Teaching Experience

Claim: The only way to true knowledge – that is to say, universal, necessary, and certain knowledge – is through the path of science. This viewpoint is certainly compelling; scientific experiments are replicable, available for analysis to anyone (well, anyone who understands science), and subject to thorough criticism. How could there be any other way to gain knowledge? “Experience,” “emotion,” and “intuition” – these words dismay the scientific positivist. Experiential knowledge is personal, emotion entirely untrustworthy, and intuition an old wives’ tale. My object in writing this article is not to carry out an exposition of the philosophy of science and question the basic premises of the discipline. Suffice it to say that the foundations of scientific knowledge are subject to critique. Yet putting aside these considerations, and assuming science does deliver truth, is it the only truth in the world? Should a truly rational being eschew all other techniques for obtaining knowledge in favor of the scientific method? My answer is no. Humans possess many faculties for gathering data and reason is but one of them. To ignore all the others, insisting that they are untrustworthy, strikes me as unwise. In the first two sections of The Halakhic Mind, R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik carves out a respectable niche in epistemology for non-scientific cognitive acts.1 As R. Shalom Carmy points out, true religious Judaism cannot be a purely intellectual pursuit.2 Despite this fact, the experiential and emotional components of Judaism are frequently under-emphasized.

There are many sources that speak of the need for interaction with one’s religion. Jews need to engage their Judaism! Relate to it, argue with it, think something, anything, about it! God should take up space in a religious Jew’s mind. This point is obvious; the following point seems less so. Religious Jews should not only engage their Judaism intellectually, but emotionally and experientially as well. Indeed, at times it seems impossible to avoid emotional engagement. Tefillah serves as the primary example of a mitsvah tailored to strengthen our emotional link to God. True, according to the Rambam, tefillah only requires one to focus on the thought of standing before Hashem, regardless of emotional intent.3 However, when reading the stirring words, “Shema kolenu… hus ve-rahem aleinu – Hear our voice… pity and be compassionate to us,”4 one cannot help but suspect that Hazal’s establishment of the amidah is about more than merely the cerebral “knowledge of God’s Presence.” Indeed, in his article “Prayer, Petition, and Crisis,” the Rav morphs the act of standing before God from a purely intellectual exercise to a deeply emotional and even mystical one.5 On a basic level, he explains, the absolute focus on God builds in man a total fixation, an “insane love,” for God.6 On another level, the soul communes with Hashem in a mystical act of devekut, or cleaving. Clearly, the correct form of prayer is one that connects man to God emotionally.

Studying the halakhot of a mitsvah helps one to understand the extent to which experience is an integral part of that mitsvah’s performance. As an example, consider the Biblical obligation of tsedakah. In Devarim 15:8, the Torah commands, “patoah tiftah et yadekha – you must open your hand.”7 According to Shulhan Arukh, one with the means to do so must dispense charity according to the needs of the poor, without an upper limit.8 Rema disagrees, asserting that one must not donate more than a fifth of his income.9 According to both, however, one must give at least a tenth of his income to the poor. The Mehaber goes on to describe the manner in which one must give tsedakah. One is required to donate with happiness, a smile and good-heartedness, and must share words of comfort with the recipient.10 More astonishingly, even one who is himself dependent on charity has an obligation to give some amount of the charity he receives to tsedakah.11 If the sole purpose of the mitsvah is to support the poor, why waste time cycling money through the charity system by requiring the beggar to give some of the charity that he himself receives? The answer must be that the experience of performing the mitsvah of tsedakah is intrinsically important.

The essential role of experience in mitsvot holds undeniable significance for Jewish education. In Shemot 13:8, the Torah commands, “Ve-higgadta le-vinkha ba-yom ha-hu lemor ba-avur zeh asah Hashem li be-tseti mi-Mitsrayim – And you shall explain to your son on that day, ‘It is because of what the Lord did for me when I went free from Egypt.’” The word “zeh,” “this,” indicates a tangible reality. A father teaching his children about the Exodus points to the matsah as a physical example. Here, the Torah clearly affirms the point that experiential truth must not die with the generation that experienced the original event. Further, the quote implies that transmission of experience is not only possible, but essential! Indeed, all of the commemorative holidays carry with them at least one custom or commandment designed to convey a sense of experience to those not present at the original occurrence. We live in a sukkah for seven days to remember that God protected the Jews in the desert.12 The technical details about ratio of shade to sunlight entering the sukkah all contribute to the atmosphere. We are supposed to feel somewhat exposed yet also somewhat protected, as the original Jews in the desert must have felt. In this case, as in many others, the mitsvah itself serves as our teacher. The halakhot surrounding the mitsvah design an experience for us and invite us to actively partake of their instruction. However, when it comes to successfully imparting the experience of Torah and mitsvot to children, a competent guide must illuminate the way.

