From Bashful to Bold

This is a draft of a paper to be presented at the Engaging Particularities Conference (“Engaging Particularities X: New Directions in Comparative Theology, Theology of Religions, Interreligious Dialogue, and Missiology”) at Boston College on April 1, 2012.

Rabbi Norman Lamm, the current president of Yeshiva University in New York, tells of a time when he was a student and his teacher asked him to summarize the approach of the Tosafot to a passage of the Talmud that the class had been studying.[1] Young Norman Lamm thought he would impress his rabbi by repeating the explanation of the passage that his rabbi had taught the class the previous day. But instead of being impressed, the rabbi said to Lamm, “I know what I am saying. I do not need you to tell me. What do you think?… The problem is that you check your evil inclination (yetzer hara) outside the classroom door and come in with your good inclination.[2] Next time, bring your evil inclination with you, and leave your good inclination outside.”[3] This idea of bringing your evil inclination with you into the classroom is summed up in the words of Rabbi Hillel, who said, “A bashful person cannot learn.”[4] This aphorism along with its following adage that the “impatient person cannot teach” generated considerable thought and discussion in the class “Comparative Theology as Spiritual Practice,” which I co-designed and co-taught with Dr. Daniel Joslyn-Siemiatkoski at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley CA. Throughout the course, I emphasized the spirituality and transformative nature of comparative theology. Upon further reflection, I came to see teaching comparative theology as a spiritual practice, bearing fruits of patience for the teachers and fruits of courage for the students. This presentation will explore how engaging the particularities of another tradition’s pedagogy and spirituality enhances and enlivens the pedagogy and spirituality of one’s home tradition.[5] The class in which we compared a Jewish text with the Sayings of the Desert Fathers and the Gospel of Matthew will serve as a basis for this reflection.

The Jewish text we read was Pirkei Avot (“Sayings of the Fathers”), a collection of wisdom sayings from rabbis ranging from 200 BCE to about 200 CE. As the class read Pirkei Avot in depth, Hillel’s assertion that “a bashful person cannot learn nor can an impatient person teach” served as an effective catalyst for us as we engaged texts from the Christian tradition, helping us to see the same themes of boldness and patience in learning and teaching in the Apophthegmata Patrum [Sayings of the Desert Fathers] and the Gospel of Matthew. Our exploration of these themes inspired the more “bashful” students to speak up while inspiring the teachers to practice patience in response to questions and critique. Moreover, our exploration of these themes invited us to see our relationship with the divine as a teacher-student relationship that can also deepen and grow if we move from bashfulness to boldness in our prayer lives.

