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Why I Teach

Samuel LebensFilmed at Limmud Conference 2011

What does it feel like to be a young educator flown around the world, at other people’s expense to teach Torah? In this talk, I discuss the challenges of overcoming one’s ego; of assessing to what extent we engage with religion for selfish reasons; and the challenge of being a blessing to the world around us. This talk was a probing public self-analysis. Why do I teach? Why do I preach? Why do I practice my religion? Why are you here? Why are you reading this, watching this, listening to this? Why do you fast on Yom Kippur?

Sam holds a PhD in metaphysics and logic from the University of London, and has spent five years learning in yeshivot. He is a modern orthodox educator, philosopher, political commentator and playwright. He teaches Jewish philosophy at Yeshivat Har’el in the Old City of Jerusalem and is the chair of the Association for the Philosophy of Judaism.

So I’d like to begin with a story – unfortunately, it’s not funny. In the times of the Roman occupation there were 10 great sages who were martyred. One of them was Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel and after he found out that he was going to be beheaded he was sitting with his friend and colleague Rabbi Yishamel. Who also knew he was going to be martyred too. The sentence had been passed. Rabbi Yishmael would have it worse – worse than R Gamliel because R Yishmael would have to see his friend be killed and then he was going to have his skin flayed from him whilst he was still alive and then he would be killed. They were sitting wondering why do they deserve this fate? Imagine the scene. I picture Rabbi Shimon lamenting and through his tears he says: what have I done? What’s my capital offence? Did I violate the Shabbeth? It’s a capital offence in Jewish law. Am I sexual deviant? Am I adulator? Am I murderer? What am I that I deserve this? Somewhat audaciously R Yishmael his co-accused says, come on let’s think about what you have done. Maybe once upon a time you were having a feast with your friends and some poor people came to the house and knocked on the door and they were turned away, maybe something like that? Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel says no that would never have happened. I was very stringent, if ever I had a feast in my house I appointed guards, I put them on the door I told them to look out for waifs and drifters and if you see a waif or a drifter invite them in! They would come and they would sit at my table, they’d eat with me they would drink with me and we would bless God together over the food. So then Rabbi Yishmael thought well if it’s not that maybe it is something else? Reb Shimon, you were the head of the judiciary, the great San Hedrin, maybe when you were sitting on your thrown – on the Temple Mount in judgement of the Jewish people, maybe your ego swelled? There was a silence it filled the room as Rabbi Shimon became reconciled to his fate.

So I was asked to give my Jewish talk, that story has echoed in my ears ever since I heard it. I find that story shocking, profoundly shocking but I said I would talk about why do I teach? What would I want to tell the Jewish people if I had the opportunity to speak to all of them? But I’ve only got 10 minutes. What would I talk about? I would talk about me, it is one of my favourite topics of conversation, I know a lot about it.

