Kohelet (Ecclesiastes), Wisest of Men: Paradigm of the Teacher-Researcher

Published: 
Jul. 04, 2015

Rabbi Prof. Neria Guttel – President, “Orot Israel” Academic College of Education, shares his reflections on the desired relationship between the eminent teacher and the educational researcher. He examines the words of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes), and the interpretations of traditional commentators in formulating his own view of the paradigm of the Teacher-Researcher.

“Just as not every good researcher is also a good teacher, so not every good teacher is also a good researcher.” We use this oft-quoted truism frequently, sometimes justifiably, in the academic and Torah world as well. An excellent researcher or superb scholar can possess sharp analytical skills. Deduction and induction; thesis, antithesis and synthesis – all these are his daily bread, his tools for achievement and reaching the pinnacle of analytic success – yet, he may not know how to translate these skills into the language of instruction. Moreover, a person can be a renowned researcher who argues that he accomplished what he did due to his entrenchment in the ivory tower or library, and is not interested in imparting his wisdom to the public. He may even feel that there is an unbridgeable intellectual chasm separating him from the masses, and feel unable to “reach” the public. He may no longer even listen to what his colleagues have to say, he avoids delving into the writings of others and certainly finds no purpose in promulgating them.

 

When we focus on the Torah world, an additional concern emerges: perhaps we should avoid any contact between Torah and the research world, certainly “general” research, since the outcome of such contact may be problematic indeed. While the academic ivory tower is truly the site of the Tree of Knowledge, there are risks involved: our Sages say, “he who knows much, suffers much.” The academic world encompasses inappropriate content, a questionable world view, “problematic” attitudes, openness and the critical approach – all these are threatening. But at the same time, we should not ignore the great potential latent in that same ivory tower: Ponevezh yeshiva avreichim (married students) were not the ones to invent airplanes and helicopters; yeshiva students did not discover penicillin and catheterization techniques; and distinguished rabbis were not the ones to formulate physics equations or chemical compounds. The Sages taught us that the non-Jewish world, though lacking in Torah does contain “brilliant wisdom,” and this adage guides us throughout our lives. It should be noted that this “wisdom” refers not only to the sciences, but also to the humanities and arts in general, and to Judaic studies in specific. For example, the ancient religious texts found in the Cairo Geniza greatly enriched the Torah world, just as research methodologies and skills have progressively penetrated the Torah world and even the Batei Midrash (religious study houses). Thus, the question regarding modern research in the Torah context reverberates all the more: Are we really justified in integrating research in the foundations of pedagogical-instructional training with regard to “Jewish” subjects? Or, perhaps, such integration of “secular wisdom” with Torah would cause more damage than benefit?

 

The author of the Book of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) refuted all these concerns when he held up the exemplary image of King Solomon, “the wisest of men,” in his philosophic-contemplative treatise. Various commentators have offered their explanations of an important verse that appears near the end of Kohelet (12:9): “And besides being wise, Kohelet also taught the people knowledge; for he weighed (also means: pondered and heeded), and sought out (also means: researched or corrected), and set in order (also means: create ordinances) many proverbs.” Each commentator of this verse had his own style; each commentator singled out what he or she viewed as the key, guiding word (leitwort) in the verse – the word representing the correct and preeminent paradigm of the “researcher-teacher.”

 

One type of commentator chose the “wisest of men” model: a master of in-depth, detailed study who is, nevertheless, able to find a way to reach the people. True, such a wise master may need no less than three thousand parables (Kings I 5:12) in order to explain himself fully, yet he will go to such efforts so as to make the depths of knowledge understandable to all (Babylonian Talmud Eiruvin 21b). Of such a scholar we say, “He taught the people knowledge – many proverbs.”


A second type of commentator elucidates that King Solomon was a “renowned researcher” who nonetheless was able to “go down to the people,” understand their needs, and create religious ordinances to “set the people on the correct Torah path” (Babylonian Talmud Yevamoth 21a). Such a leader “weighs.”

The third commentator adds that Solomon advanced the “people,” the masses, until even they acquire research tools and instruments. This corresponds to “taught the people to [. . .] weigh, and seek out.”

The fourth emphasizes that Solomon, despite being the greatest of researchers, also “listened” to the words of his colleagues. (This is a play on words: the Hebrew word for “listen” or “attend to,” is very similar to the word for “weigh.”)

The fifth commentator emphasizes that the renowned researcher does not feel that it is beneath him to “correct or repair” the writings of others. (Again, this is a play on words; the Hebrew word for “correct or repair,” is very similar to the word for “seek out” or “to research.”)
And what about an innate avoidance of the entire field of “wisdom”? Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaCohen Kook (1865–1935, the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Eretz Yisrael , writes that "The wisdom of Solomon [i.e. the book of Kohelet] speaks clearly in praise of wisdom” (Shmona Kvatzim, Kovetz 5:143).

Thus, the eminent teacher should also be exposed to the world of research and study. In order to read an important article properly, one must first have experience in writing such an article; in order to know how to critically analyze a research piece, a person must acquire skills associated with study, investigative research and writing. Our sages say, “Learn to critique and improve yourself before you criticize others.” Of course, the acquisition of the research approach should not come at expense of pedagogical-instructional skills. Truth be told, there is no reason for such a thing to happen because, as Kohelet wrote, “Both . . . are important, for thou knowst not which shall prosper, whether this or that, or whether they both shall be alike good” (adapted from Kohelet 11:6).

Translation: Sandy Bloom

Updated: Aug. 04, 2015
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