felt I understood (to some extent) my teachers, and I felt they really understood me. Such is not the case with students in Israeli yeshivot similar to the one I attended. In my high school, the advice I received from a mutual relationship functioned as a tool for making the optimal decision, while the counsel of the authority figure offered in yeshiva represents the abdication of responsibility for that decision.
Although the personal and immanent rebbe model does not necessarily conflict with one of hierarchy, we have to be quite clear about what kind of personal rebbe we seek. If we maintain hierarchy and honor explicit boundaries in the interest of preserving some of those traditional hierarchal values, the intimacy that follows is one-sided – and therefore psychologically binding – advice. If we strive for the closeness of peers, and to view one another as free human beings, then the trappings of hierarchy must become mere formalities.
In University: A Secular Inclination for Hierarchy
Coming to a secular university, I expected the situation to be radically different. After all, the Talmudic conception of a rabbi-student hierarchy is steeped in theological allegory and religious values. Training for a relationship to God and metaphysically created obligation don’t seem to have a place in a secular worldview, and massive college tuition coupled with healthy faculty salaries diminishes the sense of debt. I expected that the authority and distance would vanish, and that perhaps I would be back in high school. Indeed, those first sheepish moments in my freshman philosophy seminar seemed like a confirmation of those suspicions. However, I quickly found that the relationship between professors and students in secular universities strongly resembles that of the traditional yeshiva.
Upon entering Yale I became aware of the quasi-cults that surround various faculty members, and I noticed how closely the phenomenon resembled the idolization of rabbis in yeshiva. Students here pull all sorts of stunts and engage in gratuitous brown-nosing in the attempt to get themselves into specific seminars. We start Facebook groups in professors’ honor, and speak hyperbolically about their perspicaciousness and wit. There is always excited whispering when a particularly well-liked instructor passes, and when a guest lecturer is introduced as a Sterling Professor, (which is, we are always reminded, the highest recognition that Yale University can offer to any member of the faculty) an expectant hush falls over the room as everyone leans forward in their seats.
In yeshiva, students regularly sat around at lunch trading “Rav Aharon stories,” mythologized vignettes about the head of our yeshiva that were intended to illustrate his erudition and righteousness. Each of these stories might have been true, and at Yale each of our teachers might possess the characteristics of greatness that we attribute to them. Nevertheless, our impulse to constantly articulate these truths in public betrays our desire to perpetuate the hierarchy. Because this phenomenon carries over into the secular world of the university, the religious purposes suggested by traditional Jewish sources are an inadequate explanation for this desire. Instead, this tendency to mythologize and idolize teachers appears to be a natural predilection of students in institutions of higher learning, whether religious or secular.
I would argue that this tendency is not a product of consciously articulated values; rather it is a natural outgrowth of the personalities of the kind of students who attend these institutions and of the project in which they are engaged. Both universities and yeshivot gevohot (post-high school yeshivot) attract students who are there by choice and eager to “succeed.” But who are the models for success in educational environments if not the educators themselves? Idolization is often the factor that enables the desire to emulate our faculty. To succeed, we need models of success to admire and emulate, and so we put teachers on pedestals. So the question becomes: does the secular authority of the university faculty present precisely the same problems as the religious authority of the yeshiva rabbis?
I do not believe this to be the case. Because, as much as the classic rabbinic model and modern academic model resemble one another in the underlying motivation for the maintenance of clear respect and even awe, the justifications for these hierarchal interactions are radically different. These differences result in a secular educational hierarchy which raises challenges distinct from, but equal to, those raised by the authority of the rabbis. At the center of the rabbis’ power, at the heart of their otherness, lies the assumption that they represent the authority of the Torah and manifest the weight of millennia of tradition and, by extension, the will of the Jewish people. College faculty lacks the automatic religious authority of the Torah and so increasingly rejects the formal symbols of authority in their speech and dress. Increasingly, professors choose to be called by their first name and to dress as casually, if not more casually, than their students. Instead, they rely on clout, personality, and sheer intellectual fire-power to make their case. The lecturer who enraptures her audience, the department chair who has authored 20 books, and the recipient of the MacArthur genius grant all establish their authority as solidly as the sage, but by with a different basis. And where the overwhelming nature of the religious sage’s moral authority strips his student of agency as he offers guidance, it is precisely the alternative justification of professorial authority that diminishes the professor’s ability to offer the most necessary and useful guidance in the first place.
