Monday, May 15, 2006

Halakhic Man and the Mentor/Apprentice Model of Ancient Greece

So I was talking to someone over Shabbos about the Rav in general and Halakhic Man specifically, and both of us noted the same danger in the youth of today reading such works. the problem is that we read Halakhic Man as a mussar sefer instead of what it is, a descriptive work. We are drawn in by the aesthetics and emotion of the Rav's compelling writing and somehow manage to convince ourselves that the experience of a few elite Briskers is the Talmud Torah experience, and is what our Talmud Torah experience should be, and in fact is what it is a few days after we start reading the book, since it has to be, since we convince ourselves that it has to be...and convince ourselves that it is a mere few days later. What the Rav was recording was an experience that grew and grew after years of sitting with his father every day over the gemara. Yet somehow we posit that as mere teenagers or even young adults, who have not learned even a fraction of the amount that the Rav learned, (aside from those of us who have-you are obsolved from this) we too can and must have the same experience. Furthermore, we think this has to be the experience, when as products of modernity and as individuals we will most definately have a different experience. THIS IS EXTREMELY DAMAGING! (But it is also true that it is a good way of convincing modern people that this a-priori system of thought, that ignores many assumptions that we have of the world, is the most worthwhile endeavor.) The same can be true of much of the Rav's descriptive work. It is positive and helpful in terms of bringing someone into his vision and religious experience, it helps to color our religious vision and experience, but as a moreh derech in the beginning. We all reach the point of disconnect when we realize that we can no longer read our Rav precisely because of what drew us to him in the first place! The Rav's descriptive style enables it to grab hold of our religious perspective, to almost shape our religious experience, if we relate to it in the least bit. There comes a point where we realize that is only helpful to open the door and then we crave our own autonomy, we want to create our very own "Lonely Man of Faith". It's the typical parent/child relationship. Some of us may even be upset at the Rav for shaping their religious perspetive, ignoring the help he gave by opening the door and letting in the light. And perhaps such a complaint would be legitimate. But hey! You picked up the book so blame yourself!

In connection to this, I was discussing with the same person (it was a 3 hour conversation) models of education, expressing my hopelessly ideal preference of the ancient Greek model of student and apprentice, which is somewhat similar to the timeless relationship of Rebbe/Talmid (aside from the homosexuality/sexual gratification). On the other hand, in light of what we just said about the Rav, as members of the modern, or shall I say post-modern world, we recognize the need for indivdual autonomy, for diversity, something that would not be available if one had a single teacher alone, and something that even in the world of Torah learning exists today. With the rise of mass education, and a parallel rise in Talmud Torah, more people know stuff. And although the revered Rebbe/Talmid relationship has dwindeled some because of that, because there are just so many people, and things have become less intimate, we have gained in terms of breadth and diversity. (Yes I know R' Akiva had 24,000 students. I know it wasn't always intimate.) But still, I continue to feel that there is a better balance that can be struck and that the personal and intimate relaitonship between a student and a teacher must be maintained if we value real knowledge and the process of its aqcuisition; if we value people and the discovery of some sort of "truth". The lack of intimacy defiles the knowledge and the people, making them both just like another i-pod or blackberry.


Blogger Ellie said...

Shira-- the Rav wasn't a ba'al mussar, was he? but he would allow people to latch onto descriptions of lifestyles that appeal to them, i think. thus, it is precisely individual differences that will allow people to choose what they find meaningful in the different characters that the Rav describes.
As far as Rabbi Akiva's students, the census during that period shows that the rabbinic class never exceeded something like 8,000 people total at one time, so the possibility that rabbi akiva had 24,000 students at once is questionable.
But individuals will interpret as they wish, no matter what. See the mishnayot in pirkei avot-- each generation produces new teachers with new messages that they espoused. People will bring themselves into the Torah they learn, no matter what.
That is not to say that close teacher-student relationship are not valuable. But precisely what they are good for still has to be determined.

12:36 PM  
Blogger Ellie said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

12:36 PM  
Blogger Sarah said...

Ok so the difference betweene elite and mass education, even though you kind of mentioned it, has alot to do with death of the apprentice-student education system. Good, thoughtful students, in any university environment, will be able to find a faculty role model with whom they can build a relationship. You can too, and I would be surprised if you haven't started doing that already, It's true that there would not be enough resources for EVERY student to have that relationship, but 1,000 years ago, EVERY student would not be in school for 20 years as they are now. And most of them are not interested in the kind of relationships you are talking.
All of that said, I think really intimate relationships with teachers are more of a stumbling block in the pursuit of real knowledge than they are helpful. It's easy to get sucked up in brilliant perspectives, and much more so, when those perspectives are articulated to you directly, and incorporate a knowledge of what you care about. But even the most beautiful and intelligent viewpoint is still always one viewpoint, and therefore profundly limited. And if I had to choose one incredibly wise and kind teacher/Rebbe, over a variety of books and articles, I would choose the books and articles. I would be a better thinker because of it. Although don't get me wrong, I think role-models are essential for bouncing your ideas off of and for reading your writing. But in my experience, intimacy "defiles knowledge," and presents a warped notion of "truth," far more than broad, albeit impersonal, exposure does.

9:05 PM  
Blogger Meredius said...

Great blog, and even better literary insight on ben avuyah's. I dont know if you have read through his archives but I highly recommend reading about Katie, it epitomizes the personality of Ben Avuyah and crystalizes how much of his issues with faith are experiential rather than intellectual.

Anyway regarding your post, you appear to assume that the primary product of an intimate Rebbi/Talmid relationship is a superior transfer of knowledge. I disagree. Although you are certainly correct, I think that a Rebbi is also meant to impart values and morals. More importantly, morals are transmitted through properly modeled behavior, not books. Despite the proliferation of knowledge and mass media, it has not been accompanied by a rise in role models. It is apparent you are an admirer of the Rav, why do you think he has such an emotional connection to Judaism and the texts that he studies? Is it possible because he had a loving father/rebbi who nurtured these values? Perhaps this explains why many read Halakhic Man as a mussar sefer, because we want to feel like that but we dont know how. Since the rebbe/talmid connection has been lost, and most knowledge is gained through books, we expect a book to teach us how to feel, with disastrous results.

The above argument could also explain the primacy we place on the "israel experience," how quickly we latch onto rebeeim once we arrive, and why our connections fail once we leave.

Your blog looks great so far, keep up the good work.

~ Marc YU '07

11:18 AM  
Blogger shira said...


thanks for the kudos on benavuyah, and the advice...ill try to check it out. and just so I don't sound completely cerebral, as I'm sure you have seen from my blog, I see many things as products of a sort of hodge-podge of rational thought and experience, as most real insight should be.

you hit the nail on the head, with connecting this post to my negativity towards "the year in Israel" set up. and I could not agree more with the notion that we read sfarim like mussar works because we lack that sort of personal connection, looking for it there.
in terms of values however, i would change your word of "value" and say that a rebbe is meant to help guide an entire world of a person, inner, outer, spiritual, mundane, again, some sort of hodge-podge of compelling thought and religious experience. In short-the G-dly personality as a whole.
And this is in response to Sarah as well:
What a teacher or Rebbe engage in is the development of the entire personality of a person, not merely the development of their intellect. It is that whole relationship that we are lacking.
I have more to respond to Sarah's comment, but not right now.

7:43 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home