Make for Yourself a Teacher – Pirkei Avot
Deen Aranoff is an assistant professor of medieval Jewish studies at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, CA. She teaches courses on Jewish society and culture in medieval and early-modern Europe. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
There was no way to anticipate the transformation that would take place as I took my seat as a student of yoga with Dana Flynn. I began to study yoga with Dana two years ago and in a certain sense, she became my first rav. This relationship and the receptivity it required led intangibly and mysteriously to the cultivation of my own voice as a teacher and scholar.
Until this point, I tended to teach from the posture suggested in rabbinic Jewish culture, namely, that one must faithfully transmit the tradition without corrupting it with one’s own voice. A teacher could apply traditional texts to contemporary life, but the texts themselves were meant to flow, almost autonomously, from page to pupil. Having embraced this fidelity to the text quite literally, my teaching and academic writing strained under the tension; I was seeking to speak and not to speak at the same time. My training in graduate school with its emphasis upon critical distance only strengthened this posture. What I had neglected to realize, however, was that both academic writing and traditional instruction in fact required a creative and generative voice. In the world of Judaism, there are subtle ways in which we are both the recipients and producers of Torah. In academia, the strength of one’s research lies in careful fidelity to sources, but also in the articulation of an argument, an idea, a perspective. In other words, it requires a voice.
My studies with Dana awakened me to this reality and provided a much-needed invitation to speak. The transformative power of this teacher-student relationship was due in large part to the fact that Dana was the first woman with whom I studied extensively. It may also be due to yoga’s emphasis upon personal transformation. Regardless of the cause (a subject too complex to explore in this short essay), a powerful leadership moment for me was the decision to become a student. The experience of being a student reminded me of the relational aspect of learning and how important it is to participant in the very endeavors we hope to shape.