If You Don’t Like Learning & Teaching, Are You Even Jewish?

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

I put up a clickbait title for effect, but it is true that Judaism puts a strong emphasis on learning. The word “Rabbi” means “My Teacher” (Note: ben Alexander informed me this is not really true. Rabbis often are teachers, but the word “Rabbi” does not actually mean “teacher”). In Yeshivish Orthodox circles, it is seen as the ideal for the wife to support the family financially and for the husband to spend his days learning in Yeshiva, in lieu of a job or stay-at-home caretaker responsibilities.

Even outside of the yeshivish circles, Jewish learning and study is a pretty big deal. My Jewish community has a considerable population of academics affiliated a nearby university. There are also a number of community members who have Rabbinical degrees other than the pulpit Rabbi. This means that there a lot of people who deeply value learning, with lots of classes and shiurim being offered and lots of chavrusa (1-on-1 partnered learning) opportunities available.

On Learning

To be honest, I’m not really learning-driven when it comes to Judaism. It’s just not my primary motivation. I enjoy a well-written d’var Torah (Torah sermon) or a class given by a great speaker as much as the next person. But I tend to be motivated more by family-oriented rituals of Judaism, or the melodies of religious services, or large social Jewish events/celebrations. I’m not that into learning. I tried chavrusa study and absolutely hated it, and I will never, ever, ever, do it again. I tried Daf Yomi, because it seemed like a very Jewish feminist thing to do, and it was so awful. Shavuot has never been one of my favorite holidays. Yes, every once in awhile, there is an awesome speaker, but more often than not, it’s someone bloviating about a topic that I find boring, and especially boring at 2 AM, but I have to pretend that I’m into it or feel bad that I failed at the endurance test of staying up all night. My friends tried to start a Young Persons’ Shavuot all-night learning which I did not find to be an improvement because I hate young people as a collective, and the topics/speakers were not generally an improvement. (In contrast, Shavuot during COVID was actually amazing. Made cheese fondue, got drunk, and went to bed at midnight. Glorious!)

Admitting that I’m not learning-driven makes me look stupid, and in truth, I am not the brightest person you’ll ever meet. But really, I dislike learning because my self-esteem is largely non-existent and whatever self-esteem I have is based pretty much entirely on how I appear to be doing in comparison to other people (which is not a good thing). I find it difficult to be a beginner in something I was supposed to be good at. I know that sounds ridiculous. Growing up, I was “good” at Judaism. Best student in Hebrew School, best at Torah / Haftarah reading. Of course, those skills proved to be largely useless. Still, I find it hard to put myself back in the beginner’s seat as an adult.

On Teaching

I mentioned that my Jewish community has a considerable population of academics at the university. I moved to town for a job that had nothing to do with the university. Through work, I became a subject matter expert in something that the university wanted to offer a class in. I became a co-instructor, co-teaching a class with two other instructors, as a second job.

I thought I would like it. It was experience that would look good on my resume. It was a little (and I do mean little) extra money. It was a subject I knew rather well and found interesting. I had enjoyed the infrequent opportunities to present about my expertise at work. My teacher friends enjoyed teaching. I thought I would enjoy it. And even though the subject matter had nothing to do with Judaism, with learning and teaching such a key focus of Judaism, it felt like almost a religious imperative to enjoy my teaching job.

I did not. Reading and commenting on all of the student work was exhausting. Coordinating the logistics of the class with two other instructors was a pain. I hugely underestimated the time-suck of preparing lectures and the even bigger time-suck of grading final papers. We tried a number of ways to streamline the course and reduce the amount of work for the instructors, but reducing work reduces expectations, and reduced expectations also reduced my own motivation, not to mention the motivation of the students. The students seemed to get something out of the class, but I did not feel like I was getting much out of the experience. I sucked it up for two semesters.

And Learning Again

The Academic Department Head called to talk about plans for the class for future semesters. I didn’t tell her that I had not enjoyed teaching, but that I was stretched for time, particularly because I was thinking to transition to a different industry. There was a certification exam that, while not mandatory, would help a lot for switching fields and it would be quite time-consuming to study for the exam.

“Oh, we have a course for [other industry subject matter expertise that I don’t have]! It’s designed to be a [certification exam] prep course. You can take it if you want.”

-Academic Department Head

True to her word, she got me into the class (likely in exchange for me to continue co-teaching my class, although she did not expressly say that).

