If I ask you to name a teacher who influenced you, does a name and a face come to mind?
We were recently asked to recall such teachers by a young rabbi at Temple Beth Am. Conversations buzzed instantly. The gentleman sitting next to me had a professor who said, “You’ll never be a writer.” Thirty years later, the gentleman was published in the Anthology of Outstanding American Writing, and couldn’t resist sending a copy to the professor. The gracious reply: “My dear boy, a teacher is never disappointed to be shown he underestimated a student.”
The session ended before I had a chance to share my own recollection. Had time permitted, I would’ve mentioned Mrs. Schreiber, my 6th grade teacher at New City Elementary. I was then a colossal geek: an immigrant kid without older siblings, my nearest cousin a thousand miles away, and no one to guide me in the ways of cool. I was also too tall and too red-haired, I never had the right clothes and I couldn’t punt a football to save my life. The one thing I had going for me was smarts, but that was not a social benefit, and I compensated by talking too much. Trouble loomed.
Enter Mrs. Schreiber. New City Elementary did not have an enrichment program, but she decided I needed one, so she created it. She purchased a 9th grade algebra book, drafted a course of study, and challenged me. More importantly, when I felt I was racing ahead of my classmates, and could thus be excused for blowing off some homework, she chose just the right words to check my ego and keep me focused. Mrs. Schreiber did a ton of extra, unpaid work because she believed in me, and that investment led me to believe in myself. I did not become cool, but I did stay out of trouble. Mostly.
I mention all this here because the Talmud, which is basically written by teachers, holds teachers to a very high standard of conduct. I believe Mrs. Schreiber liked me, perhaps even loved me as she loved all her students, but she went the extra mile because it was the right thing to do.
Those who write down the laws of the Oral Torah are like one who burns the Torah. (Temurah 14b)
What?! The Talmud is mostly a written record of the Oral Torah! What is going on here?
The Oral Torah is a collection of laws and interpretations that were transmitted to Moses at Mount Sinai and passed down orally through the generations. Commentators have suggested that the Oral Torah should not be written down because it could catch fire on Shabbat, and we would are not permitted to break the Sabbath laws in order to rescue such writings as we would a Torah Scroll. (Ibid.)
Rashi says the writing of such laws is not literally like burning a Torah Scroll, but rather that the essence of the Oral Torah is its oral transmission, and it is thus forbidden to engage in an activity that will undermine that process. (Shabbos 6b)
Likewise, Ritva says such writing leads to misinterpretation because the give-and-take of a teacher/student relationship is essential to the comprehension of Oral Torah - if a student reads the writing alone he will inevitably misunderstand the true nature of his studies. (Gittin 60b)
Eventually, of course, the Oral Torah had to be written down, because the alternative was worse: if the Sages did not transcribe their tradition after the desctruction of Jerusalem, that tradition would be lost. This is the very limited meaning of the verse:
When it is a time to act for G-d, nullify your Torah. (Temurah 14b)
It is still required, however, to learn with a teacher if a teacher is available. Indeed, two pages later in Tractate Temurah we encounter a wonderful example of the Oral Torah’s role in illuminating the written word.
The poor man and the oppressor meet together; the LORD gives light to the eyes of both. (ESV, Proverbs 29:13)
“Oppressor” is a common translation of the Hebrew “techachim.” The proverb thus suggests that the oppressor derives his sustenance from the same Source as the oppressed, and he will eventually get his comeuppance. The Oral Tradition, however, interprets “techachim,” which literally means broken, as deriving from “toch” which means middle or average. Thus:
The poor man and the middle class man have met, G-d will enlighten the eyes of both. (Termurah 16a)
R’ Nassan explains: a student approaches a teacher of middling accomplishment and says, “Teach me Torah.” If the teacher teaches, G-d will enlighten the eyes of both. If the teacher does not teach, the student will become wise regardless, presumably by finding another teacher, and the teacher will eventually become a fool. (Ibid.)
Now we begin to understand why the Talmud is completely unlike any other book of law. It records contradictory opinions, illustrative anecdotes and mystical allegories because it is actually a study guide for teacher and student (or study-partners among whom the teacher/student roles oscillate.) You can start reading Talmud on your own, but eventually you will need a teacher, and a great teacher is a treasure.
Which brings me back to Mrs. Schreiber, who first kindled my love of learning. She not only encouraged me to ask questions, she demanded it. And I suspect she learned something from the process.
I have always believed a good conversation is one in which all participants learn something that none knew before. Perhaps that is why I became the Accidental Talmudist. I look forward to learning from you, my friends, and hearing about your favorite teachers at facebook.com/accidentaltalmudist
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Salvador Litvak wrote and directed the Passover comedy and cult hit “When Do We Eat?” His current film, “Saving Lincoln”, explores Abraham Lincoln’s conflicted tenure as commander-in-chief through the eyes of his dear friend and bodyguard, Ward Hill Lamon.
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