The High Distinction of the Melamed

by Joel Lurie Girshaver

When I went to graduate school the term was “teacher proofing.”

It was thought that such technologies as “programmed-instruction” were good, not only because of their ability to allow for individual pacing, but because of their ability to take teachers out of the equation. Today, we see schools that script teachers’ lessons that opt for camp like programming, that fantasize the use of technology and do everything possible to compromise teacher involvement. While understanding that they have experiences that suggest that teachers are the weakest link in Jewish education, they miss the truth that teachers are also the strongest link. The failure of Jewish education may rest in the hands of some teachers but the success of Jewish education also resides in the skill and attitude of other (or perhaps the same) teachers.

Teaching Naked

Naked Teaching, advocated by Southern Methodist University dean Jose Bowen, calls for active use of technology before and after class, but calls for student teacher interaction in class. According to a report on NPR:

“While it sounds like it’s an anti-technology position, really what I’m doing is using technology like podcasts and online games and things so that students have first contact with the material before they come to class,” Bowen says. He is inviting teachers to invert the traditional model, in which students come to class unprepared, are introduced to material by a professor, then leave to study on their own before coming back to be tested.

“First contact with the material is about, you, the student. Then you come into the classroom, and now we have what’s called learning. We work together, we work on problem sets, we argue. And then you go away and I assess you.”1

Naked Teaching is the rejection of some methodologies and the affirmation of good teaching. It says, lectures are not the best way of conveying information. Power-point presentations make it worse, not better. The real goal is to use technology to transmit information and the classroom to process it. It is a process that say, the teacher is central to the learning that lives long term with the student.

Abraham Joshua Heschel Speaks

Asking, how do I get around the influence of teachers is always the wrong question. Asking, how do I improve the impact of teachers is the right question. Abraham Joshua Heschel got this when he said, “What we need more than anything else is not text-books but text-people. It is the personality of the teacher which is the text that the pupils read; the text that they will never forget.”2 He says,

Judaism is teacher-centered, and according to its tradition, God, Himself teaches…It is impossible to imagine Jewish life without the self-sacrifice, skill, and wisdom of our teachers or to overestimate the achievement and greatness of what teachers have done for the survival of Judaism in America.

While we, as textbook publishers are sensitive to the abuse of Rabbi Heschel’s quotation as an attack on textbooks, we know, because we have studied the entire article, that it was originally was a speech delivered to the Pedagogic Conference of the Jewish Education Committee of N.Y.C. in 1953, and that the speech/article is a defense of teachers and is an argument for more deep and spiritual content in Jewish schools. In it he says, “Recognizing the vital importance of Jewish education in our day, we should worry less about technique and more about content.”

Most importantly, Rabbi Heschel begins this speech by saying,

…certain things in Jewish usage fill me with shame. One such thing is the connotation of the word Melamed (Yiddish for “Hebrew School teacher”). Melamed is a synonym for “schlemiel.” The fact that this is so is nothing but blasphemy, and I am a Melamed myself. It is treason to the spirit of Judaism for in our teachings there is no higher distinction than that of being a Jewish teacher.

When we try to teacher proof, when we dissolve the classroom, we are betraying the Jewish tradition and destroying our best hope for Jewish survival. Teachers left to be in relationship with their students is the once and future education that we must seek.

Teachers Can Respond

Think Naked Teaching. Give me a classroom with reasonable students, a good teacher and a good textbook and I know that the following will happen: the students will learn both new content and gain new insights into themselves, friendships will be made or deepened, a sense of community will evolve, Judaism will be practiced, and a viable future for the Jewish people will be a little bit closer. Classrooms can be redemptive places.

Teachers create relationships. They care about and enjoy their students. Let’s talk about moments. A teacher is working on teaching a prayer. The word “God” comes up. Then several questions come up. Among them is, “My grandmother is sick, can God help?” No teacher can answer that question, but they can ask, “What do you think?” A teacher can sincerely say, “God can give you strength to do your best to help her.” And, most of all a teacher can care—and ask about the grandmother next session.

The Potential of the Classroom

“Naked Teaching” is based on decades of educational thinking.

Before there was Understanding by Design3, there were behavioral objectives. Dr. Benjamin Bloom and his team defined six levels of cognitive learning and five of affective learning.