Reviewing the syllabus for the class I am taking was a humbling experience. Humbling, in that, while I have subject matter experience in a tangential industry, I really know very little about the things I’d need to know for the other industry, and it’s strange to go back to being a student again as a not-that-young adult. Humbling also, in that the instructors for this course are much better at teaching than I am. Their course is much better organized with clearer and higher expectations.

It is an odd, though not unpleasant experience being a student again after so many years.

23 comments

  1. I get it. Never liked teaching. One of the girls I tutored (professor asked me to tutor) went from a D to an F. Geez. And I like learning on my own, at my own pace, not to feel competitive over tests. So over that!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. NITPICK:

    The word “Rabbi” means “My Teacher”.

    We [Jews] say that but it’s not really true. The root of the word “rabbi” means “great” – it’s true that rabbis are teachers, but that’s not what the word itself actually means at all.

    BTW, I did actually read past the first paragraph – don’t worry! 😉

    Why do you have low self-esteem? You seem like a very smart and capable human to me.

    -David

    Liked by 3 people

  3. I don’t like chevruta learning either. I think it’s almost designed to be difficult to people on the autism spectrum, although maybe that’s just me making excuses for myself. I struggle with Talmud study in general as well as halakhic study, which is not a good thing to admit to in Orthodox circles. I do like other types of Torah learning though (Tanakh, Midrash, Jewish thought).

    Liked by 2 people

    • It’s unfortunate, I think, that Talmud study has become almost something of a status symbol. Even in like the Orthodox Feminist Tefillah group I was in at one point, it was seen as quite praiseworthy to do Daf Yomi and it just was not for me. I don’t think disliking chavrusa study is unique to people on the autism spectrum! I think it’s good you’ve found other Torah learning you enjoy.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you, thank you, thank you, JYP: do not feel bad: I also hate teaching in person, about 98% of the time. I enjoy building lesson plans and putting curricula together, but I do not like teaching in classroom settings, and even tutoring students one on one is generally not enjoyable to me (but I love the Chevruta experience), so when I was asked to step in as a teacher in various situations due to my previous training and job experience, like you, I did so under obligation.
    I’m really glad that you find learning a better experience now.

    Liked by 1 person

      • My pleasure, so to speak. I never wanted to teach, but I got so much pressure, when I went to sub., to teach math, and then to teach Hebrew school when I started back attending services, that I felt I had to contribute. I do enjoy the question and answer, and being challenged by a curious learner, of studying together and solving an interesting question/problem, but laying out already known information for students to memorize drives me completely up a wall. Since I love learning, though, and I was blessed with literally life-saving teachers, I felt an obligation to teach, once I had burned out of a software engineering career and wanted to do something that I felt could not possible harm the world in any way.

        Liked by 1 person

      • This is very inspirational! For me, it’s a bit different as I’m teaching adults trying to advance in their careers vs. students learning skills for adult life. I’m still in the stage of reading the papers and realizing that my lecture was unclear and the students misunderstood the concept. In other words, I’m not all that good at teaching yet (in addition to not really enjoying it), but there are bright spots. Mostly the emails from the students with additional questions.
        I’m glad you were blessed with life-saving teachers!
        I…don’t love learning. I like learning in certain contexts (usually when I can accept that it is extremely necessary), and I’d probably like it more if I could cope better with the beginner stage of knowing very little, but mentally I really struggle with this. It’s a shame because if I could cope better with the beginner stage, I’d play a musical instrument by now, among other things.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Please don’t put yourself down. Everyone has their niche, it’s just that teaching isn’t yours. In Judaism, we don’t all have to be teachers and learners. Chassidus teaches that every person is valued, and from reading your posts, I’m sure you have a lot to contribute to others.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. that word ‘bloviate’ again 🙂 that’s the second time I’ve come across it this month , both in American English. I will be using it in future posts. I’ve always enjoined being a student but only in areas I’m interested in; during my teacher career I was offered such courses — on a full salary — one was in Religious Studies, in which we learnt a little about Judaism. It was a respite from full time teaching 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Maybe the Americans are using it because we have too many examples of bloviating public figures? It is a great word!
      Being a student is definitely a better experience when it’s an interesting subject.
      I just had my first class. The subject matter is interesting and relevant, but this professor is intense! I was not expecting to have to do this much school work as an adult!

      Liked by 1 person

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