Passion in Religious Education

By Jon A. Levisohn

Do we need to cultivate the inner spiritual life of our Jewish educators, as Aryeh Ben David claims? Certainly we do. But as Ziva Reimer Hassenfeld has argued in response, based on recent empirical research at the Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education at Brandeis, many teachers already bring a passion for Judaism to their teaching. Passion is not enough. What those teachers need, she continues, is “the professional development necessary to foster skilled, reflective practitioners.”

I agree with Ziva’s argument, but I’ve also been thinking recently about another aspect of the issue. Sometimes passion is not enough – but sometimes it is too much. When a teacher demonstrates passion, when a class seems to get drawn into a focus on the teacher’s persona, does that inevitably threaten the boundaries between teacher and student? Does it interfere with learning? Is it simply too dangerous?

We are familiar with situations where, as Paul Shaviv describes, “the teacher’s personality has become the centre of the classroom rather than the course content.”[1] In response, we sometimes say the proper job of the teacher is to teach Torah, rather than teaching him- or herself.

Yet, this way of framing the problem ignores the ways in which teaching also involves a kind of role-modeling – not just of good behavior or professionalism or respect for others, but of a stance towards a particular subject as a possible option for students. Part of what we do, when we teach, is that we present our students with images of a possible life. We are saying, “You can be like me, if you want” – whether “like me” means “a professor like me” or “a philosopher like me” or “a reader of ancient Near Eastern texts like me” or even, perhaps, in a religious educational setting, “a religious person like me.”

For Parker Palmer, the key is the presence of what he calls a “third thing,” some shared object of inquiry that holds the attention – and attracts the desire – of both teacher and student.[2] When teacher and student are committed to the integrity of their inquiry, when they are passionate enough about the object that they’re trying to understand or the problem that they’re trying to solve, they will not dare to make a false claim or do shoddy work. This dynamic has a democratizing effect. Within the bounds of the inquiry or the project, the student is permitted – even obligated – to speak up against the teacher if she believes that an argument is flawed or a move misguided.

This is a model of pedagogy that can channel passion in productive ways for religious education. This is what makes the difference between simply imagining that students will follow the spiritual lives of their teachers, and an educational process that takes the spiritual life seriously. In this model, teacher and student are aligned in their interest. They are trying to figure it out together, whatever the “it” happens to be – how to live a virtuous life, how to fulfill what God wants of us, how to achieve some discernment. When this happens, the teacher is a role model for what it looks like and feels like to pursue that project. We offer up this “third thing” to the student not as a mere curiosity, but as an object of our own passion. We are saying, “You can be like me, if you want – but to be like me, in this model, is not primarily to know what I know or act as I act, but to desire what I desire, or to desire in the way that I desire.”

But here’s the kicker: This only works if the question, or the quest, is genuine. If the teacher thinks he has all the answers, then the object of the teacher’s passion – whatever it is that he actually desires – is not the same as the object of the student’s passion. There is no “third thing” as the focus of the shared inquiry between them. There is nothing to hold teacher and student accountable. The student desires knowledge, wisdom, understanding. The teacher? Who knows. Maybe it’s power, or reinforcement of his fragile ego. But whatever it is, it is clearly not aligned with the object of the student’s passion.

On the other hand, if the teacher is on a genuine spiritual and intellectual quest for herself, if she is open and vulnerable and genuinely shares her pursuit with her student so that their quests are aligned, if they are trying to figure it out together, then we can start to envision a triangular relationship suffused with passion and free of any manipulation or abuse.

Perhaps this conception of the spiritual life of educators is one which both Ben David and Hassenfeld can support.

Jon A. Levisohn holds the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Chair in Jewish Educational Thought at Brandeis University, where he directs the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education.

This post is based on an article recently published by Hillel’s Office of Innovation, Eros and (Religious) Education.”

[1] Paul Shaviv, “The Charismatic Teacher,” in The Jewish High School: A Complete Management Guide (2009).

[2] Parker Palmer, The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life (1998).

Cross-posted on Learning About Learning.