Lighting a fire

My first day of law school was especially memorable for me. (“Oh no,” I can hear my kids moaning. “Is Daddy going to tell that story about the railroad case again?” Yup.)

First some background.

Fact No. 1. At Columbia Law School, 1Ls (as first year law students are called) take a 45-hour three-week course before regular classes begin. It’s called Legal Methods. In this course, students learn how to read cases and statutes and write a case brief; how to understand the contexts for legal materials and the development of legal institutions; and most importantly, how it all fits together. In my first year, the course was given by two professors: the first week and a half by Harry W. Jones, a leading legal philosopher and innovator in the teaching of contracts, church-state relations, and, notably, legal methods; and the remainder by John M. Kernochan, who not only did pioneering work in intellectual property law but was a composer and music publisher as well.

Fact No. 2. I contracted mononucleosis at the end of the summer preceding my beginning law school, causing me to miss all but the very last of Prof. Jones’s legal methods lectures.

Now to my story. That final lecture concentrated on Erie Railroad Co. v. Tompkins, a 1938 Supreme Court case holding that in diversity jurisdiction cases, federal courts should apply substantive state law and federal procedural law. Pretty exciting, huh? Well, if you read the actual majority opinion by Brandeis, your guess would be confirmed; the case — critically important for any litigator, to be sure — is quite dull.

Except not as taught by Prof. Jones.

I was mesmerized, hanging on every word, and too enthralled even to take notes, fearful I would miss something. I remember thinking as I left the law school building and began crossing Columbia’s campus from Amsterdam Avenue to Broadway: I’m 21 years old; why don’t I already know about Erie? Why hadn’t any high school or college teacher, who taught me about Marbury, Dred Scott, and Brown, ever mentioned Erie? And as I turned onto Broadway to return to my dorm room on 110th Street, right next door to Congregation Ramath Orah (and there lies a story for another day — or another column), I wondered if my father, a very intelligent man, knew about Erie, and concluding that he must have, I wondered why he never told me about it.

Such is the power and impact of a great teacher.

I thought of Prof. Jones recently, as our community sustained the double blow this year of losing two of our greatest teachers and orators: Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm z”l and Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks z”l. While I wasn’t their classroom student, as I had been Prof. Jones’s, I had the privilege of hearing both speak and being enthralled by their language, their eloquence, their cadences, their ideas, their sensitivity, their humanity, their knowledge, their judgment, their brilliance, their wisdom. (I’d also add their accents, but they’d probably disagree as to who had one.) And what is a teacher if not a person who has such a formidable impact on those to whom they speak?

But my relationship to them was more than merely listening to them preach. As I’ve mentioned in earlier columns, for the past dozen years or so they were by my side in shul weekly, whispering to me as I read one of their sermons (R. Lamm) or parshat hashavu’ah essays (R. Sacks) every Shabbat. I’ll be honest; they weren’t always captivating or spellbinding. But they did meet that standard probably six times out of 10 (with the other four ranging from good to very very good — never a poor or even a mediocre one in all those years. And remember, no one in the Baseball Hall of Fame has anything close to a .600 batting average).

Another non-classroom teacher of mine was the Rav, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. While I was never a good enough Talmud student to be admitted into his RIETS shiur, I did hear him speak a number of times, and I was overwhelmed by his charismatic and hypnotizing style, though, foolishly, I didn’t do that nearly as much as I should have. Ah, the follies and stupidity of youth. My reading of his written work over the years, while intellectually and spiritually meaningful and educational, never made up for those lost opportunities.

What recently reminded me of the Rav as a teacher-orator was the posting of a portion of one of his yahrzeit shiurim on Facebook. The shiur was in Yiddish, though excellent English subtitles also were provided. While my knowledge of Yiddish is extremely weak (a vast overstatement of my abilities), that slight knowledge plus his use of Hebrew and English loan words, first-rate subtitles, and enhanced audio quality allowed me to feel that I was actually following it in the original. Almost.

As with Prof. Jones and Rabbis Lamm and Sacks, the Rav’s power was more than merely his eloquence and the breadth and depth of his ideas, as powerful as they were. Rather, it was the synergistic quality of the two that made him, and them, such memorable and remarkable teachers, whose influence lasts many lifetimes.

My experience with teachers like these was the basis of my (usually unsolicited) advice to my daughters and some of their friends and other-college bound young adults to discover who were the great teachers in their schools and try to take at least one of their classes. They would, of course, learn a great deal from the many very good college teachers they would be exposed to. But it’s the special ones — those who both impart facts and communicate life changing lessons, educate the mind and touch the soul, teach and inspire — who rise above the rest and become unforgettable.

To some in our family, Stephen Whitfield, professor emeritus of American civilization at Brandeis, is just such a teacher. I first encountered him at a family weekend at Brandeis, when my daughter Raquel was a student there. He gave a lecture to parents on the Pentagon Papers that magically spoke to and educated all who attended — both parents who had never heard of the Pentagon Papers as well as others, like me, who not only read all the legal opinions when their publication was challenged (I was in law school at the time), but even took a stab at reading the papers themselves (historically significant but so incredibly boring that I quickly stopped).

I raved about that breathtaking lecture and the professor (whose name I had forgotten) for years. So eight years later, when my daughter Gabrielle attended Brandeis and told us that her favorite professor was Stephen Whitfield, I wondered: could it be? A quick check of professors’ pictures on Brandeis’s online catalogue confirmed that it was my Pentagon Papers lecturer. So Sharon and I made sure, at Gabrielle’s family weekends, to sit in on (and even participate in) some of his student classes, and developed a personal relationship with him. Thus, in our family, exceptional teachers now span generations.

George Bernard Shaw wrote in “Man And Superman” that “those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” But as wise as Shaw was, he had it exactly wrong. Rather, Aristotle came much closer to the truth when he explained that “those who know, do. Those who understand, teach.” And the result, as William Butler Yeats put it, is that “education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”

I’m proud that two of my daughters are teachers — Gabrielle (at the Abraham Joshua Heschel School) and Micole (at the Lexington School for the Deaf). They, and Rabbis Soloveitchik, Lamm, and Sacks, and Professors Jones and Whitfield, all light and lit fires, propelling us to continue to study, to learn, to expand our minds and broaden our horizons; they light fires that illuminate the forks in the roads that we traverse, helping us choose the paths that enable our lives and the lives of those we love to be better and more meaningful. They light the fires that make all the difference.

About the Author
Joseph C. Kaplan, a regular columnist for the Jewish Standard, is a long-time resident of Teaneck. His work has also appeared in various publications including Sh’ma magazine, The New York Jewish Week, The Baltimore Jewish Times, and, as letters to the editor, The New York Times.
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