WHAT IS WRITTEN IN A HOLY TEXT HAS A SEAL OF TRUTH
January 27, 2016
Beis Moshiach in #1006, Chinuch

Is it better to give a series of lectures or should each shiur be self-contained? Should you teach from a text? What is the right balance between explaining in-depth and covering ground? What topic should you pick when starting a new Chassidus shiur? * Principles, advice and examples, to intensify Mivtza Hakhel by giving shiurim in Chassidus. * Second article in a series

SEPARATE TOPICS OR LEARNING FROM A TEXT?

Sometimes, when preparing for a new group, those giving a shiur wonder whether to pick a new topic every time or to learn continuously from a seifer.  Each of these options has an advantage and a disadvantage.  When your classes are part of an ongoing series, someone who did not connect to the topic in the beginning might stop coming.  With classes that are self-contained on different topics, you can always challenge your audience with an interesting topic for the next class and advertise it as something new.

On the other hand, teaching one subject, chapter after chapter, class after class, creates a consistency, a better understanding, and a sense of accomplishment which you don’t get in a one-time shiur.

Perhaps with new groups, when there isn’t yet enough familiarity with the material being learned and with the participants themselves, and you want to generate interest, it is better to start with separate topics.  After several of those, when the group has solidified, and the one giving the shiur has gotten to know the people, and they are familiar with the lecturer and his style, you can switch to learning from a text.

Of course, this does not apply in the case where a group is clearly defined and knows what its objective, and from the outset they ask for a shiur on a topic or a certain seifer, like a Tanya class.

LEARNING FROM THE TEXT OR ORALLY

Another question about shiurim given on separate topics is whether to give the shiur orally or to read and learn together with the participants from written material.

For example, when the topic of the shiur is “Bitachon and Positive Thinking,” should you learn the topic with them from the letters and sichos of the Rebbe or maamarei Chassidus, or prepare the material lecture style? Naturally, the answer to this question depends a lot on the style of the one giving the shiur and the quality of his explanatory skills, in his ability to keep them interested and not put them to sleep and on the audience themselves and their preferences.

The general guideline, in most instances, is not to give an entire shiur orally but to include written material in the shiur.  This is for a number of reasons.  First, when you include written material, the shiur takes on a different character.  You can even have the participants do some of the reading, which draws them further into the shiur.  Also, there is often the inclination to get off topic, which happens sometimes because of questions from the audience.  When there is a written page in front of everyone, it helps focus people on the topic of the shiur and it is easier to get back to what you were saying.

There is another important reason in that written material makes an impression on people because the topic being studied is anchored in sources.  When you teach an idea unscripted, especially if it is a deep topic that the audience is not used to, or ideas that you are presenting with a new perspective, someone might object and there is more of a likelihood of arguments and questions.  The person hearing the shiur feels that it’s his word against the lecturer’s word and sometimes you end up having to work harder and do a lot of convincing for the idea to be accepted.

On the other hand, human nature is such that people are more willing to accept the written word with kabbalas ol.  We see that if a point is read inside, rather than delivered orally, it is more readily accepted.  There is a certain basic respect for the written word and the discussion becomes more about what is meant by what we just read rather than its veracity.  The written word conveys that it’s not me, the one giving the shiur, who is saying this; we are all “students” of the idea and trying together to learn it and explain what is written.

[One of the former teachers at the Beis Rivka Seminary in Kfar Chabad recounted (Derech HaMelech issue 16):

In every geography book there is a chapter on how the world came to exist as part of the explanation about the differences in topography, why there is a mountain here and a valley there, a river here and a sea there, etc. I would generally introduce the chapter with a very special reading of a yechidus in which students asked the Rebbe questions about the contradictions between science and halacha, and mainly the topic of evolution and the age of the universe.  The gist of the explanation is that all of science is based on theories, many of which are constantly changing and are not fixed and immutable.

Despite the explanations and bringing the Rebbe’s view on the matter, I was surprised to see in the work of a student reference to the universe being millions of years old! I didn’t know how to handle the situation.

In Tishrei 5734 I went to the Rebbe and had yechidus.  Before the yechidus I wrote to the Rebbe at length about my questions, both personal and educational, and mentioned this issue as well.  The Rebbe told me that what people see in writing they consider to be the absolute truth since it seems authoritative to them, as opposed to something said orally.

Furthermore, said the Rebbe, the fact that students get the textbook within the seminary and from the teacher, who was hired by the seminary and who is responsible for their Chassidic education, makes what is written in the book seem to have a stamp of truth and worse, a hechsher, as though the contents are all al taharas ha’kodesh.

I asked the Rebbe what I should do when there were no other books and my job is to prepare the students to be teachers in these subjects.  The Rebbe suggested a number of options, either to cut out the unsuitable pages or, alternatively, to photocopy from the book just those parts that were acceptable and to teach them.  Another and better choice was to get (or write) books written to our liking, like they do in Beis Yaakov.

That story says it all.

ENOUGH P’SHETLACH

One thing that needs attention, especially when the shiur uses written material, is the balance between explaining the ideas that are being learned and covering ground in the text.  Sometimes there is a mistaken impression that a good shiur is a shiur where only two or three lines were read from the text and most of the shiur was an explanation of that material.

This is usually a mistake.  A person listening to a shiur wants to come out of the shiur having covered ground.  Although fantastic, lengthy explanations were forthcoming, he looks to see how much was covered.  If he sees that he only learned a few lines, this can create a sense of frustration or a feeling that he wasted his time because “there wasn’t much progress.”

