by Rabbi Aryeh Ben David –
An educational consultant recently told me that teachers often teach what they feel most comfortable teaching, and not necessarily what their students need to learn. I know I was guilty of this for many years, though I always rationalized to myself that what I was doing was for the well-being of my students.
I think this issue becomes most evident in the teaching of gemara in high schools and post-high school programs.
I have lost track of the number of serious, sincere educators who have told me that their students are disconnected from learning gemara. How they struggle, usually in vain, to make the sugiya (topic) relevant and meaningful. The intricate, difficult, legalistic arguments of gemara (written in Aramaic) remain opaque for almost all of their students. The educators admit that even those students who become adept at deciphering the gemara’s logic and are “into it” will probably never open a gemara after they graduate from university. Yet learning gemara carries prestige and bears the stamp of intellectual rigor. As such, it continues to be considered the hallmark of a superior Jewish education. Day after day, year after year, teachers and students wearily pass the hours poring over their gemara text, never fully sure why their curriculum devotes so much time and effort to an objective which will yield so pitifully little.
I loved learning gemara. Yet it neither developed my inner spiritual life nor nurtured my relationship with God.
In my last year of rabbinical school, after eight years of full-time learning, I arranged for a private meeting with the Rosh Yeshiva. I told him that I was not sure if I believed in God. He was shocked. After all, I was the gabbai of the vatikin minyan, started learning at 4:30 each morning, had studied there for years, and was one of the anchors of the Beit Midrash. He wasn’t sure what to do. In the end, he suggested that I stay for another year to address this issue.
I stayed for another year, but changed everything. Instead of learning gemara, halakha and Machshevet Yisrael, my chevruta and I dove into learning Kabbalah, full-time.
I certainly did not understand everything. I did not become a Kabbalist. But the experience changed my life. The subject matter opened up my heart and soul to another dimension of reality – namely, to God. God and spiritual growth had only made rare cameo appearances during my many years of studying gemara and halakha. Now I started my own personal and intimate relationship with God.
In the over 30 years since then, my Jewish identity has traveled through many circles, and my level of observance and commitment has had ups and downs. One element has remained constant – a vibrant personal relationship with God. Once non-existent, this connection became my Jewish bedrock.
The Ba’al HaSulam, commentator on the Zohar, writes:
No one should study Kabbalah if they have not already studied Mishnah and Talmud. This would be like a soul without a body… But the opposite is also true. If someone studies Mishnah and Talmud without spending time studying the innermost aspects of Torah and her secrets, he is like a body sitting in darkness, lacking a human soul which is the light of God that shines within. (Introduction to the Ten Sephirot 4:19)
Kabbalistic texts are meant to be tools for self-transformation through love of God. They are road-maps of the soul, offering healing and tikkun/repair. (In the Shadow of the Ladder – Introductions to Kabbalah, Rabbi Yehuda Lev Ashlag, edited by Mark and Yedida Cohen, p. 15) Rav Kook writes that studying the teachings of Kabbalah is the primary way for a soul to cling to God. (Shmoneh K’vatzim, Rav Kook, I: 114)
The Ba’al HaSulam offers a shocking, paradigm-shifting, counter-intuitive suggestion. He says that most Jews are taught gemara and only the elite few are taught Kabbalah. He contends that we should do the exact opposite! He asserts that learning gemara is extremely complicated and abstruse, whereas learning Kabbalah is much more straightforward and personally meaningful. He suggests that we teach most Jews Kabbalah － only the elite few should study gemara.
It has become painfully clear to me in the last 10 years of working with schools and educators how difficult it is to engage teens and college students with Jewish learning. How difficult it is to open their hearts, evoke their souls, and impact their lives through Jewish wisdom. Ayeka has been approached by numerous principals and educators seeking a “spiritual antidote” for the malaise and disconnection plaguing their students.
In the background of this conversation lurks the daunting reality that the fastest growing religion in the Western world is the “nones”, those who answer “none” when asked about their religious affiliation. The “SBNR” movement (‘spiritual but not religious’) has spawned countless articles, books, and seminars.
Perhaps the time has come to try something radically different. To engage the next generation in the subject matter that addresses their inner lives and speaks directly to their souls. Perhaps the time has come to put Kabbalah on the educational agenda of our youth.
I imagine that veteran educators will blanch at this notion for two reasons. Instinctively, they will react: “How can someone study Kabbalah when they haven’t had enough of the “meat and potatoes” of Jewish learning – gemara & halakha?! Should Jewish learning be modified to the whims of this generation’s narcissistic desires? This is how we’ve been doing it for generations!”
When I ask, “How’s that working for you?”, they answer – it isn’t.
The second problem is that the educators themselves don’t know how to do it. Tanach and Torah sheba’al peh is their expertise. They have no idea how to teach Kabbalah or Zohar.
My response: “It’s not about us, our ego, or our self-esteem. It’s about our students.”
Personally, I don’t how to teach Kabbalah. I have not studied it enough to feel comfortable in front of a class. Though I myself am a “veteran educator”, the very idea of teaching Kabbalah makes me feel insecure. For most of my career I taught what I was comfortable teaching, usually Tanach, Mishnah, gemara, halakha, and Machshevet Yisrael.
This idea of making Kabbalah central to Jewish education evokes my insecurities and threatens my self-image as a teacher. It brings up a serous lacuna in my educational background. But I need to overcome my own personal issues, let go of my ego, and take a look from the balcony to see what the next generation needs.
Do they need to master the legalistic casuistry of the gemara? How many pages of gemara do they really need to know? How much of the minutiae of halakha do they need to study?
Or do they need to develop a profound personal relationship with the Creator of the universe? Which, in the long run, will serve them best?
They need to wrestle with their relationship with God; they need to develop and strengthen their inner spiritual lives. Very often, schools relegate the task of spiritual development to weekend retreats or trips. They outsource it. The message to their students is clear: “Spirituality is the fluffy stuff. Serious Jews study gemara.”
Will learning gemara offer them a Jewish identity to last a lifetime – or is it time to add some new books to our Jewish bookshelf?
Perhaps it is time to learn some Torat HaSod (Hidden Torah), to explore the mysterious, and to start focusing directly on our relationship with God.
It worked for me.
Rabbi Aryeh Ben David founded Ayeka: Center for Soulful Education in 2008. Ayeka educates rabbis, teachers, and professionals in bringing Jewish wisdom from our minds to our hearts to our souls and to our lives. He lives in Efrat with his wife Sandra and their 6 children.