Essays by Stan Tenen

Learning by Copying vs. Learning by Reading
© 1997 by Stan Tenen
Discussions about how Jewish learning has changed from "apprenticeship" learning to "text" learning are of extraordinary importance because of the effects of this change, and its implications.

These are two very different modes of learning with very different strengths and weaknesses. Text based learning is essential because, given the vast accumulation of Torah learning over time, not even a Moshe, if he lived today, could remember it all. Textual knowledge is the only form of knowledge that is fully storable. But, it has its limitations.

Apprenticeship learning is "hands on" learning. We see and we try and eventually we master the tasks that our elders have mastered. The faculties we use for "hands on" learning are different from those we use for textual learning.

Anyone of any age and experience can read a text. But, they will be able to understand the text only to the extent that they are already familiar with the subject or with the elements of the subject. A person who has never seen a monkey wrench would be hard put to understand its proper usage no matter how detailed the verbal description. Holding and using a monkey wrench is necessary for properly understanding what is written about a monkey wrench.

The medium of learning has a great effect on those who use it, and on what personality types are inclined to use it. The availability of computer graphics has radically changed some branches of mathematics because hands-on visual manipulation and exploration of mathematical abstractions teaches different subjects differently and attracts visually curious persons who might otherwise not be interested in mathematics.

We are taught that we should not earn a living from Torah. Rabbis are encouraged to work for a living. But the meaning of "work" has changed. Until recent times, work mostly meant labor, a trade or a craft. Laborers, tradespersons and craftspersons work with their hands (and bodies). Their knowledge is apprenticeship-based and experiential. They know how things feel and work and wear. In today’s world many persons do not earn a living by working with real materials in real environments. Their work is real, but it is abstract. We work on paper with words and numbers. We sell real estate, design computers, draw up legal documents, design advertising, etc. We work with our heads based on what we have read (or have been read to about). The more educated we are, the more Torah learning we have, the more economically independent we are, the more we are likely to learn and work in the abstract. Our executives, managers, designers, and bureaucrats do not work with their hands. Our garage mechanics and TV repairmen and assembly line workers work with their hands – and they are rarely Torah scholars.

What difference does this make? It makes an enormous difference when we try to learn from our texts. Our texts were written by working rabbis who had hands on knowledge of a real physical trade or craft. When they wrote, they wrote using metaphors that would be understood by other persons who had a hands on relationship with their work. For us to understand their written words requires us to have similar hands on knowledge of the real world. Torah is written in the language of (hu)man, and the primary language of humans is work and is based on work. Symbolic work only carries meaning when the symbols relate back to real experience.

I believe that Torah learning based entirely on texts interpreted by persons who have not worked with their hands in the real physical world is necessarily limited and, in some instances, unavoidably distorted. Mysteries of Torah, Talmud, and Kabbalah would not be mysteries if we had the same hands-on experiences as our sages. If we are to regain command of Kabbalah, for example, we must learn from doing things in the world.

For example, although it is far from obvious to the persons studying the "Equal letter interval codes in Torah," any person who has hands on experience with knitting or weaving or braiding can immediately see that the letter skip patterns are weaving patterns. There is no need for modern analysis, no need for rocket science. Weaving, a craft traditionally understood and appreciated throughout the ancient world, is a natural hands-on means of encoding information. Any craftsperson can tell that. But a person who has never knitted, or braided or woven anything cannot recognize the simple solution to what current academic and talmudic scholars find so puzzling or miraculous.

In order to understand the words of our sages we need to put ourselves in their day-to-day shoes. Advanced degrees and hard work in jurisprudence or business administration do not fulfill the requirement that our rabbis and teachers work for a living. They do not provide the apprenticeship in real materials and real situations that our mind’s require in order to properly and fully interpret what our sages have written (or what was written by HaShem in the language of (hu)mans as we were until this era.)

If we are to recover the science of consciousness in Kabbalah, if we are to be able to learn from the "codes in Torah", if we are to be able to reconcile halacha with modern life (without dilution or compromise), we must regain hands on apprenticeship learning as a prerequisite to Torah learning. We must teach children to sew and braid challah and weave cloth and build tents, while we are introducing them to text based learning. If we must work as administrators in order to feed our families, then we must also have a hands-on hobby so we can also learn the real world skills our sages learned and drew their lessons from.

Text based knowledge without apprenticeship is like Din without Chesed. Apprenticeship without text knowledge (including Torah!) is Chesed without Din. Neither can be fulfilled alone.

Stan Tenen
May 1997
Sharon, Massachusetts

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