Atid spring 2001 K'gananim b'Gan Hashem

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K'Gananim b'Gan Hashem

As Gardeners in the Garden of God:

Hasidic Thought and its Implications for

Teacher-Student Relationships

Asher Friedman

Mentor: R. Jeffrey Saks

ATID Spring 2001

K'gananim b'Gan Hashem

As Gardeners in the Garden of God:

Hasidic Thought and its Implications for Teacher-Student Relationships

By Asher Friedman

Asher Friedman is completing his semikha studies and an MA in Jewish Philosophy through Yeshiva University. This year, he will study at Yeshivat Har Etzion in Alon Shevut. He taught last year at BMT.

Project Description

This project explores the dynamics of teacher-student interactions through the prism of hasidic thought. Arguing that how we relate to our students has as much impact as what we teach them, the author turns to the psychologically rich works of hasidut for models of growth-oriented relationships and shows how these principles can be implemented and actualized by contemporary teachers, both inside and outside the classroom.

This paper demonstrates that many elements of the hasidic world view carry profound implications for the formation of a philosophy of education, particularly with regards to the nature of the relationship between teacher and student. The author claims that hasidut, if analyzed in terms of its basic assumptions about human psychology and the dynamics of interpersonal relationships, makes claims very relevant to issues facing contemporary educators. The author begins with a brief study of the educational philosophy proposed by Rav Klonymous Kalman of Piasezna, one of the first hasidic thinkers to systematically describe hasidic thought in terms of its implications for the attitudes and methodologies of teachers. The educational methods utilized by Rav Klonymous Kalman directly flow from certain assumptions about reality, assumptions rooted in the hasidic world-view. The author points out that many contemporary orthodox educators utilize innovative techniques without inquiring as to whether the values these techniques carry as baggage are reconcilable to a Jewish world-view. If how we teach is as important as what we teach, if a teacher's attitude transmits subtle yet powerful lessons to the students about the nature of growth and learning, then this is a significant problem. In contrast to these educators, the rebbe developed an educational methodology that is a direct corrolary of his overall world-view, rooted in the kabbalistic thought of hasidut.

This paper focuses on explicating the rebbe's basic assumptions about education in terms of their roots in hasidic thought and in terms of the precise way in which they play out in teacher-student relationships.

The author suggests that an understanding of how hasidic theory yields an educational philosophy and, in turn, an effective methodology, is important for two reasons: Firstly, it demonstrates that teachers need not resort to using piecemeal assortments of educational techniques that may or may not reflect a Jewish world-view, but rather may build an educational theory of practice from a uniquely Jewish system of thought. In this sense, Rav Klonymous Kalman's work is an important model. Secondly, it is the author's belief that his own study of hasidic texts and his integration of hasidic concepts into his own world view has significantly aided him in developing an 'educational intuition' that has guided him in his dealings with students. Throughout the paper, the author cites examples culled from his own interactions with students that serve to demonstrate this claim.

After briefly introducing Rav Klonymous Kalman's educational philosophy, discussing the issues involved in 'translating' theories from one cultural language to another, the author provides a short introduction to hasidic thought, focusing on the idea of a 'kabbalistic psychology', the hasidic assumption that the cosmic processes of G-d's interaction with His creation are reflected in the internal psychological processes of the human soul. The author then moves to the main body of the paper, an analysis of the implications of this 'kabbalistic psychology' for our understanding of the dynamics of the relationship between teacher and student.

The author shows that hasidut's optimistic view of the human soul yields powerful implications for the attitudes that teachers develop about their students. Hasidic thought assumes that the human soul is essentially an emanation of the Divine, and therefore a source of infinite potential growth. No matter how evil or corrupt a person may appear on the surface, the possibility of growth is always present. Thus, teachers must always view students in terms of their potential selves as well as their actual selves. A student's character traits may manifest themselves in negative ways, but contain the potential for positive manifestations as well. For example, if a student with an explosive temper learned to channel his emotions, they could be used to attain passionate levels of avodat Hashem instead. Students often develop unrealistically negative self-images, and it is often crucial that teachers independently assess students for positive qualities in order to help them grow. The author suggests that teachers keep lists of students' positive character traits in order to facilitate this focus on their potential.

