Learning – at least the cognitive kind we do – is an abstract activity, and like most such activities, we often seek metaphors to describe it. As a teacher, do I best see myself as a guide? Mentor? Coach? Expert? Is a student a “consumer” of knowledge? Disciple? Apprentice? Is learning itself a winding path? A process of self-discovery? A struggle? No metaphor will fully capture all the dimensions of a particular learning situation, but I think that whether consciously or not we, as individual teachers and learners, have some operative metaphor at work.
The rabbis had several metaphors. In The Stabilization of Rabbinic Culture 100 C.E.-350 C.E.: Texts on Education and Their Late Antique Context, Marc Hirshman provides a fascinating exploration of some of them. In the index, under the entry on “educational metaphor,” the sub-entries are: animal the crushes things underfoot; bird imagery; cistern; doe; dog lapping up the sea; ear; fig tree; hunting; pendant; receptacle; sieve; sponge; spring; student as garden; water imagery. The metaphors are predominantly drawn from agriculture and the natural world. It would seem that if one overarching metaphor is dominant, it is that the teacher imparts knowledge to the student as receptacle of some kind in this selection of texts.
Yet, as we know especially from work such as Jeffrey Rubenstein’s The Culture of the Babylonian Talmud, the study of Torah in Babylonian contexts is often seen as a war. The struggle is between the sages themselves, who struggle with each other in a public venue. The very goal of that struggle is contested: while purportedly truth, it also appears to be honor (which is exactly why there are so many talmudic exhortations against the pursuit of honor in intellectual debate). This martial imagery as applied to Torah study is not entirely absent in earlier and in Palestinian texts, but it does seem to dominate in the Babylonian Talmud.
How do we account for this shift?
At a conference this July at the University of Huddersfield entitled “Religious Men in the Middle Ages,” I will take up this question, and suggest that this shift is inextricably linked to issues of gender. The Babylonian academy has itself co-opted the traditional virtues of masculinity, making the study hall a place to prove oneself a man in “combat.”
This weekend, Brown’s commencement coincides with Shavuot, the Jewish festival traditionally associated with the study of the Torah. Whether we are receptacles, combatants, hunters, gatherers, seekers, or (God forbid!) consumers, we are all learners, and this is the weekend to take stock and reflect on the kind of learner that we want to be.