Make Yourself a Teacher

By Yehudah Mirsky
Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The meanings of "Torah" are inexhaustible, but its plainest sense is "teaching."  It does not exist apart from being communicated.  That circulation between human beings, and between humans and God, both gives Torah life and teaches us that Torah itself teaches life.  We Jews are so in love with our texts and textuality that we bid to lose sight of the human immediacy—typos, misprints and all—without which Torah is a body lacking a soul.  A new volume by Susan Handelman, Make Yourself a Teacher, tries to shake us back into awareness of this crucial fact through a close reading of a particularly coruscating series of talmudic stories about mentors and disciples.

Handelman's first book, The Slayers of Moses, was a path-breaking synthesis of rabbinic texts and modern literary theory.  Her second, Fragments of Redemption, studied the interplay between Jewish thought and literary theory in the work of Walter Benjamin, Gershom Scholem, and Emmanuel Levinas—who, with Franz Rosenzweig, charted a path beyond the "shattering of the tablets of philosophy" by the crises of the 20th century toward a synthesis of ethics, religion, and life that would constitute a "unity after the book."  Handelman's latest volume seeks the unity after the ravaged book of Western philosophy by reverting to an idea that precedes the book: the teacher-student relationships through which God's book will be taught.  This circularity parallels Handelman's reading of the rabbis, in which teachers are students and students are teachers.

Handelman, a professor at Bar-Ilan University, focuses on three classic talmudic stories with a common protagonist, the late-first-century to early-second-century Rabbi Eliezer the Great.  Rabbi Eliezer, who lived through the destruction of the Temple and the attempt by his master, Yohanan ben Zakai, to reconstitute the traditions, is generally considered an arch-traditionalist, committed to transmitting those traditions precisely as he received them.

This is, of course, an oversimplification: There is no legal system without interpretation.  Moreover, talking with certainty about the real-life Rabbi Eliezer flies in the face of contemporary Talmud scholarship, whose careful sifting of rabbinic texts created by generations of editors indicates that actual rabbinic biography is nearly impossible.  The texts have meaning, but this meaning lies in a record not of historical events but of the way in which rabbinic culture constructed and presented its own history.  To treat this record, Handelman uses "formalistic literary methods, combined with speculations about larger existential and theological meanings."  In her able hands, this combination of tools yields powerful results.  

The first story describes Eliezer's initiation into Yohanan ben Zakai's circle of disciples (Avot de-Rabbi Natan, ver. A, chap. 6).  In it, Handelman sees the features of Eliezer's character that will emerge in the other stories, especially his stubborn independence even in his submission to tradition.  In his early silences, when his new teacher practically has to pry his mouth open not just to speak but to eat, Handelman discerns "a stage in all transformative learning . . . muteness, silence, emptiness, when one has to let go of previous knowledge and of many parts of oneself in order to absorb the new."

The next story she examines is the uber-canonical  "Oven of Akhnai" (Bava Metzia 58a–59b), in which Rabbi Eliezer succeeds in invoking auguries, miracles, and even a heavenly voice to make his point but fails to move his student-colleagues, who trump him with Deuteronomy's pronouncement that the Torah "is not in heaven."  The job of interpretation has been given to humanity; a miracle is not an argument.  One sees why this text's celebration of disagreement and rational argument is foundational to much contemporary Judaism.  But Handelman, like other recent commentators (perhaps most dramatically, Ari Elon), also sees its human drama.  Rabbi Eliezer is a courageous lone dissenter; the regnant rabbinic authority, Rabban Gamliel—Eliezer's brother-in-law, no less—has Eliezer excommunicated for his stubborn dissent.  Caught in the middle is Gamliel's wife, and Eliezer's sister, poignantly named "Mother of Peace," Imma Shalom.

Equally important, the legal question in this dispute is whether a vessel (in this case, an oven) reassembled from separate pieces, is "whole" and, therefore, susceptible to the ritual impurity that can attach only to the completed products of human creativity.  The stakes are high.  The question of "separation and wholeness"—"Who is really pure?  And how do we know?"—is raised through the story not only at the level of concrete objects but in "personal and family relations, teacher/student and collegial relations; the political and metaphysical relations between heaven and earth, and between Torah and its interpreters—all of which fracture."

Handelman's final story describes the fracture of Rabbi Eliezer's death.  He tries to communicate with his estranged but still-reverential students across a gulf of regret (Sanhedrin 68a): "Much Torah I learned, but I did not even skim from my teachers as much as a dog licks from the sea. Much Torah I taught, but my disciples only drew from me as much as a painting stick from its tube."  In his final words, Eliezer makes his last ruling on the laws of purity and impurity: A shoe not yet removed from the cobbler's last and, thus, unfinished (like Eliezer's life, Handelman beautifully suggests) is pure—perhaps too pure, Handelman observes, for this world.  She cites Rabbi Léon Askénazi ("Manitou"), a significant thinker still largely unknown to non-French readers: Great teachers can fail by soaring too high above their students or descending too low to meet them.  One must follow these "heroes of virtue, who scout out the path for others . . . but not imitate them."

Which brings us back to the heart of Handelman's project: restoring the orality of the Oral Torah, that delicate and difficult balance between authority and dialogue.  Her book wonderfully demonstrates the creative interplay between traditional learning and contemporary intellectual freedom that represents Jerusalem Judaics at its best.  But her subject is halakhah—law, a writ of rabbinic power over people's lives.  The intellectual and spiritual world she conjures from the texts, in which power relations, jealousies, and violence are played out on a literary stage, also play out harshly in people's lives, especially in Israel, where the rabbinate sits in City Hall.  One wishes she had addressed this dark side of rabbinic teaching.

Meanwhile, rabbis, and all of us, would do well to internalize Handelman's call to see teaching as not an add-on but a central category of human experience and to recognize the task of the Oral Torah in its most life-giving sense, "to give birth, to generate more Torah, more love, and the redemption of the world that flows from its study and practice."


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