While an awareness of a student's dynamic potential for growth is crucial, the author shows that hasidic thought also maintains that teachers must cultivate an awareness of the student's actual locus along the developmental continuum of growth. A person cannot grow so long as he maintains an unrealistically positive sense of self. The first step of growth is always an honest recognition of the gap between where one is and where one could be. Furthermore, if a teacher sets the conceptual and spiritual level of his expectations of his students unrealistically high, his methods will be completely ineffective.

The author maintains that in order to relate to students where they are, as opposed to where they should be, the teacher must implement tsimtsum, constriction. Tsimtsum, a kabbalistic concept used to describe G-d's self-constriction in creating the physical universe, is extended by hasidut to describe the human act of constricting one's own self in order to make room for the Other. The author claims that to truly love requires an act of tsimtsum, an act that expresses a love sensitive to the needs of the beneficiary. The unique qualities of the recipient determine the shape and nature of the act of giving. In the realm of education, tsimtsum is the ability of the teacher to recognize the more constricted intellectual, moral, and spiritual levels of his students and to work with them in their own terms. Tsimtsum applies to the particular way in which we teach concepts to our students. Well-educated adultsare used to thinking in abstract terms, but students encountering philosophy or gemara for the first time often have difficulty dealing with conceptual thinking, and the teacher must learn to present ideas in a format suitable to the students' level and to tap into the students' own motivations for study.

The author then proceeds to demonstrate how other hasidic concepts contribute to the fashioning of a useful understanding of the teacher-student relationship. Yeridah l'tsorekh aliyah, descent for the sake of ascent, suggests that for a teacher to connect with his students, he must find some element of their own struggles within himself. This act of cognitive and emotional descent creates a feeling of solidarity and identification between student and teacher that gives the student the self-confidence to commence growth. Furthermore, hasidic thought assumes that people respond reflectively to the emotions of others. When the teacher manifests love to the student through his descent, self-love and love for the teacher are ignited within the student, aiding the growth process.

Despite the power of tsimtsum and yeridah, the teacher ultimately must pull away from the student in order to prevent the student from becoming passive and dependent. Furthermore, the teacher, when descending to the level of his students, must maintain a double-minded awareness of his own more advanced spiritual state. Without this, the teacher will lack the capacity to guide his students beyond their current level.

In conclusion, the author emphasizes that the adoption of elements of the hasidic world-view has positively impacted on his own intuitive ability to relate to his students and encourage their growth. The adoption of an educational system that flows from a consistent and uniquely Jewish world-view has the added advantage that it transmits Jewish values subtly through the educational techniques themselves, a result that is impossible to accomplish if one's educational methods are learned primarily from non-Jewish educational theorists.


Fathers and teachers must know that their task is to educate and reveal children of the Lord and giants of Israel. They must see the children sitting in front of them as great souls still immature; their task is to get them to grow and flourish. A teacher is a gardener in the garden of God, assigned to cultivate it and guard it from harm.

-- Rav Klonymous Kalman of Piasezna11
My own fascination with the interplay between hasidic thought and the art of teaching began four years ago, as I embarked on my first summer as a teacher at the NCSY Kollel in Efrat. A friend recommended that I prepare for the experience by reading Rav Klonymous Kalman of Piasezna's22 "A Discussion with Teachers and Parents". The Rebbe's deep belief in every child's potential greatness inspired me, and his theories about the nature of adolescent spiritual growth resonated with my own experiences in working with teenagers. Over the past several years, my continued work with Modern Orthodox youth has served to intensify my conviction that the educational philosophy implicit in the hasidic world-view, and made explicit by Rav Klonymous Kalman, can be profoundly useful in developing an educational vision for contemporary teachers.33
Why turn to hasidic thought for guidance in shaping our approach to education? Contemporary Orthodox educators often utilize innovative techniques, without inquiring as to whether the values these techniques carry as baggage are reconcilable to a Jewish weltanschauung. In the words of Seymour Fox,

[T]he means and techniques that have been adopted by Jewish education are often imported indiscriminately from general education. Since the means of education are not neutral, it is quite possible that some of the means employed for Jewish education cancel out whatever there is in Jewish education that is related to "authentic" Judaism.44

If how we teach is as important as what we teach, if a teacher's attitude transmits subtle yet powerful lessons to the students about the nature of growth and learning,55 then this is an issue that must be grappled with.