From Bashful to Bold in the Classroom

In the spirit of comparative theology, we first delved deep into the outside tradition by spending several class periods studying Pirkei Avot. We even had the students practice the Jewish approach to reading Talmud called chavruta (which means “friendship” or “companionship”) in which we had the students break off into pairs and study individual mishna, mostly by having them ask questions about the text and argue and debate with each other about possible answers. The class was made up of mostly Christians: several Episcopalians (priests and lay), a couple Catholics, a couple Lutherans, one Jesuit, one Sufi and one Buddhist. There were no Jewish students in the class and therefore no one who had any former experience with the Jewish practice of chavruta, which requires students to bring their “evil inclination” with them, their courage and chutzpah to ask questions and to argue. Many of the students in the class found this practice particularly challenging since they were more accustomed to agreeing with one another rather than arguing and debating. Also, their limited knowledge of Judaism, the Mishnah and Pirkei Avot made them feel less confident and less qualified to assert their arguments, ideas and interpretations. As I visited these chavruta study pairs, I noticed “bashfulness,” fear of argument and an eagerness among the students for me to tell them what to think. When we reconvened as a whole class, Dan and I tried to subvert their “bashfulness” by inviting them to ask whatever questions they had about their particular mishna, assuring them that all questions would be welcome. The students’ “bashfulness” slowly dissipated as they learned that all their questions were being welcomed and appreciated. We continued this strategy in a second class meeting in which we started to read Pirkei Avot mishna by mishna by first asking any questions that each mishna aroused. We purposely held back from answering any of the questions in order to allow the students and ourselves to be creative, courageous and uninhibited in our asking. After interrogating several mishnayot, we finally attempted to answer the list of questions that we had created. At this time, Dan and I were encouraged to see that the confidence, which we awoke in inviting questions, continued into our discussion of answers. Some of the students who were shy during the chavruta began to offer answers while also challenging other people’s answers, including those of the professors.  The students were finally bringing their “evil inclination” with them to the classroom and we began to see some of the fruit of our patience as the questions and challenges of the students opened us all up to new ways of thinking about the mishnayot of Pirkei Avot. As a young professor, I found myself practicing patience not only with the students whose questions and challenges sometimes seemed unhelpful but also practicing patience with myself as I tried to find the right words and right way to communicate my ideas and interpretations to the class. I quickly learned to appreciate the atmosphere of question and challenge that we created in the classroom as it pushed me to clarify or even modify what I was attempting to teach and communicate. My teaching experience reminded me of a story in the Talmud that colorfully illustrates Rabbi Hillel’s mishna that “a bashful person cannot learn nor can an impatient person teach” (2:6). In tractate Bava Metzia 84a (which is in the same Order as Pirkei Avot: Nezikin), a story is told about Rabbi Yochanan of the third century and his student Resh Lakish. The two studied together for several years until Resh Lakish died and Rabbi Yochanan grew severely depressed. Other rabbis tried to cheer him up by sending him a brilliant student, but the plan failed since the student never challenged his teachings. Whenever Rabbi Yochanan opined, the student would say, “I know another source that supports what you are saying.” Eventually, Rabbi Yochanan said to him, “Whenever I stated an opinion, Resh Lakish would raise twenty-four objections to what I was saying…He forced me to justify every ruling I gave, so that in the end the subject was fully clarified. But all you do is tell me that you know another source that supports what I am saying. Don’t I know myself that what I have said is right?” (Bava Metzia 84a).[6] Like Resh Lakish, the students had grown out of their initial bashfulness enough to challenge us professors, forcing us to justify and clarify our teachings.

From Bashful to Bold in the Desert

Most associate desert spirituality with silence, solitude and humility. As we read the Apophthegmata Patrum, these themes took on a new texture as they reminded us of Rabbi Shimon from Pirkei Avot who said, “All my days I have been raised among the Sages and I found nothing better for oneself than silence.”[7] However, more than that, our reading of Apophthegmata Patrum was enhanced by our prior engagement with the particulars of Pirkei Avot, which served as an effective catalyst for us to reexamine our tradition and its texts and notice themes, which we would otherwise overlook.[8] With Rabbi Hillel’s mishna echoing in our minds, our eyes were peeled for a similar call to boldness in learning and patience in teaching in the sayings of the desert fathers and mothers.

The words of Amma Theodora on patient pedagogy leapt out from the page when she said, “A teacher ought to be a stranger to the desire for domination, vain-glory, and pride; one should not be able to fool him by flattery, nor blind him by gifts, nor conquer him by the stomach, nor dominate him by anger; but he should be patient, gentle, and humble as far as possible.”[9] The call to boldness in learning was less apparent to us in our readings of the Apophthegmata Patrum since the desert literature is so drenched with exhortations to humility and self-deprecation. However, our more careful reading revealed a similar call to boldness in learning, especially in the disciples’ persistent demand for answers to their question. In one saying, the disciple Zacharias sees Abba Silvanus “in ecstasy with his hands stretched towards heaven” for more than four hours. Zacharias asks Abba Silvanus, “What has happened today, Father?” The Abba responds, “I was ill today, my child.” At this, the disciple seized the Abba’s feet and said, “I will not let you go until you have told me what you have seen.” The Abba then said, “I was taken up to heaven and I saw the glory of God and I stayed there till now and now I have been sent away.”[10] The disciple Zacharias boldly demanded a sincere answer from Abba Silvanus and was not content with his initial response. If Zacharias was not bold in demanding an answer he would not have learned the truth of Abba Silvanus’ mystical experience.

