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Wednesday
Jan062016

HOW TO TEACH CHASSIDUS TO THE PUBLIC AT LARGE

What are the principles for giving a good shiur in Chassidus? How do we translate the deep concepts in Chassidus into terms of everyones daily life? What is the proper way to construct a shiur in Chassidus? What can you say and what cant you say, and how long should each shiur take? * Principles, advice, and examples in giving a Chassidus shiur. * First article in a series.

By RMeir Arad

Among Anash, there are many people who give shiurim in Chassidus to all kinds of audiences, religious and not yet observant.  Spreading the wellsprings is an integral part of the life of every Chassid, and especially in a Hakhel year when there ought to be more gatheringsto teach itand to fear Hashem,” there is nothing more effective than Chassidus for that.

Those who give shiurim often wonder: What is the best way to give a shiur? How can Chassidus be explained so that everyone can understand it? How long should each shiur take? What is the best way to respond to questions and comments? How do you get your audience to take an interest in the material? Which topics are best to teach? How can we get people to relate to the concepts?

In this series of articles, we will try and answer these questions.  In this article (and the ones that follow) we’ll focus on important principles and provide tips and examples which will help the lecturer give a quality shiur.

We will first examine those things associated with the “construction” of the shiur like choosing the topics, the length of the shiur, etc. and in the following articles we will address the actual teaching with examples and what to emphasize in deconstructing the concepts and relating them to people’s personal lives.

TAKING THE HUMANE APPROACH

The first and basic principle is the right approach to be taken by the lecturer.  It is crucial that the teacher be careful about respecting people’s dignity.  Even if the shiur you’re giving is fascinating and important to a person’s life, if the listener feels, directly or indirectly, that you are disparaging him or not treating him nicely, he will be closed to what you are saying, whether consciously or unconsciously.  And of course, he might not come back for more shiurim.

Do you have an audience for your shiurim? Great.  You prepared a good shiur? Wonderful.  Don’t forget that you are going to encounter human beings.  You need to relate politely to them, smile at them, in a way that makes them feel that they aren’t there just so that there will be people to whom you can give a shiur.  They are people of worth that you interact with and in whom you take an interest.

Obviously, this needs to be done with seichel, with boundaries, and depending on the place, type of people, etc.

NO PUTDOWNS

The great care you need to take with people’s dignity applies not only to not insulting them, but also to not disparaging things that are important to them.  Sometimes, without realizing it, and certainly not intentionally, the one giving a shiur can make a comment that will insult someone and the things that are important to him.

For example, when discussing a maamer or topic that describes the divisions in creation: the inanimate, vegetation, animal, and human, and explaining how man is the pinnacle of creation, above animals, etc., if you make some joke about those who have pets instead of children, and your audience is not religious or is the type that might own a pet, you are likely to offend someone.  It is very possible that one or more of the people at your shiur has a pet, and sometimes the pet means the world to them.  The joke and disparaging comment are insensitive, whether or not it is ideal to own a pet.

Does this mean you cannot talk about certain topics? No, there are times it is necessary to speak even about sensitive matters, but it needs to be done with forethought, with sensitivity, and in the right place and time and in the right way (as we will discuss), but definitely not in a style of speech that can be construed as derogatory.

Since the audience’s outlook and views can be different than yours, and sometimes the differences can be extreme, you need to be careful not only about personal dignity but also about topics in hashkafa and ways of life.

You need to know who your audience is.  Of course, there is a difference if you are giving a shiur to a Chabad crowd, to a frum crowd, to a group of a certain Chassidic persuasion, Litvish, national-religious, or those who aren’t yet frum.  Creating a bond with a new audience will happen when you emphasize things you have in common.

Even when the topic of the shiur is something unrelated to the difference in your worldview and theirs, in order to create a bond it is recommended that at least when you are first getting to know them that you express, even indirectly, the ideas you have in common.

For example, if it’s not a frum audience, it’s a good idea to emphasize and to say during the shiur that the way one dresses is not the main thing and that Chassidic teachings emphasize that within every Jew there is a G-dly spark which has nothing to do with his deeds or outer appearance.  This allows people to feel a connection to the one giving the shiur despite his different appearance.

