Torah Education
Moshe Ben-Chaim

For quite some time now, I wanted to address the topic of education for many reasons. My primary concern is that the student develops a healthy outlook for, and a magnetic attraction towards Torah study. I will address a few issues in this first article and hope to continue with a follow up.
A friend's daughter repeated a medrash - a story - taught to her by her teacher. The teacher said that certain "righteous" people have the ability to alter nature - an ability we must only ascribe to the Creator - Who created natures' laws. Taking such stories literally eliminates any chance for the student to think into the true ideas behind such metaphors. All knowledge encapsulated in these metaphors by the Sages' cryptic writings is lost. The Rabbis did not intend for us to believe that Og lifted Mount Sinai off the Earth, or to believe that we actually studied Torah inside our mothers' wombs.
Where did this teacher get the idea that unbelievable metaphors are to be taken literally? No Sage said these are literal stories. In fact, they teach us just the opposite, that such stories are metaphors. King Solomon says in his opening statement in Proverbs, (1:6) "To understand metaphor and poetic expression, the words of the wise and their riddles." Kind Solomon clearly states that Rabbis spoke in riddles and metaphors. If Og lifting Mount Sinai is not a metaphor, I don't know what is.
Metaphors are a means by which we may arrive at deep concepts, not readily accepted by the masses. If one cannot unravel the riddle, then the idea is safely transmitted to the next generation. The priceless, hidden ideas are not lost. If one can see through the metaphor, then he arrives at a true concept. But one should not believe things which make no sense to his or her mind. If as a teacher, you come across a story which you cannot explain, seek understanding from those greater than you. If your own superiors take it literally, you have no obligation to follow in their error. Skip it. Perhaps later in life you will merit to understand the Rabbis' true intent. But by all means, do not teach something just because Rashi said it. Teach only what makes sense to you. Teaching means you enlighten your students to a new idea, leading them to a true appreciation of God's wisdom. If you simply teach them Rashi's words, but they are left with no understanding, it is better not to confuse them. They might even develop poor self esteem if they continue to be confused by incoherent statements, blaming themselves for their ignorance, and not the teacher.
Training children and students to accept fantastic stories has become the way of Jewish educators, who themselves were subject to this damaging practice. However, by reading what King Solomon taught, and what Maimonides' son Avraham discusses in his intro to Ein Yaakov, we realize that fantastic stories are not to be understood literally. We remove ourselves from fallacy and fantasy, and gain a chance at learning the true, underlying concepts that the Rabbis wish us to understand. Appreciation of God's Torah wisdom means it must register on our minds as sensible.
As a teacher, your goal is to help your students sharpen their minds. You must not feel that your job is to feed them every Rashi on the Chumash. Help them to move forward, starting at the stage of intellectual development they presently are at. Many teachers mistakenly teach Genesis to first graders, one of the more abstract and difficult parshas, just because it is at the beginning of the Chumash. Adults have a hard time grasping Genesis, let alone children. I understand that schools have a curriculum, but perhaps with your input, they too will understand that certain areas are better left for those of greater intellectual maturity. Don't just follow the masses when Torah education is at risk.
Children are tomorrow's leaders. Take responsibility. Teach them Torah as the Rabbis taught. Not only will the children benefit and enjoy their studies, but you pave the future with greater Torah appreciation.
Responding to Questions
Say you don't know when you don't. No student expects a teacher to have all the answers. Be honest. If you have a possibility, say it's a possibility. You are not a teacher to impress upon your student's your absolute knowledge or control. If you feel this is true in yourself, stop teaching immediately. Your goal is to open up students to God's knowledge. When you admit error, the student will respect your honesty. Their trust in you will go very far. They too will feel comfortable when they don't know something. It makes it OK for them to ask questions, and this furthers their learning to such a greater degree. Ethics of the fathers teaches us that one embarrassed will not learn. By saying "I don't know", you enable a student to accept themselves when they don't, and you encourage their curiosity. Contrast this great good to those destructive teachers who enter teaching just to satisfy their need for control. What a sin that is saying, "that's not a good question" when you are bereft of an answer. Dismissing the student's real questions encourages him to refrain from speaking up in the future. He learns to resent authority, ad he learns to despise anything associated with learning.
Today, Torah education lacks teachers who actually learn the Foundations of Torah - the Yesodos of Yahadus. Many teachers merely parrot notions they have heard from fellow Jews, not principles they have read in the Sages' works.
For example, a widely accepted view today is that "all opinions are correct." People base this on the Rabbis' statement, "70 faces to the Torah." The one problem is as follows; why did Ramban argue on Maimonides, or Ramban on Rashi? If all views are correct, shouldn't Ramban accept Rashi's opinions? The Talmud in Chullin states, "had Yehoshua ben Nun said it, I would not follow it." What is this Talmud teaching? These cases are examples of how the Torah sages learned. They were not blinded by reputations, they followed their minds. I have heard responses to this argument, "well they are greater, but we don't have the right to argue." This sentiment is not found in the Torah. We see just the opposite, that we are to use our minds. See the introduction to "Duties of the Heart". The author teaches that we are not to simply follow the Rabbis blindly, but we are to think into all matters and commands so they are clear and rationally pleasing to our minds. As we recite in Alenu each day, "And you shall know it today, and you shall return it to your heart." Knowledge of the law is not the ends. It must be followed by a "returning to your heart." Understanding is where all studies must eventuate.
Confidence, Praise and Independent Thought
In order to develop an independently thinking child who selects his own values, thinks for himself and is actually meritorious of 'his' views, a level of confidence must developed. All actions as teachers or parents which may topple this delicate structure in its formation must be avoided. Most adults remain victim to public opinion. They value what others think, more than what their own mind tells them. They live for others, and rarely for themselves. A true waste of an individual mind.
Our Torah is designed for a person's well being, and for his or her own merit in following it. Merit, by definition, means that one acts for themselves. They do not act to impress others. To bring a student to such a level, we must help them with the most important of all challenges; developing independent thinking, based on a clear and accurate understanding of Torah values, ideas, morality. This goes back to our first point, that teaching facts bereft of any new rational idea is not teaching. This type of approach of spoon feeding incoherent facts spoils the minds. Instead of sharpening students' minds, you blur their thinking and cripple their lives.
Who came up with this idea that all students in a class of 25 must be measured by the same barometer? What a harmful practice. How many adults today would love learning, were it not for the poor self image that they developed due to feelings of inadequacy produced by tests? And the tests themselves don't even measure what the Torah values. "The purpose of learning is svara" - reasoning. The Talmud does not say the purpose of learning is a memorization of facts. Ethics of the Fathers (2:8) compares memory to reasoning and the higher praise is for Rabbi Elazar ben Arach who is equated to an increasingly strong spring. The idea is that one who produces new insights like a spring outweighs even one with greater memory. Why is this quality of insight a greater trait than memory? Think about it, we will continue next week. Have an insightful shabbos.