An Education from the Trees

(Prepared for Pedagogy of Partnership)

Rabbi Abba was once meditating upon the characteristics of a tree, the Zohar tells us. He observed the growth of fruit, leaves and birds flying from its boughs. Suddenly he had an insight, began to cry, and declared, “if people only knew what secrets these things hinted at, they would tear their garments in mourning over the wisdom the trees have taught us that we have forgotten” (2:15b). Sages in every generation have sought to reclaim some of the forgotten wisdom that Rabbi Abba may have glimpsed in that moment, and it just so happens that elements of it speak to our work as educators.

When it comes to the interpretation of sacred text, educational environments often fall into one of two camps about the role of expertise. The first is iconoclastic, giving no privilege to expert voice and placing student perspective on the same level as commentators of far deeper contextual, linguistic and philosophical insight. The second only creates room for expert perspectives and students are asked to learn what experts have interpreted and not to engage in authentic interpretation themselves. Both camps miss something vital in the educational experience since the first deprives students of learning both the content and process of developing expertise, while the second diminishes a student’s sense of personal connection and meaning making through studying sacred literature. Thankfully, the history of Jewish text study offers us robust alternatives that capitalize on the value of each approach and avoid their pitfalls. Furthermore, it turns out that one such alternative approach can be learned from the trees.

Rabbi Eliyahu HaKohen (17th-18th C. Turkey), in his famed Shevet Mussar, wrote the following, “Let no lesson learned or novel insight discovered in the Torah be a small thing in a person’s eyes. Even if it is small, let it not be small in one’s eyes. Rather, one should appreciate it and give it importance, for it is this that will bring them to continue to develop new insights until they are accustomed to doing so, eventually generating profound new interpretations…This is a lesson one should learn from those that plant small seeds like the mustard seed. People plant it with a sense of great importance and indeed it becomes a mighty tree with tremendous roots, branches, leaves and fruit, and from them they plant new ones until lush gardens and orchards are formed” (Ch. 22:3). Rabbi HaKohen, in his beautiful metaphor, teaches us that there is certainly a difference between non-expert and expert interpretations, however, we must also know that the difference is one of degree and not of kind. With this approach, we can help our students treasure their interpretations while simultaneously challenging them to evolve them through their rich havruta interactions and the study of expert commentators, all the while communicating our faith in our students to reach continually higher levels of expertise through hard work and growth. 

In Pedagogy of Partnership, we achieve this through helping our students develop a stance towards text study that says, “I have something to learn, and I have something to teach”, and “I can learn from my peers–not exclusively from a teacher or ‘expert’”. These stances, along with practices such as “listening and articulating” and “wondering and focusing”, invite students to express their interpretations and follow hunches about possible meanings of a text in a supportive havruta setting. Meanwhile, PoP stances and practices also provide students with the tools to test the soundness of those interpretations and develop the same thinking habits as great commentators before them. In doing so, the PoP approach helps us avoid the false dichotomy of an all or nothing approach to expertise and instead allows students to see themselves as engaged in the same work as experts even if at a more basic level, that can and will evolve as their studies do.  In other words, PoP shows us precisely what it looks like to take a seed of interpretation and “plant it with a sense of great importance” so that it can “become a mighty tree with tremendous roots, branches, leaves and fruit”. 

Rabbi Abba was pained to consider the wisdom of the trees that we’ve forgotten. Rabbi HaKohen, amongst so many others has helped us retrieve some of it. Through the methodology of PoP, some of that wisdom is showing up in classrooms all over the country. That is something Rabbi Abba and all of us should be excited about. 

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