Gidon Rothstein

Hilchot Talmud Torah, Ch. 4: Finding and Defining Appropriate Teachers and Students

In chapter four of Laws of Torah Study, Rambam lays out qualifications for teachers and for students, and some of the practices those teachers and students should undertake as part of the learning process, that seem to me too little recognized today.  Understanding just three paragraphs will take our space today but will, I hope, prove rewarding in the insight it gives to the process of Torah study.

Requiring Readiness

Rambam opens the chapter by reminding us of the Talmudic tradition that we only teach students who act appropriately (or neutrally).  A student who travels a דרך לא טובה, a not good path, has to be returned to the good, and checked that the return has taken root, before being allowed into the Study Hall.

Rambam does not define the bad path, other than contrasting it to good and neutral. Since even good people act wrongly some of the time, he cannot have meant that as soon as we know of any flaws in a student, we must stop teaching them until they return to the good.

On the other hand—and this is the part I find interesting and different than the tenor of our times—there is a conduct requirement for being allowed into the Study Hall.  Those who do not yet meet that requirement must work to meet it prior to the concentrated study of Torah.

We have to be careful not to take this too far, either.  Rambam does not say that we abandon such a student until he finds his way to observance, he says that we should be involved in bringing that student back, check that he’s really and fully returned, and then continue teaching him Torah.

It’s a messy and inexact prescription, but an important one. The study of Torah, Rambam is telling us, should only be undertaken by those whose conduct is reasonably in line with Hashem’s commands and ideals (taking into account the ordinary imperfections that bedevil all of us).  We don’t reject the unready, but we do insist on their becoming ready.

Two further complicating factors. First, we today often quickly excuse transgressions, because so many Jews have abandoned observance completely. Imagine a potential student who grew up unaffiliated, and does not yet keep kosher. Many today would advocate admitting him/her to the full range of the Torah study experience, since the sins of a תינוק שנשבה, a baby taken captive, do not count the same way as for those who had the benefits of a full upbringing.

Secondly, and related, many today see the study of Torah as itself the vehicle of bringing the student back to the right path.  As a listener pointed out to me this past Shabbat, some kiruv organizations see thrusting the student into Torah study as the way to encourage them to greater observance.

The Idolatry of Teaching Torah to Inappropriate Students

Both points are valid and relevant, but before we can incorporate them into a view of how to choose students, we should remember the statement of R. Zeira in the name of Rav (Chullin 133a) that Rambam included in this paragraph, that teaching a student who is not worthy is like throwing a stone at Markolis (which was how this idolatry was worshipped). As one of my listeners suggested, the teacher is treating the words of Torah like rocks, to be flung destructively, instead of the precious jewels they are.

Once we’ve noted that, we can come back to the question of how to judge nonobservance and the possibility that Torah study itself can be the key to growth.  In both cases, the answer is the same: there are types of Torah study that foster attachment and commitment and there are types that plumb the depths of Jewish halachah and hashkafah.

It is easy to imagine that studying the laws and values of Shabbat would bring someone closer to observance.  That is not the same as encouraging that student to undertake the in-depth study of Torah. It is a line that can be fuzzy, but an important one to mind—we only teach Torah in its fullest sense, to those who are already on a neutral or good path.

The interplay between personal religiosity and readiness for Torah study is important to remember when choosing a teacher, since there are standards for a teacher as well.

Staying Away from an Inappropriate Teacher  

In that same paragraph, Rambam notes that we should not study Torah with a teacher who acts wrongly, adding that this is true even if that teacher is a great sage, whom the nation needs.  Here, too, until the teacher returns, we cannot learn from him.

The definition of inappropriate is once again not fully clear. The Gemara cites Malachi 2;7 to support the idea that the teacher should be similar to an angel.  Meiri, Chagigah 15b, says that has to include faith as well as observance.  Meaning that even if a teacher is an acknowledged expert, wrong behavior or wrong faith can prohibit most of us (we’ll see an exception) from learning from that scholar.

This issue resonates with me, because Jewish communities across the spectrum retain and respect supposed Torah teachers of clearly defective character, observance, and/or faith. I know of more than one example in synagogues, in schools, and in yeshivot.

Perhaps the most prominent of those are the sexual abuse ones.  One part of the tragedy relevant to all of us is that the stories of these abusers show that many people knew of behavior that should have disqualified that rabbi/teacher/Rosh Yeshiva long before the actual sexual abuse came out.

They might not have been legally prosecutable until a particular story came out, but they acted in ways that should have stimulated removal from their jobs long before the story plays itself out.  The standard for accepting a teacher of Torah is higher than whether his wrongdoing can be proven.  As a matter of the laws of Torah study, we are not supposed to allow such people to teach (and remember Rambam’s phrasing, even if he is a great sage, even if the whole community needs him).

Leaving aside sexual abuse, awful as that is, we also allow people who travel other openly wrong paths to serve in teaching functions. I know of public liars, flatterers (we today would call them people who play politics well, but some clearly go over the line to unacceptable flattery), and people who obviously shirk their basic job responsibilities—which is a form of theft, since they are not doing that which they are getting paid to do—who hold onto their positions as putative teachers of Torah.