If your audience considers living in Eretz Yisroel a supreme value, emphasize Chabad’s approach and the Rebbe’s war for shleimus ha’aretz and how it is prohibited to discuss giving away land.

If the audience is more to the right, religiously, your emphasis will be on other topics, depending on the type of people and where they are coming from hashkafically.

THE LENGTH OF A SHIUR

How long should a shiur be? The answer, of course, depends on many factors.  Was the shiur started by the one giving the shiur and is he the one who decides what is learned and for how long? Or is this a shiur organized by others who invited you to teach, so that it does not depend only on you and what you want.  If you were invited to give a shiur and they told you to speak for an hour, you cannot deviate from that, neither longer nor shorter.

Here’s a tip.  It’s always recommended to prepare material for a shiur that will suffice for more time than you think you have.  It sometimes happens that you finish the material you prepared and you are left with nothing to say in the remaining fifteen minutes.  Better to prepare a shiur and a half, just in case.

Others have the opposite problem.  They cannot finish what they wanted to teach in the allotted time because they elaborate and because, as they speak, they think of additional points to say.  Questions from the audience also take up time.  In this case, the emphasis needs to be focused mainly on what you consider are the most important points you want to convey.

If the shiur is meant to be longer than an hour and a half, there should be a break, even for a few minutes, because it is usually difficult to concentrate for a long time.

This is all for when a person is giving a shiur for which the time allotted is stated from the outset.  When it is a shiur that you yourself are initiating and you are inviting the people and it’s up to you to decide how long it should be, how should you decide on the length of the shiur?

It depends.  If it’s a daily shiur like learning after Mincha or Maariv in shul, even a half an hour shiur or less is fine.  This is because the daily learning produces a sense of accomplishment and a person will feel that even a short amount of time, if it’s consistent, is satisfying and he can learn something.  But if it’s a weekly shiur, it should be longer, around an hour, so that a person feels that he is leaving with something and not that the learning just began and then it’s over.

Another point, sometimes the audience are people who attend the shiur not because of genuine interest in what is being taught but for other reasons such as awareness of the importance of regular learning times, social pressure, the desire to get out and sit among people, a good hachlata that was made, respect for the one giving the shiur (or wanting to avoid any unpleasantness with him).  The common denominator is that they are not that interested in what is being taught and wait for it to be over.  In such cases, it is recommended that you pay attention to the audience and if you see they’ve lost their concentration, don’t go on for long.  Try to shorten it so they go away with a feeling of wanting more and not a feeling of wishing they didn’t show up.  Especially if the shiur was originally scheduled for a specific time, between 7 and 7:30, for example, if they see that the person giving the shiur finishes on time, they are more likely to come again.  If they feel it took too long, they are more likely not to show up again.

Someone who gives a weekly Tanya shiur in a hesder yeshiva says:

“The shiur that I give takes place once a week after their official learning ends at 10:00 at night. The students are tired but there is still a group that regularly comes, of its own volition, to learn Tanya.  They do it because they enjoy it and not because they get any prize.  I end the shiur after half an hour or a maximum of thirty-five minutes.  I know that some of them, because they are polite, will not get up in the middle of the shiur even if they are tired and want to leave, and I don’t want to be the cause of one student not coming the next time because he knows it will be a longer shiur than he wants to stay for.  I would rather end after a relatively short time so they always feel they would like me to continue, than to go on for too long and start making them feel pressured due to the late hour.

“Of course, there are special occasions like certain dates in the calendar when a farbrengen can go on for hours, but they are exceptions and have nothing to do with the regular weekly shiur.”

To sum up, the length of the shiur needs to be established based on the ability to keep the crowd’s interest and the desire of the audience to hear more, but the “secret of tzimtzum” is that sometimes, by keeping it shorter the shiur will  be longer lasting and attract more people.

THE LEVEL OF THE MATERIAL

It is obvious that the level of the material taught in the shiur needs to suit the audience.  The one giving the shiur needs to know who he is talking to and adjust the level so that the material can be understood.