For all the solidity of the professor’s standing, he or she inspires a wholly different kind of respect than the rabbi. Rabbis struggle to live lives (or at least present themselves as living lives) of moral virtue; they open their homes to strangers and deemphasize secular pastimes. Often, the rabbi’s entire personality becomes a subject of emulation; students genuinely aspire to be the idealized version of whomever they admire. Such is rarely the case with professors, and the reason is simple: professors don’t make their personal lives and self-presentation the source of their success – at least outwardly. Even when professors are threatened by rumors, our respect for secular teachers remains largely intact. After all, we don’t desire to be Harold Bloom, but to have written his books. This lack of any sort of moral clout combined with the utterly theoretical and impersonal nature of their subject matter ultimately strips them of real-life relevance. The Shakespeare and Kant that our professors teach can begin to help us frame certain kinds of questions, but our faculty abandons us at the starting line. They teach classes of minds; they do not guide whole individuals.
Ultimately, this essential difference in the way we relate to professors and rabbis also explains the differences in kinds of personal interactions that take place in each of these distinct relationships. With a traditional rabbinic model, hierarchy is demanded and maintained through structural and legal tools and endowed with religious significance. The result is a quasi-closeness that can only be uni-directional and impersonal: a wise machine provides guidance while a passive listener accepts that guidance. But in a university, any influence over the totality of a student’s life is lost. There are no structural trappings theological justification that make professors into distant figures who are fundamentally other, but there is also nothing that invests professors with moral authority or life wisdom. Instead, we perceive them as brains in jars – magnificent in one dimension, but all too often of merely anecdotal utility in all others.
The words “rav” and “professor” themselves provide a retrospective on the development – and indicate the fluidity – of each category. “Rav” literally means “master” and was used as often in relation to “eved” (slave) as it was to “talmid” (student). Over the course of the generations, the sense of physical dominion, of tangible ownership, has diminished. Yet the term has been rejuvenated and invested with religious, even moral, authority, and the accompanying formal manifestations of hierarchy remain. “Professor,” on the other hand, has its origins in the Middle Latin and Middle English meaning of “taking vows (in a religious order).” Today, the moral and spiritual weight of the title of professor has all but disappeared and has been replaced by an association with intellectual prowess. The secular “master” is now a religious leader, and the “taker of vows” is now an cerebral force. Neither is naturally capable of the truly personal relationship with his students, but both can inspire the pursuit of an ideal.
If we are to continue this evolution and development of the educator’s role in the most positive and productive direction with an eye to Jewish tradition, we must bear in mind the lessons of tradition and modernity. While traditional rabbis and university professors may differ in how they express authority and inspire awe, and they certainly differ with regard to the nature and extent of the impact they can have on their students’ lives, they share a fundamental weakness (derivative of their stature) in their inability to aid their students in the making of truly independent, meaningful life decisions.
It should come as no surprise that I would take my high school teachers over either model. The men and women of my high school faculty were smart and devoted, but I viewed them as only one step ahead of me in their own attempts to learn and live as well as possible. I didn’t feel compelled to mirror them exactly nor did I despair over my inability to do so. Like professors, my teachers rejected the formal rabbinic trappings of hierarchy and refrained from crushing agency with their own moral decisiveness; like rabbis, they never abdicated responsibility for educating the whole individual, rather than just the mind. This lesser-praised faculty provides a model for a new balance and a new way of navigating the treacherous waters of authority and autonomy, intimacy and distance, moral instruction and intellectual education.
In the modern world, the costs of maintaining strict hierarchy are too high and the system too often fails to advance our specific spiritual agenda. But we must also realize the important role that some degree of hierarchy plays in the inspiration to self-improvement, and we must refuse to discard the moral and spiritual components of education. Only armed with an understanding of the current educational models – both their failures and aspirations – will we be able to forge a new way forward.