In the introduction to the latest volume of Igrot Moshe (Vol. VIII)
a fascinating incident is related that occurred to Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l as a young
child just entering into the cheder to learn Talmud. Until that point, the young Moshe
Feinstein’s entire exposure to Torah had been through the study of Tanach with his father.
On his first day, the melamed, while pointing to the word איתמר, asked the class if
anyone could read this word in the Gemara. The young Moshe said that he could and read it
as Itamar (one of the sons of Aaron). All the other students, who were older and
had previous exposure to Gemara, began to laugh knowing that in the Gemara it should be
read Itmar. The melamed admonished the other children for laughing since
Moshe was looking at it from the perspective of one whom only knows Torah Shebechtav
and in the Torah that is the correct pronunciation.
Later in life, Rav Feinstein would say that he learned two life-long
lessons from this incident. Firstly, that one must examine any question from many different
aspects. In addition, one must search for possibilities of understanding that were not
previously known. Such became his practice in his study and dissemination of Torah and
Halakha. Secondly, as a result of the painful experience stemming from his classmates’
laughter, Rav Feinstein was extra careful never to ridicule or embarrass a person in any
fashion even if the person would say things that were foolish.
These two important ideals, namely, on openness to a number of different
understandings and a sensitivity towards those who may, even mistakenly, have a different
understanding is often lacking in many classrooms today. Many students have a difficulty
grasping the idea that there may be more than one approach to any given issue. This may be a
result of the fact that a large number of Jews, notably many traditionalist Orthodox, that
deny that personal autonomy has any value at all. They believe that little good, and perhaps
much harm, can come from working things out on one’s own (Sokol, 1992).
The adage ‘Eilu va-Eilu Divrei Elokim Hayim’, ‘both viewpoints are
the words of the Living God,’ as understood by the classical commentators mentioned in this
paper, applies, at the very least, to the first of the two stages of the Halakhic discourse.
The first stage is the discussion or argument that precedes the final decision of law, at
which time, all viewpoints are considered legitimate. Again, even taking the most
conservative approach to this concept, all would agree that a climate where multiple
opinions are voiced encourages greater learning and deeper levels of understanding. However,
at the second stage of the halakhic discourse, that being the stage of pesak or
post-pesak, there is a major dispute over the applicability of the concept of
Using current educational strategies that believe that the student is his
own greatest teacher, this paper argues for the implementation of two distinct stages in any
classroom learning experience that parallel the stages mentioned above.
The first stage is for divergent thinking. In this stage, students after
having read a biblical or talmudic text are asked to share their difficulties and/or
analyses of the text with the class. At this stage all comments are legitimate and are very
much encouraged. No one is subject to ridicule or harsh criticism like in our previous story
as each student must listen and record what his peers in a non-judgmental fashion. In
addition, the classical commentaries are withheld at this stage, in order to encourage that
students to have direct ‘contact’ with the text and that they produce their own
‘constructions’. The students in the class are also exposed to many different approaches
and perspectives to a given question or text. In short, this stage maximizes students’
The second stage is for convergent thinking. A teacher does not promote
understanding by permitting students’ constructions to stand even though they clash with
experts’ constructions (Zahorik, 1997). At this stage the ‘experts’, namely, the classical
commentaries are brought into the classroom to assist the class in the constructive
criticism that is necessary in order to arrive at the final ‘product’. This does not mean
the students’ constructions are altogether discarded. By comparing and contrasting their
constructions with the ‘experts’ constructions, the students gain insight into both and
begin to reconceptualize their constructions in direction of those of the experts
(Zahorik, 1997). Additionally, after arriving at some conclusions, the class may reexamine
their own ideas to find the ‘divrei Elokim’ in them (as in the story about R’ Moshe
his answer was correct and true but it was the wrong question). It is at this, the second
stage, where the students can hone their critical thinking skills while at the same time
maintain and even gain respect for the ‘experts’ in Torah.
The author stresses the view of Postman and Weingartner that ‘the medium
is the message’. Everything in the classroom must reflect this balance between developing
intellectual self-confidence and reverence of religious authority. The process is, as
important, if not, more important than the content or product. But ideally, we should aspire
to a synthesis of the two. This is the goal of the close of the paper where a model lesson
in the topic of Eilu va-eilu is presented.