Another saying in the Apophthegmata Patrum shares a similar call to boldness in learning by showing the tenacity of another Abba: “[Abba Sarmatus] was often alone for forty days. He completed this time as though he had done nothing special. Abba Poemen went to see him and said to him, ‘Tell me what you have seen by giving yourself such great hardship.’ The other said to him, ‘Nothing special.’ Abba Poemen said to him, ‘I shall not let you go till you tell me.’ Then he said, ‘I have discovered one simple thing: that if I say to my sleep, “Go,” it goes, and if I say to it, “Come,” it comes.’”[11] In the desert literature, the disciples and students are not the only ones who show boldness in learning. Even the abbas have to put aside their humility and holy bashfulness in order to learn insights from their fellow practitioners. If Abba Poemen did not boldly demand a more thorough answer from Abba Sarmatus, he would not have learned about the abba’s mastery over sleep.

Both of the above sayings include the phrase “I will not let you go until…” which is clearly a reference to Genesis 32:27 when Jacob, while wrestling with a divine being, boldly says, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” Although in the above sayings, the phrase is used between either a disciple and his abba or between two abbas, the desert literature also shows this same phrase of tenacity being used between an abba and God in the abba’s prayer for his disciple: “Abraham, Abba Sisoes’ disciple, was tempted one day by the devil and the old man saw that he had given way. Standing up, he stretched his hands toward heaven, saying, ‘God, whether you will, or whether you will not, I will not let you alone till you have healed him,’ and immediately the brother was healed.”[12] Here we see the teacher displaying compassion for his student through a patient and persistent prayer of boldness. Abba Sisoes shows patience and compassion to his student by practicing boldness in prayer. Although the desert literature mostly advocates profound humility in relation to others and especially in relation to God, the literature also describes abbas who lay aside their holy bashfulness by boldly “clinging to God”[13] and, in one case, even arguing with God.[14]

By first reading and reflecting on Rabbi Hillel’s saying that the bashful person cannot learn and the impatient person cannot teach, we began to see similar themes of boldness and patience between students and teachers in the desert literature, which we may otherwise have overlooked. Moreover, we began to see a similar boldness between the abbas themselves and even between the abbas and God as they boldly clung to and argued with God in prayer.

From Bashful to Bold in Christian Discipleship

We also read the Gospel of Matthew in light of Pirkei Avot and once again the disciple-teacher relationship came to the forefront in our discussions. Throughout the Synoptic Gospels, we noticed how Jesus often asks his own bold questions as a form of teaching. We recalled that in Luke’s Gospel, “[Jesus’ parents] found [young Jesus] in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions” (Luke 2:46) and that Jesus continues to ask questions pedagogically throughout Luke. We also noticed how Jesus himself prays boldly to God in the Garden of Gethsemane, asking for “this cup” to pass from him (Matthew 26:39). After this petition is denied, Jesus continues to pray boldly to God, even on the cross, saying, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  (27:46).

So throughout the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus teaches his students by boldly asking questions while also showing what it means to be a student of the heavenly Father by boldly asking questions of God.

Jesus also invites his disciples to boldly ask questions when he said, “Ask and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives…” (Matthew 7:7). And furthermore, Jesus describes his role as teacher as one of gentle patience, when he said, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me for I am gentle and humble in heart” (11:29).

In John, Jesus still asks questions, but more frequently tends to offer profound and sometimes esoteric answers to questions that he himself is asked by his disciples (John 9:1-3 for instance).


From Bashful to Bold in Prayer

            The above reflections caused us to consider how these insights from Pirkei Avot, the Apophthegmata Patrum and the Gospels may impact our own spiritualities and our own relationship with the divine Teacher. The invitation from our readings was to move from bashfulness to boldness in our own prayer life while opening our eyes to those aspects of our tradition, which encourage and exemplify that movement. As disciples of Jesus, many of us learned to accept that we are invited to bring our own questions to God boldly in prayer. And if we want to learn and grow in Christ, we ought not be bashful in our prayers. The words from the Epistle to the Hebrews resonated with fuller meaning in light of our reflections: “Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace” (Hebrews 4:16).

