Go and Learn: Talmudic Guidance for Site Visits and Philanthropic Partnerships

By Doron Kenter

The Babylonian Talmud, in Tractate Shabbat (31a), recounts the famous story of the man who came to the Sage Hillel, asking to be converted on the condition that he could be taught the entirety of the Torah while standing on one foot. Hillel’s (perhaps somewhat passive aggressive) response began with “That which is hateful to you do not do to another; that is the entire Torah, and the rest is its interpretation.” Importantly, though, Hillel did not end there. He concluded – presumably while he and the cheeky stranger were still in Tree Pose – “Go and Study.”

Study, and understanding, necessarily involves going somewhere. The Haggadah famously reminds us “Tzei U’lmad” – Go and Learn. Indeed throughout our texts, rabbis and teachers repeatedly travel from town to town and from beit midrash to beit midrash. While the journeys often serve a narrative purpose (e.g., the rabbis come across a crumbling wall or a stranger on the road which serves as the basis for a Talmudic lesson), these admonitions do more than serve as literary devices. We are constantly reminded that, even though there is certainly value to taking the time to sit and study, we can’t hope to truly understand an issue without going out to see what is happening in the streets and in the fields.

So, too, for the work we do every day. As has been explained before in this forum, data and metrics are important but can only go so far.[1] There is something that cannot be truly understood without seeing, hearing, and feeling a program in its truest form. Eitan Cooper, of Rosov Consulting, wrote a useful post last year about the nuts and bolts of an effective site visit.[2] And there are other resources available in helping to plan (or facilitate) same.[3] Far be it from me to repeat what has already been said there, and elsewhere.

It is worth noting, though, that these values are deeply entrenched in the Jewish communal tradition. Thankfully, most of us today are received far better than was Joseph when Jacob sent him to the fields of Shechem to see if all was well with his brothers as they tended their family flocks (see Genesis 37).[i] From the times of Hillel, our teachers have reminded us of the important of venturing out of our offices and into the world. Indeed, even in more mundane legal matters like whether workers are being paid fair wages for ditch-digging, the Talmud makes a simple assumption that arbiters of disputes can often go out to see what is actually happening (see Bava Metzia 76a, for example).

To be sure, there are limits to what these visits can tell us. They are necessarily isolated instances, with so much more going on than one person can ever hope to see. They can also be curated or orchestrated to show programs in the best possible light, or engage the most compelling subsets of a population, so as to give off an incomplete or even misleading impression of the program being visited. On the other hand, we are often entirely unable to see the true long-term results of the hard work that is being done. As the rabbis remind us in the passage cited above regarding the ditch-diggers, we often cannot see the quality of the work in the trenches until the rains have come and gone, perhaps even over the course of several seasons.

Notwithstanding these shortcoming – or perhaps because of them – we must rededicate ourselves to the importance of going out to learn. But how? Is there some additional rabbinic guidance that can inform best practices in our going out to learn?

Tractate Megillah (21a) relates a debate as to whether we should stand or sit while studying Torah. As support for one proposed resolution, the text suggests that Moses himself stood while learning the easier parts of Torah, and sat while learning the more challenging sections. Rabbi Abbahu, citing Deuteronomy 5:27 (“But as for you, stand here with Me”), suggests that teachers must sit on the same level as their students (i.e., on the same level, and not elevated on a couch or on a dais). It is truly a beautiful concept – all who are learning should sit together, with none elevated over another. We are all peers, learning together, regardless of position. Indeed, the Talmud relates that, when Moses himself was transported through time and space to Rabbi Akiva’s study house, he took a seat in the back, observing from among the students (Menachot 29B).

And yet. In his commentary on Isaac Alfasi’s Sefer Halachot, the 14th century Spanish Talmudist Rabbenu Nissim of Gerona rejects – or at least qualifies – Rabbi Abbahu’s reading. Clearly aware of the competing narratives mentioned in the text of the Talmud, Rabbenu Nissim suggests that “with respect to complex matters, teachers would sit on benches (i.e., in an elevated position), for if they had been sitting on the floor with their students, the teachers would not have been able to see [each and every one of] them (i.e., their students) properly.” In other words, by sitting in a different position, the teachers could see if each of their students were truly comprehending the lessons being taught and the discussions underway. In the episode noted above, no less a figure than Rabbi Akiva failed to notice that Moses, sitting in the eighth row of the study house, was confused by the lesson being presented. Only by looking each individual student in the eye that teachers can fulfill their duty to ensure that complex matters are truly being understood by every last student.

True partnership in grantmaking is undoubtedly one of those “complex matters” contemplated in Tractate Megillah. We must sit in the academies, study houses, convention centers, and homes, and we must go out to the camps, farms, shelters, hospitals, and streets. And, in all of these interactions – with executives, professional staff, target populations, and all our partners – we must look at all that is being done from as many angles as we can. We must sit among those serving and those being served, the teachers and those being taught, the givers and the needy. Not one of us should be above sitting on the floor (so to speak), and each of us must understand the view from the back, the sides, and the front. At the same time, we must be sure to continually adjust our perspective and put ourselves in different situations so that we can look each other in the eyes, face-to-face, and do our best to truly understand each other. Now let’s all go out and learn.

Doron Kenter is a Program Officer at Maimonides Fund.

[i] Of course, we cannot claim to have a monopoly on the concept. See, e.g., Acts 15:36.

[1] http://ejpprod.wpengine.com/tell-the-stories-of-impact/
[2] https://www.rosovconsulting.com/learning/news/being-a-participant-observer-best-practices-for-an-effective-site-visit/
[3] See, e.g., https://www.exponentphilanthropy.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/TeenPhilanthropyCafe-SiteVisits.pdf and https://www.bridgespan.org/insights/library/philanthropy/nonprofit-due-diligence-donor-decision-tool/quick-guide-to-conducting-a-nonprofit-site-visit