Make yourself a teacher: A class with Professor Susan Handelman

Last week,Professor Susan Handelman, a Chicago native, a professor of English at Bar –Ilan University and the author of several books and articles (as well as being a translator on the Rebbe’s book ‘On the essence of Chassidus’), including her latest work ‘Make yourself a teacher: Rabbinic Tales of Mentors and Disciples’, gave an interesting and invigorating address to students of the Mayanot Women’s Program and members of the community.  In keeping with her latest book, the topic of Professor Handelman’s talk was ‘Talmud and Teachers: New Readings of the Talmud’, in which she examined several stories of Rabbi Eliezer in order to draw conclusions about the teacher/student relationship in Torah learning.

The talk was held in memory of Myra Kraft, on the occasion of her first Yarzheit. Rabbi Shlomo Gestetner, Dean of Mayanot, opened the talk with a warm introduction, and welcome, of Professor Handelman before sharing his memories and impressions of Myra. He told of Myra’s visits to the Mayanot Women’s Program, where she would take the time to speak to every individual, asking questions about their life and why they had decided to study at Mayanot.  She did this not as a matter of course, but because she was truly interested. Myra was a woman who cared about people, and who took the time to show that care.

Professor Handelman began her talk with a moving tribute to Myra Kraft, perfectly evoking and encapsulating her character in an anecdote from Myra’s childhood – when at 5, she went door-to-door around her neighbourhood asking for donations for the children placed in Displaced Peoples’ Camps after the Second World War. Here was Myra – forthright, strong, and devoted to philanthropy – all her wonderful characteristics distilled at the age of 5! The point of mourning in Judaism and sitting Shiva, Professor Handelman noted, is to share stories of the deceased and to form a new or fresh relationship with that person. After telling that anecdote, I certainly felt I had some understanding of Myra Kraft as a person, and certainly felt I wished I had known her. Professor Handelman quoted Thornton Wilder in saying that ‘what is essential does not die, but clarifies’. In that anecdote, the essential kernel of Myra Kraft’s character was clarified, and it impacted upon every person in the room.

The crux of Professor Handelman’s talk was the nature of Torah learning and the importance of the relationship between teacher and student.  ‘The Torah is not a text’, Professor Handelman maintains, ‘it is a living relationship between teacher and student’. The Torah cannot be deconstructed and analysed as we would a work of literature, it can be understood only through the symbiotic relationship of teacher and student. ‘We are the people of the mouth’, she says, ‘not the book.’

Using the stories of Rabbi Eliezer, Professor Handelman showed the cycles involved in Torah study. First Rabbi Eliezer has the willingness to study, then he must find a teacher, which is a difficult and often arduous process, and then finally, he must continue to learn without the aid of his teacher and begin to teach others. This is the central nature of Jewish learning, when one has gained knowledge, one has an obligation to share it – as the Rebbe said, if all you know of the alphabet is ‘א’ and ‘ב’, you are obligated to teach someone ‘ב’.

Professor Handelman’s talk certainly mirrored her philosophy of Jewish learning.  Professor Handelman asked the audience for their interpretations of the story of Rabbi Eliezer in which he goes to meet with Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, without having eaten. A lively discussion followed, in which all opinions were heard and all points of view considered. As a result there were many different interpretations of the story, illuminating different aspects and ideas to be considered, the possibilities from just that one story seemed truly endless. This perfectly displayed the dynamic of the teacher/student relationship in which learning and understanding comes through discussion, and through the interaction between teacher and student. We could not have asked for a better teacher than Professor Handelman, her talk was warm, often funny, and always interesting. This student came away from it with more knowledge than I had going in, and which I look forward to passing on!