It is easy to underestimate the power of seemingly neutral educational decisions to transmit messages and values to our students. For example, over the past 50 years, standardized testing has become a pervasive component of almost every western educational system. On the surface, this trend seems to be a sensible pragmatic decision -- it is far easier to maintain consistent educational standards if disparate schools all subject their students to the same tests. But let us consider the impact that this approach has had on the way our students relate to the learning process. Accompanying the proliferation of standardized tests has come an abundance of test-preparation courses that teach wealthier students the 'tricks' necessary to achieve high scores. Teachers face intense pressure to focus their classes on those subjects and types of questions that might appear on the tests. What message do the students receive from this? They learn to view the process of learning as a 'game', replete with tricks and strategies necessary to achieve 'right' answers. The pursuit of knowledge has become the pursuit of the multiple choice answer which is least likely to be incorrect. Thus, a seemingly innocent, pragmatic educational method transforms the way our students view the fundamentals of education.66 Almost no educational decision is value-neutral, and therefore we educators would do well to ensure that our teaching methodologies reflect a world-view compatible with the Judaism we intend to convey to our students.

Teachers need not resort to using piecemeal assortments of educational techniques that may or may not reflect a Jewish world-view, but rather can and should build an educational theory from a uniquely Jewish system of thought. In this sense, Rav Klonymous Kalman's work is an important model -- Rav Klonymous Kalman didn't merely describe a random assortment of effective methods of education. His educational methodology directly flows from certain assumptions about reality, assumptions rooted in the hasidic world view.

This paper will focus on explicating how certain basic assumptions about education flow from their roots in hasidic thought and exploring the precise way in which they play out in actual teacher-student relationships.77 Although this essay utilizes the contributions of many hasidic thinkers, Rav Klonymous Kalman's systematic vision underlies much of what is written here. The Rebbe demonstrated the relevance of hasidic thought to educational practice for his own generation, and this essay is in many ways an extension of his work. The Rebbe's essay alludes to concepts that require elaboration, both to understand their cosmic implications in terms of their roots in hasidic thought, and to determine precisely how they should be applied to the contemporary teacher-student relationship.

I believe that my own study of hasidic thought has significantly aided me in developing an 'educational intuition', one that has guided me in forming positive, growth-oriented relationships with my students. Many of the examples that I cite in this paper are based on my own experiences, not because I see myself as an exemplary teacher, but rather because I believe that some of my intuitions about how to work with students have been shaped and bolstered by my study of hasidut. A study of how these intuitions play out in the course of my interactions with students is therefore useful in analyzing the relevance of the hasidic world view to modern educators.

This essay is fundamentally not about particular techniques; rather, it aims to provide a way of organizing our thinking about ourselves as teachers and about our relationships with our students. Of course, every teacher and every educational situation is different and therefore it is unlikely that any reader will implement the principles discussed in this paper exactly as I did. For example, a teacher in a large school with a packed teaching schedule will have far less ability to create the types of personal relationships with students described here.88 However, even such a teacher may find his99 own way to implement these ideas, though in a different form.

To move from the abstract realm of hasidic thought to the pragmatic realm of the classroom, we must develop an educational philosophy grounded in theory but developed to the extent that its implications for educational practice are clear.1010 In our case, we will build an understanding of the nature of the teacher-student relationship based on the theoretical teachings of hasidut, yet formulated in terms that can be implemented by contemporary teachers.

The final section of this introduction, Hasidut: Theory, contains an introduction to certain fundamental elements of the hasidic world-view that underlie the concepts that will be discussed in the body of the paper. In the body of the paper, we will examine the multiple facets of the teacher-student dynamic, and show the systematic nature of hasidut's strategy for encouraging positive growth within the context of that relationship.

Each of the following sections can stand on its own, but is best understood as a component of a dynamic system, impacting on and impacted by those facets preceding and succeeding it. In the first half of the paper, The Dynamic and the Static Self: The Teacher's Image of the Student, we will explore the implications of hasidut's optimistic view of the human soul for the teacher's image of the student. Hasidic thought emphasizes that people are capable of dynamic growth and change, and therefore views individuals in terms of their potential and not merely in terms of their actual state. However, a teacher should not lose track of the student's static self either -- growth begins from an accurate awareness of a person's actual level of development.

The second half of the paper, Constriction, Descent, and Ascent: the Teacher's Approach to the Student, explores the implications of dealing with the student ba'asher hu sham, in terms of his actual locus along the spectrum of personal development, as opposed to where we expect him to be. This requires change on the part of the teacher in order to bridge the gap between his own intellectual and spiritual level and that of his students. At the end of the paper I have added an appendix, a selection of hasidic texts representative of the ideas discussed.

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