At the same time, it is worth mentioning an important principle that sometimes is not noted.  Experience shows that creating a long-term connection for most of the people happens when the ideas being learned have depth and novelty.

If often happens that those who give shiurim in Chassidus look for vertlach, short and easy ideas, and stories, thinking that everyone can relate to them and nobody will feel it is beyond them.  The truth is though that simple material might be better for a one-time shiur but when you want to create ongoing shiurim, you need to take into account that there are people, usually serious and high-level people, who will not come again if they feel that the shiur was not deep and innovative.  Even if the shiur was very interesting and it looked as though the crowd enjoyed it, if people leave with the feeling that they did not gain anything deep, and the material was easy and they could have read it on their own at home, some of them won’t come back.

Even if you have a good sense of humor and you made the crowd laugh and had them rolling in their seats, ultimately the goal is not to laugh or enjoy jokes, nor is the goal to be “Mr. Popular.”  There are numerous opportunities for this in other venues and this is not why they come to a shiur in Chassidus which is supposed to enter their neshamos.  Within a short time it will seem unnecessary to them.

However, when they see that the material is solid and deep, even if they don’t always fully understand the ideas (due to how the shiur is given or to limited comprehension on the part of the listeners) they will see it as a challenge to come back, especially if they were treated respectfully as we mentioned earlier.

Obviously, the deeper the material, the more work needs to be put into the preparation so it will be able to be taught clearly and correctly, but the principle here is not to be afraid to teach Chassidus on a deep level including abstract concepts even to people to whom this would seemingly be remote.  It is the depth and the explaining of abstract ideas that can create a serious learning atmosphere for serious people.

The Rebbe says on Simchas Torah 5711 (brought in Toras Menachem Hisvaaduyos): One could seemingly claim, at a time when one ought to be agitating about putting on t’fillin, keeping Shabbos, etc. why speak about learning Chassidus, especially those matters that are deep such as infinite worlds that transcend Atzilus, explaining the difference between the bittul of the world of Atzilus and the bittul of infinite worlds above Atzilus?

The revelation of the teachings of Chassidus, they continue to maintain, is in order to acquire love and fear (as the Rambam writes, “What is the path to love and fear of Him? When you meditate etc.,” contemplation of the greatness of G-d), so that through this there will be an elevation of Torah and mitzvos to the higher spheres, for “Torah without fear and love does not fly upward,” but what is the connection between the revelation of the teachings of Chassidus to a situation when there is a need for arousal and action about the practical observance of Torah and mitzvos?

The answer is, it is known what the Rebbe Rashab wrote in the famous letter published in the introduction to Kuntres U’Maayan, that “now is the time for the final birurim of Ikvisa D’Meshicha … there is no order and gradation now in the birurim and their rectification,” and so, we need to work on all fronts for we do not know exactly what the focus is when it comes to the secret of birurim.

Furthermore, even though the revelation of Chassidus is to attain love and fear, still, the teachings of Chassidus were not revealed in earlier generations (which could relate better to matters of love and fear), for “It was hidden in their days and hidden from all the Torah scholars except for exceptional individuals,” and only in the latter generations, specifically in the Ikvisa D’Meshicha, was it revealed.  There are two reasons for this: one, since in Ikvos Meshicha the darkness increases and it is necessary to cancel and illuminate this great darkness through a very great light, and two, since we are approaching the Yemos HaMoshiach when there will be the completion of the revelation of p’nimius ha’Torah, there needs to be preparation for this by spreading the wellsprings outward.

From this we understand that here too, even in a state and situation when we need to arouse and work for Torah and mitzva fulfillment, there also needs to be accomplishment through the study of Chassidus.  Moreover, since the study of Chassidus is connected with the idea of teshuva ilaa (higher repentance), through this he is able to jump to a state that is incomparable to his previous state.

Next time, G-d willing, we will address what topic to choose when starting a new Chassidus shiur, whether it is worth giving shiurim as part of a series or should each shiur have its own separate topic, whether to learn inside the text or not, how to market the shiur to the public, and finding the right balance between developing and explaining ideas and covering ground.

 

For feedback and comments: meir11770@gmail.com

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