Of Learning and Teaching

I spent the past week at the annual convention of the Rabbinical Assembly, the international organization of Conservative rabbis. This year, it was held at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City, the academy from which the overwhelming percentage of RA members were graduated and ordained.

Whenever the RA meets, there is usually press coverage of some issue or other, timely and/or controversial, which makes for good copy. RA conventions are a significant venue for the playing out of policy differences within the Conservative movement, as reflected within its religious leadership. Few and far between are the issues on which there is anything approaching unanimity.

But any serious student of Talmud will surely know that that Hillel rarely agreed with Shammai, Rabbi Akiva the same with Rabbi Yishmael, and we rabbis don’t regard agreement as the greatest accomplishment towards which we might strive. Struggle, as one of my colleagues quite eloquently said, is the birthright of Yisrael. It is built into the etymology of the name itself. Struggle is the source of spiritual growth, and holiness.

As I’ve moved into a serious leadership position in the Rabbinical Assembly- I am its newly installed Vice-President- conventions such as this week’s are as much about the business of the organization as they are anything else. But this year, particularly because the convention was being held at JTS, special emphasis was placed on study experiences being built in to the program itself. Each day had myriad opportunities built into the schedule to spend serious time studying Torah.

More than anything else, I do believe that the opportunity for rabbis to learn, as opposed to teach, was more restorative than almost anything else we did.

When all is said and done, rabbis are teachers of Torah. We teach classes, of course, both formal and informal. But one of my most important professors (all those years ago in the Seminary) taught me that a rabbi must never miss an opportunity to teach Torah, no matter what the venue or circumstance. And so it is that most of us spend most of our time teaching, and preparing to teach. So much of the ongoing learning that we do is utilitarian in nature… We learn in order to teach, to preach, to counsel- all that we do is so significantly rooted in learning what it often feels as if we are on a continuous loop of “teacher prep.” It requires enormous discipline to actually set aside time to study for study’s sake, and many of us don’t do it enough.

At this convention, my most favorite moments were spent sitting at the feet of master teachers and learning- not in order to teach, although I know that is considered a very high level in the Mishnah- but just in order to savor the experience of being a student for a few moments as opposed to a teacher. That was so very refreshing and stimulating… true Torah lishmah- Torah for its own sake.

The trick is to remember how good that felt when I get back to the realities of my schedule…

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.