Why do teachers teach? Why do I get up here in front of you? Why does anyone do that? I can only speak for myself. And it’s not a pleasantry. Stand up here because it’s the biggest ego boost going. I love it. You’re all looking at me. Are you? You’re listening to me and it feels great. To be invited to share this stage with some of Limmuds greatest educators, to stand up here for 10 minutes addressing a packed auditorium. It’s validation, its affirmation, it feels great. So the first reason I’m standing up here is because I’m full of myself, I feel that I should be listened to and this is like some kind of sick wish fulfillment. But I’m also severely lacking in self esteem. Paradoxically, I love myself, I think I’m great, I want to talk, I want to be listened to. And yet, the very fact that I want to be listened to doesn’t that indicate that I am not really so secure? I am needy, I need the affirmation and after every lecture, every lecture that I have given so far at Limmud, I re run everything in my head thinking if I should have said things differently? About 4/5 people have come up to me and said it was good, does that mean everyone else hates me? Something I’ve realized teaching at Limmud and at Limmud Fest, as opposed to the teaching that I do at Yeshivah or university or elsewhere is that – all of my classes are about me, they are basically just therapy. Look at me now – I’m just talking about myself, you are basically my psychologists and I should be paying you. Right? I hope you don’t have a high fee because I am studying in Kolel and we don’t get paid very well. We don’t get paid. So I teach for the pleasure of it. I teach for the ego boost. I teach for the affirmation, I teach for the therapy. I am basically Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel and so disappointed was he in himself that he thought he deserved his terrible fate. My 10 mins in front of you, the Jewish people, I think I’ve bared my soul, I think I’ve done that already. And I tell them that I worry. “Do I teach for my own glory or do I teach for the glory of God and the glory of the Torah?” And I’ve asked them to be honest with me too, honest for themselves. When you learn Torah, when you do a mitzvah, when you go to Shul on a cold winter morning to make up a minyan for a mourner who wants to say Kaddish, do you do it for the glory of the Torah? Do you do it to serve the Lord your God? do you do it for the sake of the mourner in his hour of need? Or do you do it because learning Torah is stimulating? Do you do it because the mitzvah gives you a warm, fuzzy feeling? Do you do it because you know one day, gd forbid, you’re going to need a minyan so you might as well do them the favor now so that when you need it they’ll owe you one? Perhaps I am being unfair? Unfair to you and unfair to me. Because there is a certain tension in what I’m saying. In the story with which I began there is a kind of hidden dimension lurking underneath and we need to bring it out. Teaching is hard, teaching hurts. Here I am in a sense exposing myself. You might think now you know me, a little bit, you might think that you understand what I’m saying, but how can you think you understand what I’m saying given that I don’t really understand what I’m saying. But what I am trying to say is that by teaching, by opening up to you, opening myself up to the possibility of misinterpretation. Let me give you an example. At LimmudFest in the summer, I spoke on panel. On that panel, at one point I mentioned how I’m a committed orthodox Jew. I explained that as I understand it my orthodoxy rules out the possibility of pluralism. I am not a pluralist. What does that mean? That means that I believe that orthodox, orthodoxy broadly speaking whatever that word actually means because no one really knows, that that’s the right interpretation of Judaism. Whatever that really means because no one really knows. There are certain interpretations of Judaism that are wrong and certain interpretations of Judaism that are right. That just follows from my not being a pluralist. But I am sometimes interpreted as saying, that certain ways of life are illegitimate. That certain people are less Jewish than others. That people don’t have a right to disagree with me. That I look down on those who differ from me. The fact that anyone could think such a thing about me, that hurts. Because my greatest love besides that of my wife and my family is for people, the Jewish people – and I believe that on certain issues I am right and others are wrong, but I know that I have to be open to discussing things with others, open to being convinced, just as you should be open to being convinced, to having a conversation, a dialogue. To be at Limmud is to be constantly exposed to the fact that orthodoxy does not have a monopoly on religiosity – some of my most powerful role models in this room, exemplars of the love and fear of God, are not orthodox. The idea that people can go away thinking that I’m a bigot who’s heart is closed to any subsection of my people, that’s a notion that hurts me. In fact even in this conference I have overheard conversations in which I was being misquoted. Because I gave a session and I heard people talking about it and they just weren’t getting me right. Maybe I just shouldn’t have spoken? That would have been safer. Teaching is hard, so is learning Torah so is doing mitzvoth. So is waking up in the morning on a cold winters day to go and help your friend say Kaddish. If we didn’t enjoy it, if we didn’t get something tangible from it, however superficial, we just would not continue. We need to enjoy it otherwise we just wouldn’t do it, its too hard. This talk really shouldn’t be about me, it should be about God – I know that sometimes I confuse the two. Let me paint a picture of the world, the world through the eyes of Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, the author of the 19 letters. He looked at the natural world, the world minus the human race as a chain of constant reciprocal activity. In essence he was pre-empting the notion of the eco-system in which every single element is essential for the preservation of the whole. The lion may look greedy and cruel as he tears into the baby antelope but in a sense they are both pre-programmed to be completely generous in the sense that by occupying their place in the food chain and the eco-system they are contributing to the preservation of the whole. And thus R. Hirsch related to God as the conductor of a cosmic orchestra in which every creation plays its part in beautiful harmony with everything else. But the instrumentalists in this particular orchestra are more like pre-programmed robots than musicians, they play exactly as they are told to. The human species is different. Like a gifted soloist the human has a certain freedom. She never plays the same piece exactly in the same way. Each time she plays it its invested with a new emotional reality. She isn’t a robot, she is free but because of that she also has the ability to play a completely different piece of music to the orchestra, she could ruin the whole harmony. She could play whatever she likes, she could just make a piano go pfffff. And thus she is the pinnacle of creation and also she is creations greatest potential enemy. Elements of the natural world can’t help but contribute to the world beyond them but we have a choice and too often we are too greedy. Rav Hirsch was perhaps the first eco Rabbi. He was aware that if we don’t give up on insatiable greed we will destroy the world. The humble blade of grass is constantly contributing to its surroundings. Some days my biggest contribution to the world around me is the size of my carbon footprint. The solid purpose of Judaism, according to Rabbi Hirsch, is essentially to educate ourselves on the world, that we need to give up on greed, we need to stop serving ourselves, that we need to be a constant blessing to our surroundings to our social surroundings and to our environmental surroundings. We need to rise above the cult of the self.

And so given this chance to address the Jewish people I want to tell them just two things. The first, I want to share with them, my need constantly to reassess my own motivations for acting. Of course I enjoy my Judaism, my teaching and my learning. But I have to keep assessing, “why am I doing it?” Am I doing it for the world around me? For my god? Is the enjoyment a welcome and essential accompaniment? Or is it all about self worship? Because this is fun. Secondly, I want to leave you with a more positive message and this is what I will finish with; I want to tell you all that self love can be a tremendous vehicle for progress, irrespective for what I have said, and I will tell you why. I have a profound sense of Gods love for me, it’s a sense that accompanies me throughout my life. Perhaps I learnt a sensitivity to the music of Gods love for me because my parents they never were afraid to show me their love, some parents don’t want to give their children too much love it might look soppy, my parents were never like that they showered me with love, they made me sensitive to the love that God has for me. And given that I know how much God loves me, given that as a parent I know how much I love my children, I have some sort of inkling as to how much God must love all of you. I have some sort of inkling as to how much love god has for non-Jews as well, for inanimate objects, for the world, the universe, the whole thing is teeming with love, Gods love is infinite. If that’s how you feel, then the desire to teach isn’t necessarily all about ego, its about loving yourself and loving others, wanting to be heard because you are confident of your position, but also wanting to listen to others. We are all isolated selves who want to be heard, just like God who says “Shema Yisrael”, “listen to me”.

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