Teaching and Writing

Last night I taught in the Oregon Board of Rabbis’ Introduction to Judaism course. I teach one to three sessions each semester, as do all the other rabbis in town. I’ve been doing it for the last six years or so.

In the beginning, I would go to the classes with a detailed outline of my lecture for whatever my subject was: often, I would have two typewritten pages of notes for a two hour class. Last night, I walked in with a Post-It which contained all of my notes for the two hours:

Jewish Spirituality:

  • Communal and Individual Prayer
  • Study
  • Gemilut Hasadim [translation: Good Deeds]
  • Meditation
  • Mussar

With only that as a guide, I lectured, fairly coherently, for 2 hours. And apparently, it was a good lecture (based on the comments I got from students after the class). Now, the interesting part of this, to me, is that I no longer worry about my ability to give a, more or less, off the cuff lecture of whatever length. It is subject matter I am comfortable with, and I know that I will be able to play off of the class to judge what is working, what is not working, and where I need to spend more time, and what ideas seem to be clear the first time through.

    I am told that my presentation of ideas is interesting because it is not like that of the other rabbis who teach in the course. I challenge the accepted ideas, expand people’s vision of what Judaism is, of what a rabbi is. Yet the words, these teachings are ephemeral. They pass from my mouth, to my students’ ears and into their minds, but leave no lasting trace, except for their possible effect on the future lives of the students.

    When I write, there is a permanence. Yet I often feel that my best thoughts are those that are delivered orally, with fewer notes. Some year, I will remember to begin to record my lectures, to see if they are actually worthy of being written text. Because so many of my words are spoken, while so little is written.

    Despite being a largely literate culture, I wonder to what degree our tradition remains an oral tradition. The words spoken by our teachers, remembered or misremembered by us, and repeated on to our students. I also wonder whether this is the nature of humans, of life: all is transitory, and what remains is what people remember of what we have taught.

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