K'gananim b'Gan Hashem
As Gardeners in the Garden of God:
Hasidic Thought and its Implications for Teacher-Student Relationships

Asher Friedman

This paper demonstrates that many elements of the hasidic world view carry profound implications for the formation of a philosophy of education, particularly with regards to the nature of the relationship between teacher and student. The author claims that hasidut, if analyzed in terms of its basic assumptions about human psychology and the dynamics of interpersonal relationships, makes claims very relevant to issues facing contemporary educators. The author begins with a brief study of the educational philosophy proposed by Rav Klonymous Kalman of Piasezna, one of the first hasidic thinkers to systematically describe hasidic thought in terms of its implications for the attitudes and methodologies of teachers. The educational methods utilized by Rav Klonymous Kalman directly flow from certain assumptions about reality, assumptions rooted in the hasidic world-view. The author points out that many contemporary orthodox educators utilize innovative techniques without inquiring as to whether the values these techniques carry as baggage are reconcilable to a Jewish world-view. If how we teach is as important as what we teach, if a teacher's attitude transmits subtle yet powerful lessons to the students about the nature of growth and learning, then this is a significant problem. In contrast to these educators, the rebbe developed an educational methodology that is a direct corrolary of his overall world-view, rooted in the kabbalistic thought of hasidut.

This paper focuses on explicating the rebbe's basic assumptions about education in terms of their roots in hasidic thought and in terms of the precise way in which they play out in teacher-student relationships.

The author suggests that an understanding of how hasidic theory yields an educational philosophy and, in turn, an effective methodology, is important for two reasons: Firstly, it demonstrates that teachers need not resort to using piecemeal assortments of educational techniques that may or may not reflect a Jewish world-view, but rather may build an educational theory of practice from a uniquely Jewish system of thought. In this sense, Rav Klonymous Kalman's work is an important model. Secondly, it is the author's belief that his own study of hasidic texts and his integration of hasidic concepts into his own world view has significantly aided him in developing an 'educational intuition' that has guided him in his dealings with students. Throughout the paper, the author cites examples culled from his own interactions with students that serve to demonstrate this claim.

After briefly introducing Rav Klonymous Kalman's educational philosophy, discussing the issues involved in 'translating' theories from one cultural language to another, the author provides a short introduction to hasidic thought, focusing on the idea of a 'kabbalistic psychology', the hasidic assumption that the cosmic processes of G-d's interaction with His creation are reflected in the internal psychological processes of the human soul. The author then moves to the main body of the paper, an analysis of the implications of this 'kabbalistic psychology' for our understanding of the dynamics of the relationship between teacher and student.

The author shows that hasidut's optimistic view of the human soul yields powerful implications for the attitudes that teachers develop about their students. Hasidic thought assumes that the human soul is essentially an emanation of the Divine, and therefore a source of infinite potential growth. No matter how evil or corrupt a person may appear on the surface, the possibility of growth is always present. Thus, teachers must always view students in terms of their potential selves as well as their actual selves. A student's character traits may manifest themselves in negative ways, but contain the potential for positive manifestations as well. For example, if a student with an explosive temper learned to channel his emotions, they could be used to attain passionate levels of avodat Hashem instead. Students often develop unrealistically negative self-images, and it is often crucial that teachers independently assess students for positive qualities in order to help them grow. The author suggests that teachers keep lists of students' positive character traits in order to facilitate this focus on their potential.

While an awareness of a student's dynamic potential for growth is crucial, the author shows that hasidic thought also maintains that teachers must cultivate an awareness of the student's actual locus along the developmental continuum of growth. A person cannot grow so long as he maintains an unrealistically positive sense of self. The first step of growth is always an honest recognition of the gap between where one is and where one could be. Furthermore, if a teacher sets the conceptual and spiritual level of his expectations of his students unrealistically high, his methods will be completely ineffective.

The author maintains that in order to relate to students where they are, as opposed to where they should be, the teacher must implement tsimtsum, constriction. Tsimtsum, a kabbalistic concept used to describe G-d's self-constriction in creating the physical universe, is extended by hasidut to describe the human act of constricting one's own self in order to make room for the Other. The author claims that to truly love requires an act of tsimtsum, an act that expresses a love sensitive to the needs of the beneficiary. The unique qualities of the recipient determine the shape and nature of the act of giving. In the realm of education, tsimtsum is the ability of the teacher to recognize the more constricted intellectual, moral, and spiritual levels of his students and to work with them in their own terms. Tsimtsum applies to the particular way in which we teach concepts to our students. Well-educated adultsare used to thinking in abstract terms, but students encountering philosophy or gemara for the first time often have difficulty dealing with conceptual thinking, and the teacher must learn to present ideas in a format suitable to the students' level and to tap into the students' own motivations for study.

The author then proceeds to demonstrate how other hasidic concepts contribute to the fashioning of a useful understanding of the teacher-student relationship. Yeridah l'tsorekh aliyah, descent for the sake of ascent, suggests that for a teacher to connect with his students, he must find some element of their own struggles within himself. This act of cognitive and emotional descent creates a feeling of solidarity and identification between student and teacher that gives the student the self-confidence to commence growth. Furthermore, hasidic thought assumes that people respond reflectively to the emotions of others. When the teacher manifests love to the student through his descent, self-love and love for the teacher are ignited within the student, aiding the growth process.

Despite the power of tsimtsum and yeridah, the teacher ultimately must pull away from the student in order to prevent the student from becoming passive and dependent. Furthermore, the teacher, when descending to the level of his students, must maintain a double-minded awareness of his own more advanced spiritual state. Without this, the teacher will lack the capacity to guide his students beyond their current level.

In conclusion, the author emphasizes that the adoption of elements of the hasidic world-view has positively impacted on his own intuitive ability to relate to his students and encourage their growth. The adoption of an educational system that flows from a consistent and uniquely Jewish world-view has the added advantage that it transmits Jewish values subtly through the educational techniques themselves, a result that is impossible to accomplish if one's educational methods are learned primarily from non-Jewish educational theorists.


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