August 7, 2018

10 Do’s and Don’ts for Jewish Educators

I was recently speaking to a good friend about Jewish Education and Jewish Educators, and I mentioned that I have a number of personal DO’s and DON’Ts which, to the best of my ability, I try to adhere to.

I then realised that other Jewish educators may have their own set of personal rules and after asking around for suggestions, I received a few more suggestions.

Together, this led to the compilation of a short set of 10 DO’s and DON’Ts which I hope proves to be useful for both new and experienced teachers as we approach the start of a new academic year.

Of course, this list does not claim to be comprehensive. However, I sincerely believe that if Jewish Educators adhere to these guidelines, it will help them and their students avoid some of the confusion, frustration and misunderstanding that often arises in Jewish Education.

So here we go!

  1. DO talk about G-d! It is very easy to forget to talk about G-d when learning Chumash & Gemara skills or when discussing some of the minutiae of Jewish custom and practice. A Jewish Educator must maintain a G-d consciousness both within themselves, and ideally, within their students.
  2. DO distinguish between the word of G-d and Midrashic interpretation! It is easy to blur the lines between what the Torah actually says and the Midrashic interpretations that elucidate the Torah. But if we don’t distinguish between the two, we naturally narrow the interpretive possibilities of Torah. So while a Jewish Educator should be intimately familiar with both the Torah text and the interpretive tradition, they should clearly indicate to their students where one ends and the other begins, and where possible, have the primary texts with them to do so.
  3. DON’T use generalizations like ‘Judaism says’ or ‘Judaism teaches’!– unless what you are about to say is an undisputed principle of Judaism such as belief in One G-d. This distinction is essential because there are far too many ‘facts’ that people claim are the ‘opinion’ of Judaism, which are in fact marginal views or unusual customs. A Jewish Educator must be able to distinguish between normative and non-normative Jewish concepts and practices, and ensure that these distinctions are evident in the topics they teach and the answers they give.
  4. DON’T try and teach something that you don’t understand! Of course, this seems like a difficult ask as so many Jewish texts and concepts are difficult to comprehend, but there is a big difference between no understanding and a partial understanding. All too often Jewish Educators like to impress their students by quoting texts and ideas – especially mystical texts and ideas – that they have never really studied and not really understood. A Jewish Educator needs to know that if they can’t explain it then they don’t understand it; and if they don’t understand it, they shouldn’t be teaching it. However, if they do find themselves in a position like this, the Jewish Educator should say something like ‘while I don’t think I fully understand this idea, the way I understand it is as follows…’).
  5. DO distinguish between partial and comprehensive answers! One of the most oft-used pairs of phrases used by Jewish Educators is ‘The Question is…’ and ‘The Answer is…’, as if to suggest that every singular question has a singular answer. Of course, in almost every single case this is ridiculous, and for every question there are generally a wide range of possible answers. A Jewish Educator needs to know that most of the answers they give are ‘an answer’ rather than ‘the answer’.
  6. DON’T ever reject a question or a questioner! To ask is to grow, and to reject a question or a questioner is to stifle and undermine intellectual and spiritual growth. Questioners should be praised, and respectful answers are a powerful way to showing respect to students. A Jewish Educator should think carefully about every question, while also considering not only what the student is asking but why they are asking that specific question.
  7. DO distinguish between different halachic traditions! In every classroom there are many different students with very different backgrounds. If a Jewish Educator wishes to use a generalized phrase like ‘the Halacha teaches’, this must be followed with a comprehensive survey of what ‘the halacha teaches’ with reference to a variety of different halachic traditions (eg. Chabad, Chassidish, Ashkenazi, Western Sephardi, Eastern Sephardi, Yemenite etc.). Since few teachers are unlikely to do so, more specific language should be used such as ‘The Shulchan Aruch states that…’ or ‘the halacha as followed by most Ashkenazim is…’ etc.
  8. DON’T confuse Halacha & Minhag! What is taught in a classroom is meant to have consequences beyond the classroom, but by failing to distinguish between what some Jews do (Minhag) and what all Jews should do (Halacha), we confuse students – especially those whose families do not follow those minhagim. A Jewish Educator needs to be clear about what is customary and what is obligatory, and communicate this clearly to their students. Moreover, great care must be shown when addressing matters of Jewish practice where conflicts may arise between children and parents.
  9. DO empower students! Sometimes a student will seek personal guidance from a Jewish Educator. In such cases, and where it is clear that the student cannot reach the ‘right’ conclusion on their own, the teacher should do all they can to assist. In most cases, however, the right advice will be to give the student some clear direction while encouraging them to reach their own decision. Knowing which choice to take requires both wisdom and experience, but when in doubt, a Jewish Educator should prioritize student autonomy over teacher dependence.
  10. DO say you don’t know if you don’t know! It is easy for a Jewish Educator to foolishly believe that they are the fount of all Jewish knowledge, but only a humble person can be a true Torah scholar. Knowledge alone is not the making of a Jewish Educator. Instead, it is the knowledge of knowing the limits of our knowledge. Ultimately, one of the most important things that a Jewish Educator can teach is that there are things that they don’t know – and then do all they can to learn more!

I hope this has been of help, and I wish you all a fabulous start to the new academic year!

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