Finally, there’s the matter of faith.  It is tempting to treat Torah like a technical skill, so that if the teacher just sticks to the curriculum, we can ignore what he or she believes. But Torah is a worldview, an approach to life and to Hashem, and our faith commitments become relevant when we least expect it.  We cannot and should not learn from a person who has abandoned necessary Torah beliefs, because his or her beliefs will often impact the Torah they teach.

That perspective can lead to a lively and contentious discussion about what constitutes necessary faith, and I am not going to insist on any particular view. What I will point out is that many today would object to the idea, not to how it’s implemented. For a simple example, many Orthodox Jews today feel comfortable studying at nondenominational institutions, whose teachers openly refuse to make a commitment to a set of faith ideas. It may be that these Jews only study with those they know to be people of proper faith, but it may be that they don’t see a reason to care. And that’s a flaw in their understanding of the laws of Torah study.

In all these cases, I think the people in question stay in their jobs because it’s unpleasant to remove someone from a job, and communities are run by volunteers, who have little incentive to spend time and effort on such an unpleasant task.

Except that we’re halachically not allowed to learn from such people.

The Exception of R. Meir

With that background, Chagigah 15b wonders how R. Meir could have studied with Elisha b. Avuya (known as Acher), who renounced observance and faith.  The Gemara assumes R. Meir was able to distinguish between the parts of Acher’s Torah that were unsullied by his personal story and those that weren’t.  Rashi reads the Gemara’s standard for who is allowed to follow R. Meir’s path as being a question of whether a person can be certain of being unaffected by the teacher’s flaws. Tosafot thinks only established Torah scholars may think of themselves that way, whereas Meiri sounds more like it’s an individual decision and choice.

This means that if inappropriate Torah teachers are left in place because we assume we know how to distinguish between what they say as pure Torah and what reflects their skewed worldview, there would be some room to accept it. My experience is that that’s not what’s going on, that many people today a) don’t care about teachers’ character and conduct enough to insist on their removal until it confronts them in a very personal way, and b) are overly confident that they will be unaffected in learning from such a teacher.

Separating Difficulty from Lack of Effort

In paragraphs four and five, Rambam deals with both sides of what happens when a student does not grasp or absorb the material. In paragraph four, he reminds the teacher not to be frustrated or angry with the students, but to review the material again (perhaps using a different strategy), until the students get it.

The student, too, is responsible for standing his ground, both to the teacher and in the face of peer pressure. If the teacher becomes angry, the student should say, “It’s Torah, I need to learn it, but I am not talented enough to have grasped it yet.” Similarly, at the start of paragraph five Rambam reminds the student that this is true even if his peers are quicker, this student still needs to insist on having it explained to him.

Eruvin 54 b tells a story of R. Preida, who had a student who only understood the lessons after the teacher reviewed it with him four hundred times. One day, the student heard R. Preida might be called away, and failed to grasp the material even after four hundred times. When R. Preida heard that his worry about being interrupted had distracted him, R. Preida reviewed it another four hundred times. Granting the hyperbole, the story still makes clear what is expected of a teacher and a student to reach the goals of comprehension and retention.

Laziness and Lackadaisical Attitude Need Not Be Tolerated

When the issue is a lack of talent, that’s how to handle it.  But, Rambam then says, if the teacher recognizes that the students aren’t putting in the necessary effort, the teacher is obligated to reprimand and even embarrass them verbally, based on Chazal’s having told teachers זרוק מרה בתלמידים, throw fear into the students (Ketubbot 103a).

Rambam adds that the teacher should not act jocularly with the students, not laugh with them, not eat or drink with them, so that they should fear the teacher appropriately, and learn quickly.

We can note Rambam’s point, without applying it exactly as he would have.  I have had several teachers noted for casting fear in their students, and it was clear that the students who stayed with them learned more, better, and faster (these teachers also scared away students, so I am not saying they were perfect).  Comfort and admiration are one part of a contemporary teacher/student relationship, but fear and awe need to be a part of it as well. Our teachers are helping us become who we need to be; it would be nice if that happened only with positive reinforcement, but it does not. Like with parents, we need teachers who balance the ways of treating us, to lead us to our best possible selves.

Picking a student, picking a teacher, and then knowing how to treat that student (we’ll see how to treat the teacher in coming weeks): these are crucial questions of the Torah study process. Rambam’s view seems to be that we have to be sure that we have students ready to learn—or give them remediation until they’re ready—teachers fit to teach (in more than just the technical sense), and classes where the students try as hard as they can, with the teachers patiently guiding them to the Torah knowledge they need and want.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein has served in the community rabbinate and in educational roles at the high school and adult level. He is an author of Jewish fiction and non-fiction, most recently "We're Missing the Point: What's Wrong with the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It." He lives in Bronx, NY with his wife and three children.