The Cognitive Domain includes: (1) Knowledge, (2) Comprehension, (3) Application, (4) Analysis, (5) Synthesis, and (6) Evaluation.4

The Affective Domain includes: (1) Receiving, (2) Responding, (3) Valuing, (4) Organizing, and (5) Characterizing.5

Later a psychomotor domain was added: (1) Perception, (2) Set, (3) Guided Response, (4) Mechnamism (5) Complex Overt Response, (6) Adaption, and (7) Origination.6

The psychomotor domain is almost completely the result of human interaction. It takes modeling and correcting to happen. Someone has to show me how to tuck my leg when I roll over the bar in the high jump. Personal, visually obtained feedback, is needed to improve my efforts. A friend, Barbara Ziedman was a master chef and a Jew-by-choice. She once baked three Passover sponge cakes from the recipe on the package and then threw them all out because she didn’t know that sponge cakes don’t rise. The directions hadn’t told her that. That took a sister-in-law, a teacher, to give feedback.

Psychomotor learning is like that. The same is true of the higher domains of both the cognitive and affective domain. Facts can be learned on one’s own, but the cognitive skills of analysis, synthesis, and evaluation take interaction and feedback. The same is true of the higher levels of the affective domain. Receiving may happen in print but responding, valuing, organizing and characterizing are process and conversation oriented. They take teachers, too. Judaism exists on these higher domains. Judaism is not just “knowing” what a hallah is, rather it is “characterizing” hallah as a symbol of Shabbat as a sanctuary in time. Judaism, real Judaism, takes teachers.

Chaim Potok said, “Jewish tradition is a kind of deedology, rather than a creedology.”7 He is saying that Judaism is doing. Classrooms are places where students can act together and reflect.

Abraham Joshua Heschel deepened this idea when he said,

Judaism is not merely a matter of external forms—it is also a matter of inner living. The Sabbath is not essentially a matter of external performances, of prohibitions, restrictions, customs and ceremonies. It is an answer to one of the deepest problems of human existence, to the problem of civilization.

This means that first we need to learn the dance steps; then we need to own the dance. Actions are best learned in groups, and they are best reflected on with a good teacher. Remember, for Jews, learning Torah is an action.

Teachers Can Respond

Core Jewish learning, deep Jewish learning, comes from interaction with Jewish sources. These sources ask students questions and perhaps offer options of solution. The job of the student is to choose the solution that makes sense to them. In this way they make meaning of the passage and expand or help to focus the students’ beliefs. The primary role of the teacher is in listening and responding. The teacher needs to hear, affirm, prod, wait, clarify and make sure that the text enters the students as they make it their own.

Sometimes it is just a smile. Sometimes it is, “No. Try again.” The teacher does most of his/her work during the solution of problems, not in their presentation. Great teaching moments are hearing a flow of words, partially coherent, flow out of a student and reaching in to that chaos, and pulling out the core idea with which the student is struggling. They are hearing a student confidently expressing a rote opinion, and with the right questions, pushing the student to think more deeply about an issue. And sometimes, they are just smiling, nodding and saying, “Good.”

Teaching is being there in the moment where questions become worth answering, and where sharing an answer is an important statement of self. While ideally (and we will talk about it) students are talking to the whole class, they are listening and responding to each other, more often, an answer is given for the teacher—out of the belief that the teacher will understand. One of the single most important roles for teachers is being there and responding. The job of the school is to make sure that as many of these moments of real learning can and do take place.

Teachers Create a Dialogue between the Material and the Student

There is the page and then there is off the page. The act of teaching is that of getting ideas and information off the page and into the minds and hearts of their students. Textbook publishers can choose good texts. They can edit and shape those texts so they have the greatest chance of speaking to students. And, they can ask good questions that suggest a path into the heart of the material. A teachers’ guide can suggest a process for learning. They can off up programs and activities. They can describe the book in the context of the active classroom where learning is a series of events. As good as all these resources can be, the teacher still has to breath life into the words.

Teaching is acting, choosing, pausing, translating, illustrating and adapting. Curriculum is not in the book. Curriculum is not in the set of objectives and goals that schools publish. Curriculum is the living creation of the moment. It is the fusion of text, student, teacher, and school vision. It is the reaction that takes place when all the elements interact in the right way. Teachers control the flow. They keep all these elements in balance. They bring the match, they insure the combustion, they fan the spark, and they stand in the middle of the reaction bringing it into the heart of each student.

It is through the teacher that words and ideas are embedded in the student. Once embedded, these words have the potential to emerge, to help and shape, real moments in the students’ life, and to bring Judaism into practical usage. Once they are known and valued, Pikuah Nefesh or Tikkun Olam (or lots of other word-ideas) are locked, loaded, and ready to act on.

There is a powerful role for technology in the learning process, but that does nothing to remove the need for teaching.

Teacher’s Create Dialogue between Students and Students

Dr. Saul Wachs has regularly said, “When you get one student to ask another a question about something the other student has said, you know you have succeeded.” Saul understands that when a classroom moves from the teacher serving as the traffic control tower through whom all communications must go, to a legitimate learning community. When a class makes that transformation, the world completely changes. Nothing is frontal anymore, instead the class takes responsibility for their own learning.