The greatest responsibility of experiential and emotional teaching lies with parents. Commandments exhorting parents to educate their children appear throughout humash, including, Ve-higgadta le-vinkha – and you should explain to your son,”13 “Ve-shinnantam le-vanekha – impress them upon your children,”14 “Ve-limmadtem otam et beneikhem – and teach them to your children,”15 and “She’al avikha ve-yaggedkha – Ask your father and he will inform you.”16 In this age of formal schooling, we entrust the education of our children primarily to school systems. Children spend approximately eight hours a day studying; surely they have learned all they require. Surely parents are absolved of their religious-instructional duties! Perhaps this is technically true. According to Rambam, a parent may hire a tutor to educate his child, thereby halakhically fulfilling his parental teaching obligations.17 However, as R. Moshe Taragin explains, a parent’s duty to pass on the entire Jewish tradition encompasses far more than the details of text and commandment.18 What essential component of education remains after a child receives instruction in all the minutiae? The answer: The closeness to God a mother enjoys when lighting the Shabbat candles, the concentration with which a father ties on his tefillin, the awe with which a parent approaches the Yamim Nora’im (the High Holidays), the joy a parent radiates when singing Hallel at the seder

Unfortunately, reality seldom reflects the ideal. Though parents should be the foremost teachers of their children, they frequently are not. In such cases, the responsibility to transmit the intuitional and experiential meaning of Judaism falls to teachers. I have not conducted a formal study on the prevalence of the inclusion of experiential Judaism in school curricula, nor do I have specific data sets that relate to this matter. Bearing this disclaimer in mind, I believe that this lesson is frequently lost amid the focus on text and quantifiable knowledge that usually comprises formal schooling. Certainly the task of education grows exponentially harder in a classroom setting, with many children and demanding curricula to satisfy. However, nothing really worthwhile is easy. Teachers have a duty to the next generation that they simply cannot neglect: to educate not only intellectually, but experientially and emotionally as well.

Thus, parents and teachers bear the responsibility to educate their charges in all of the ways of Judaism, not just its intellectual components. Critics may be quick to point out that I have laid a burden at the teachers’ doors without offering them any solutions. I acknowledge the truth of this accusation. I am not a teacher with years of experience on which to draw, and I cannot offer a definite resolution to what I see as a gaping hole in our education system.

I can offer suggestions. For example, a teacher might point out how the details of a mitsvah paint a picture of an experience intended for the doer, as in the mitsvah of sukkah. Or an educator might challenge his or her students to pay attention to the atmosphere created by a mitsvah when they perform it. In my own experience, the most effective teachers I had successfully imparted these messages by fully serving as personal examples of living Judaism. However, my main object in writing this article is to encourage both present and future parents and educators to consider this a vital part of their mission. Judaism with all head and no heart is a pale ghost of its true, rich, vibrant self. Do not allow this ghost be the sum of your charges’ religious existence.

Chumie Yagod is a Junior at SCW majoring in Biology and Philosophy, and is a staff writer for Kol Hamevaser.


1 Joseph B. Soloveitchik, The Halakhic Mind (New York, NY: Seth Press, 1986).

2 Shalom Carmy, Forgive Us, Father-in-Law, For We Know Not What to Think: Letter to a Philosophical Dropout From Orthodoxy (Jerusalem: ATID, 2004).

3 Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Tefillah, 4:16.

4 Artscroll translation.

5 Joseph B. Soloveitchik, “Prayer, Petition, and Crisis” in Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Worship of the Heart: Essays on Jewish Prayer, ed. by Shalom Carmy (Jersey City, NJ: Ktav, 2003).

6 Ibid. p. 24.

7 All translated Tanakh quotes in this article utilize the JPS translation.

8 Shulhan Arukh, Yoreh De’ah, 249:1.

9 Rema, Ibid.

10 Shulhan Arukh, Yoreh De’ah, 249:3.

11 Ibid. 248:1.

12 Vayikra 23:42-43

13 Shemot 13:8.

14 Devarim 6:7.

15 Devarim 11:19.

16 Devarim 32:7.

17 Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Talmud Torah, 1:3.

18 R. Moshe Taragin, “On Teaching Torah to Children,” available at: http://www.vbm-torah.org.