Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Students, Teachers, Honor and More

Across the country, students are preparing for the end of the year. Young children happily count the days until there are “no more teachers, no more books,” while older students take to their books in anticipation of exams. In Jewish life, however, one is, in many ways, a perpetual student. The constant study of Torah is not just encouraged, but obligatory*, and even the greatest teachers are often students of another scholar.

Judaism’s culture of ongoing studies succeeds because of a shared value among each member of the community. The relationships between students and their colleagues and between students and teachers have to be relationships built on respect, an ethos beautifully expressed by Rabbi Elazar ben Shammua: “Let the honor of your student be as precious to you as your own; and the honor of your colleague as the reverence due your teacher; and the reverence toward your teacher as your reverence for God” (Pirkei Avot/Ethics of the Father 4:15).

This Mishna appears, at first glance, like a fairly common-sense guideline to the hierarchy of learning institute, but there are several very interesting details. First of note is the order of the Mishna, which begins by directing teachers to protect the honor of their students. The teachers’ position of authority makes it easy for them to embarrass or disrespect a vulnerable student/students. The most basic job of an educator is to encourage the student to achieve.

The second interesting detail about this Mishna is the shift in language. There are two words used for relating to another person’s honor (kavod) and reverence (yirah). Looking after the honor of another means treating them with respect, but reverence infers a level of deference. Rabbi Elazar is advising scholars that they should go above and beyond honor when interacting with their fellow scholars and that the deference shown to their colleagues should be far less than that which they show to their teacher.

*The obligation to study Torah is for men.

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