The teacher can shape dialogue in the classroom. They can do it by choosing the grouping size. Working in groups of two, three, four, or larger changes the dynamic and the conversation. The questions a teacher asks opens or closes the dialogue. The more the teacher is looking for a right answer—the more terse the conversation. The more a teacher asks students to solve problems, the larger the dialogue.

In a world that is scared of teachers just teaching, who wants to turn every classroom moment into some active event, it is important to remember that a great conversation is active and involving. There is a big difference between asking “What is the capital of Uzbekistan?” and “Do you think God actually keeps track of your actions?”

Good programs, great events, all kinds of trigger activities generate conversation. But, much of the learning happens in the “talking about it.” Here is where the teacher is critical. Having students study a text in hevruta, having the class wander around the room adding comments to various posters, breaking the class in half for a debate are just a few of many great classroom moments, but these are locked in time and in the heart by the conversation that expresses and shares the meaning made by the experience. “Who wants to react to Josh’s comment?”

Teachers can Correct and Model

How we teach conveys as much as what we teach. We teach about respect, dignity, empathy and lots more by the way we interact with our class. What students learn has a lot to do with the way a teacher greets them, listens to them, talks to them, deals with them when they are difficult, and reaches out when there are issues in their life. This is the part of teaching that Rabbi Heschel labeled under “text people.” This is the part of the classroom experience that calls on us to be Jewish and human.

Of equal importance are the conversations we have with our students when their behavior needs modification. The way in which we preserve their dignity, keep far from embarrassing them, and help them to see a new path is of truly significant importance. Part of teaching is coaching, empowering, actualizing and this involves providing our students with insight into their own behavior and presenting alternative ways of acting or responding. These actions can either make or break a student’s relationship to the teacher, to the school, and to the Jewish people.

We teach by the way we are—and we need to be working on our own growth—just as we expect our students to do the same. One of the greatest models we can give our students is an example of how to be wrong. We make enough mistakes. We don’t need to invent situations. If we can admit that we were wrong, say we are sorry, and then change, we give our students the chance to be wrong and change, too. This happens when we help our students understand their behavior in a way they can process, and invite them to fix the situation.

Teaching Humanity

What we need do is make sure that teachers are in a position to provide inspirational experiences. That is the “naked teaching” part—great interaction. While resources for teacher-training are now shrinking, our real need is to expand the resources, education, and empowerment we give to our teachers. Dr. Haim Ginott wrote:

I’ve come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It’s my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher, I possess a tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated and a child humanized or de-humanized.8

Teachers are both Jewish education’s largest risk and greatest resource. It depends on who they are and how they teach. Teachers’ classroom reality can be influenced by the way that parents and schools treat them (respect flows down hill), by the resources and skills they acquire, by the knowledge and insight they have, and by the sense of mission and vision that is shared with them. In the same work, Dr. Ginott makes this clear.

I am a survivor of a concentration camp. My eyes saw what no person should witness. Gas chambers built by learned engineers. Children poisoned by educated physicians. Infants killed by trained nurses. Women and babies shot and killed by high school and college graduates. So I’m suspicious of education. My request is: help your students to be human. Your efforts must never produce learned monsters, skilled psychopaths, or educated Eichmanns. Reading and writing and spelling and history and arithmetic are only important if they serve to make our students more human.9

Teachers are the ones who can make that happen. (Ibid) We must put the Jewish tradition in their hands and then support and enable their success. We need to celebrate good teaching as our greatest Jewish treasure. And we need to know, that happens when teachers talk with, not talk to, their students. Technology can do many things—and then there is what teachers alone can do.


1. “Teach Naked: Dean Urges Tech-Free Classes,” Week-end Edition, National Public Radio, August 26, 09.

2. Heschel, Abraham Joshua. “The Spirit of Jewish Education”, Journal of Jewish Education, Volume 24 Issue 2, 1953.

3. Wiggins, Grant and Mctighe, Jay. Understanding by Design, Expanded 2nd Edition. ASCD Book, 2005.

4. Bloom B. S. Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, Handbook I: The Cognitive Domain. New York: David McKay Co Inc., 1956.

5. Krathwohl, D. R., Bloom, B. S., & Masia, B. B. Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, the Classification of Educational Goals. Handbook II: Affective Domain. New York: David McKay Co., Inc., 1973.

6. Simpson E. J. The Classification of Educational Objectives in the Psychomotor Domain. Washington, DC: Gryphon House, 1972.

7. “Judaism Under the Secular Umbrella, 1978 interview with Chaim Potok,” Christianity Today. Vol. 46, July 2002.

8. Ginott, Haim G. Teacher and Child: A book for parents and teachers. New York, NY: Collier, 1995.

9. ibid.