For example, when learning Tanya, when each line and word have numerous explanations (especially nowadays when there are so many books of compilations and explanations), when you prepare well for a shiur there is the desire to expand a lot on individual words and lines but, as mentioned, there has to be progress and a sense of achievement.

There is another point.  Aside from the feeling of satisfaction, which is so important in ongoing learning, sometimes, with all the explanations, interpretations, versions, details and allusions, the simple meaning of the words is not conveyed clearly, nor the general idea.  For example, if you open to Tanya chapter one and start teaching a new group who are learning these ideas for the first time from the text, the one giving the shiur reads, “Tanya.” Then he stops and explains that the Tanya is an important, fundamental work and every word is precise and the reason the Alter Rebbe begins with the word ‘tanya’ (and not “Omar R’ Simlai” as it states in the source in the Gemara in Nidda) is in order to do away with the klipa which is found among those who learn Torah which interferes with them learning p’nimius ha’Torah.  In addition, the word “tanya” has the same Hebrew letters as the word “eisan” which alludes to the essence of the soul, and there are three meanings of “eisan,” and so on.

Then he reads the words, “they place him under oath, be a tzaddik, etc.” and explains that the word “place him under oath” has three meanings, from the root meaning seven, satiety, and oath, and he explains each of these and what the seven middos are, and so on.

With all the explanations and fine points, he forgets to explain in the simplest, clearest way (or it gets lost in everything else he says) that the line “We learn at the end of the third chapter of Nidda” means that “it says in a Braisa which appears in the Gemara at the end of the third chapter of the tractate Nidda,” that the neshama of every one of us is placed under oath before it descends to this world and what the content of this oath is.

It sometimes happens that the basic meaning, which is not obvious to the listener, is glossed over or it’s given perfunctory treatment and instead tangential explanations are given.  You need to remember that understanding the simple meaning in a clear fashion is the most important thing in learning and that is where the emphasis should be placed.

In connection with that, there is the following story (brought in Nezer HaTanya, volume 2, chapter 21):

A Chassid carried out a certain assignment from the Tzemach Tzedek which gave the Rebbe much nachas.  The Rebbe said to him, as a reward I will learn Tanya with you.  The first time they learned together the Rebbe read chapter one but did not explain anything.  The second time they learned together he read chapter two the same way.  The same for chapter three.  After three of these sessions, the Chassid decided not to bother the Rebbe anymore and did not show up.

After some time, his brother had yechidus and the Rebbe asked him why his brother stopped coming to learn.  He said that since it was just reading the words, he was sure it wasn’t worth taking the Rebbe’s time for that.  The Rebbe said, what a fool.  I wanted to learn with him the way my grandfather (the Alter Rebbe) learned with me.  At first he read all of Tanya with me.  The second time around he explained the meaning of the words.  The third time, he taught it in depth.

“So my brother should come back and learn,” suggested the Chassid.

To which the Rebbe replied, “Now it is no longer possible.”

We do not learn from this story that when giving a Tanya shiur we should only read the words the first time, but we can definitely learn that there is a gradual approach to learning Tanya, and the same goes for any shiur.

There is a letter from the Rebbe about this (Igros Kodesh volume 14, page 372):

You write about how to go about learning Tanya … like learning all parts of our holy Torah, the first times not to linger over the specific details, questions from other places and the like, and as our Sages say to first become versed and then analyze the reasoning.”

Although you want to show the listeners how precise every word and letter is, you need to think about what is necessary now for the person who is there to learn Tanya and getting acquainted for the first time.  In order for the listener to understand the utmost exactitude and holiness in every word of Tanya, you can occasionally bring a textual analysis or a nice and amazement inducing explanation, but the way to learn at first should be where the simple meaning is clear to all and the listener understands things and sees them as they relate to his own inner world.

There is obviously a difference between a shiur for those unfamiliar with Tanya and a shiur for Anash or T’mimim who learn the daily shiurim in Chitas and are coming to the shiur with the expectation of understanding things beyond the simple meaning.  In the latter situation you can explain more, but even then, not at the expense of a clear understanding of the simple meaning and context.

CHOOSING INTRODUCTORY MATERIAL

When creating a new framework of shiurim for a new audience, there is often much indecision about which topics and messages to start with out of the vast cornucopia of Chassidus, through which to “touch” the inner world of the audience.

Experience shows that the topics in Chassidus that speak to people’s inner worlds are those which help them in their personal lives.  These topics are always relevant and inspire interest and the desire to continue learning.

For example, ideas that address bitachon in Hashem, positive thinking, joy, dealing with disturbing thoughts, and dealing with parnasa troubles, are topics that most people deal with in daily life, each in his way, and learning these ideas will no doubt speak to them and penetrate into their consciousness.  Also topics like the purpose of the neshama coming down here, one’s personal mission in life, relationships and chinuch, human relations and social bonds are topics that people are interested in and feel are meaningful in their learning.

Since in every crowd and with every category of people, these are issues that people contend with, whenever you don’t know what topic to pick, especially when it’s a new audience and you don’t know what they’re about and what direction the shiur will go in, what the level will be and what kind of people will stick around for more, choosing one of these topics and teaching them in depth and with clarity is a good idea.

Article originally appeared on Beis Moshiach Magazine (http://beismoshiachmagazine.org/).
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