Pirke Avot, chapter two, verse five: the teacher and the student

I don’t know about y’all, but I’m really enjoying this verse.

He used to say: There is no boor who fears sin, and no pious man of the world; there is no shy student, and no angry teacher; there is no wise man who puts everything into business. And where there are no men, try to be a man.

Again, not perfectly happy with my own translation here. But the point comes through, I hope. I think it would make an excellent motto for a small liberal arts college, don’t you? In the Hebrew, of course, on a shield and a book. The rabbis like to give examples of this verse and the importance of asking questions when you don’t understand something. Bashfulness is a virtue in every respect except in the course of study, says Rabbi Jonah ben Abraham. That would also make a pretty good motto, come to think of it.

The teacher is variously called intolerant, short-tempered or passionate; I like angry, myself, as it indicates a mood rather than a character trait, but that’s my bias. Clearly, though, in addition to the idea that at the moment of anger, the opportunity to teach is lost (just as at the moment of diffidence the opportunity to learn is lost), Hillel is talking about people with a particular habit of mind. The question, then, is whether we take away the idea that a shy person, being shy, should give up attempting to study, or whether a short-tempered person should give up teaching. When you think about it, that’s not really a plausible interpretation, but the first glance does seem to lead that way. But shyness and anger are no more permanent fates than boorishness or worldliness, and I think that’s part of the verse, too.

I would like to go further, though, as long as we have this verse in front of us. one of the themes running through the avot is that you are a teacher anyway, will you or nil you. Everybody teaches their neighbors, their business associates, their children. Judges, it’s true, have a special responsibility to teach the Law, but they also teach by their behavior. This is in one of the warnings (that I sadly can’t find at the moment) about the hedge around the law: if you, for instance, continue to work right up until the last possible moment before the Sabbath, relying on your ability to correctly ascertain the correct moment by the sky and the Law, you not only put yourself in grave danger of contravening the Law (because your judgement is off, or you become distracted at the vital moment), but what is worse you may lead someone else off the Path, as he will say it is permitted to work until such-and-such, which I know from observing a Judge.

Is this a blanket condemnation of anger, then? Well, here’s the thing. It might be. Hillel is known for being slow to anger; there are lots of stories about obnoxious people who attempt to rile Hillel and are greeted with soft words. Often those people become pious, through his teaching as well as his example. Often the obnoxious guy went to Shammai first and was soundly rebuffed; Shammai was evidently known for being short-tempered. So this is to some extent a clear dig at Shammai on Hillel’s behalf. On the other hand, I do think that it is intended to be broader than that, and to be applied to more than professional instructors.

Also interesting: are there bashful teachers? Are there angry students? What does it tell us that Hillel found the one set sufficiently antithetical to say often, and not the other?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

1 thought on “Pirke Avot, chapter two, verse five: the teacher and the student

  1. Chris Cobb

    The teacher is variously called intolerant, short-tempered or passionate; I like angry, myself, as it indicates a mood rather than a character trait, but that’s my bias.

    I know nothing about the translation issues, but a translation that has the verse saying “there is no passionate teacher” would tend to undermine the credibility of the its teaching. Teachers are often passionate — about their subjects. In scholarship on pedagogy (as far as I know that scholarship), a teacher’s passion for the subject she or he teaches is frequently cited as an important factor in student learning. Anger, on the other hand, if it is directed at the students and especially if it is directed at the students’ performance, does seem to me to be antithetical to teaching. I am sure that view is not universally held, but that’s how I see it.

    Also interesting: are there bashful teachers? Are there angry students?

    Well, there are lots of angry students: the question is whether or not their anger helps them to learn anything . . . I think anger can be a motive for learning, though it’s not likely to be an enduring one, and it is more likely to interfere with learning than to facilitate it.

    Bashful teachers? That’s probably a matter of degree. If “bashful” means “too shy to speak in front of a group of students,” then no. There are ways to teach in a self-effacing manner that can be successful, but it’s challenging, because the tendency (at least in the culture of mainstream American education) is for students to be led to learning first by the teacher’s emotions, and a teacher who hides away too much from the students may never get them engaged. To be successful, a bashful teacher would need to be able to create a somewhat non-standard classroom environment and gain the students’ trust and respect by showing them that a class not focused on the teacher can be an excellent learning environment.

    Is anything known about the kind of pedagogy used by Hillel and the other rabbis whose sayings are recorded in Pirke Avot?

    Reply

Leave a Reply to Chris Cobb Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.