Teaching Without a Face

By Rabbi Philip Graubart

Last week I told an incredibly funny joke to my high school Jewish Philosophy class – but no one laughed. At least I didn’t hear anyone laugh; they were all on mute. Probably they were all laughing, because the joke really was funny. Or, possibly, more likely, now that I that I think about it, they were groaning. Or ignoring me, because they know my jokes – funny or not – won’t be on any test, so it’s safe to focus on something more important and relevant.

The point is, I couldn’t read the class. The students were squares on my small laptop screen. I could see their faces, sort of, even check out some of their fancy living rooms, or plush bedrooms, with stuffed animals. But the connection was off, and it wasn’t the WIFI’s fault. One student seemed to be staring at me the whole class, nodding and laughing, as if he were my biggest fan. But the gestures came at the wrong times. I realized he wasn’t looking at me, but at something else on his screen – a friend, a movie, a text – who knows?

This past summer, when we were planning on opening in person, I wondered what it be like to teach with a mask, like a bank robber, offering a seminar on hiding your face. I’d still have the joke problem. I wouldn’t be able to tell if they were smiling or yawning, and I’d have a permanent deadpan. But the joke problem is really a face problem, which is to say a problem connecting, of empathy, of desperately needing new tools for teaching when it’s become so hard to see each other.

There’s a famous series of Talmudic vignettes about visiting the sick, all featuring Rabbi Yochanan. In the first tale, he visits a colleague. He tries words as his pastoral healing technique, asking a question: “Are your sufferings welcome to you?” The patient answers, “Neither they nor their reward.” Words don’t work here, not these words. So he tries something else. He touches him.

In the next vignette, it’s Rabbi Yochanan who’s fallen ill. A colleague visits him, and offers the same words, “Are your sufferings welcome to you?” Probably it’s a formula, like “How are you doing today?” Rabbi Yochanan has no more patience for the words than the colleague he’d visited. He responds, “Neither they nor their reward.” So his friend touches him.

Up to now, we’ve learned a simple lesson – to shift strategies when one connecting technique isn’t working. If language is inadequate, try touch. But now we come to the final vignette, longer, deeper, more complicated and disturbing. Again, it’s Rabbi Yochanan as the visitor. But now he’s been sick. He understands the grip of serious illness. I imagine him as older, more seasoned. The scene unfolds much differently than the other two. Yochanan notices it’s dark; he provides illumination. He sees that his friends is crying. Instead of opening with a clichéd formula, he asks about the tears. He engages in a deep, probing conversation. He discovers his friend’s deepest fear. He cries with him. Then he touches him. This is a Rabbi Yochanan alert to new relational techniques, adapting to new circumstances, enriching his empathy with new tools.

During teacher’s week, we were gifted with a slew of new, marvelous, creative tools to sharpen our Zoom teaching. My addled boomer brain recoiled at all the new software, though some of it works well (so I’m told). But the issue isn’t merely technical, and the answer – at least the full answer – isn’t new software. All of us, teachers certainly, but really anyone who makes a living connecting with others in some way – which is to say everyone – we all realize that what we need isn’t just better programs. We need new ways of relating, an emotional nimbleness adequate to the times, tools for connecting when we can no longer shake hands, much less hug or touch, when breathing too close to a student endangers your life, and maybe hers.

The truth is I don’t know how I’ll teach without smiles when we finally return to campus, how I’ll create closeness while social distancing. Undoubtedly, wise teachers will conjure up new ways of relating. Language will become even more important. And tears. Loud laughing. And silence. The goal in Jewish education was never really imparting information. It was about developing relationships. We always knew that. We just know it better, now.

Rabbi Philip Graubart is a Judaica teacher at the San Diego Jewish Academy. He’s served as rabbi in La Jolla, California and Northampton, Massachusetts. His latest novel Women and God, will be published early next year.