For her final paper, one student delved deeper still into this theme of boldness before God in exploring and comparing the Genesis passage in which Abraham “barters with God” to spare Sodom (Genesis 18) with a story in the Islamic Hadith in which Muhammad “barters with God” via Moses about the number of prayers Muslims must pray each day. The student initially approached the Genesis passage with “fear and trembling,” deeply disturbed by God’s violent judgment of Sodom even after Abraham’s bold bartering, wondering why God would even indulge Abraham at all if God already knew the outcome. However, after comparing the text to the story in the Hadith and reading a homily from John Chrysostom, which emphasized the long-suffering patience of God in Genesis 18, the student came to a profound conclusion. She wrote, “We look for a comparative moment in comparative theology. My moment came early on when I started to change my question from, ‘did God know in advance that there were not ten righteous souls in Sodom?’, to ‘why was God so patient with the prophets?’ God gives us every opportunity to follow the Law, the Gospels, and the Qur’an. My parting gift is the belief that God is indeed long suffering as described by Chrysostom and Allah is Most Compassionate as described in the Qur’an.”[15] The student’s conclusion helps us to see God’s patient response to our bold questions. My own reflections on the class and our readings urged me to see God as also patient in waiting for us to lay aside our bashfulness in prayer in order to engage with God more boldly and therefore learn and grow.

By engaging deeply with Hillel’s words in Pirkei Avot and the Jewish practice of chavruta we began to practice less bashfulness and more boldness and patience both as students and teachers. As a result, we began to see how our own tradition encourages and exemplifies the movement from bashfulness to boldness both in learning and spiritual growth. Pirkei Avot acted as an effective catalyst to help us re-examine our own tradition and to see the call to boldness in learning and prayer in desert literature, in the Gospels, in the Torah and even in the Hadith. As a result, we were urged to not leave our evil inclination outside the door of our prayer closet, but to actually bring our evil inclination (our boldness) with us to God in prayer. We even began to imagine God as Rabbi Yochanan inviting us to be like Resh Lakish, prodding us to bring our evil inclination to Him in prayer, just as Dan and I patiently prodded our students to bring their boldness and questions to class.

In this age of easily accessible information, the teacher-student relationship is clearly becoming more than a passing on of knowledge. By engaging with a particular teaching outside of our tradition (a specific mishna of Pirkei Avot), we were able to experience the teacher-student relationship as something much more than a passing on of information. We began to experience the relationship as one that inspired boldness in the students and patience in the professors while also urging us to see our relationship with the Divine Teacher in a new light.



[1] Tosafot are medieval commentaries on the Talmud

[2] The yetzer hara or yetzer ra,  the evil inclination or evil impulse. All humans are born with a yetzer ra (physical needs that can become evil: hunger can become gluttony, sexual desire can become sexual abuse…). According to Avot of Rabbi Natan (a homiletical exposition of Pirkei Avot), girls acquire the yetzer tov at age 12 and boys acquire the yetzer tov at 13. According to Genesis Rabbah 9:7, “without the yetzer hara, a human being would never marry, beget children, build a house, or engage in trade.”

[3] Norman Lamm, “Knowing vs. Learning: Which Takes Precedence?” in Susan Handelman and Jeffrey Saks, Wisdom from All My Teachers (New York: Urim Publications, 2003) p.18 n.7.

[4] Pirkei Avos and Bircas Hamazon: Ethics of the Fathers and Grace After Meals, commentary by Rabbi Meir Zlototwitz (New York: Mesorah Publications, 1999), p. 17, v. 2:6.

[5] Although students came from different home traditions, no one’s home tradition was Judaism…

[6] Joseph Telushkin, Hillel: If Not Now, When? (New York: Random House, 2010), 157.

[7] Pirkei Avos, p. 15, v. 1:17

[8] Daniel Sheridan, Loving God: Krsna and Christ: A Christian Commentary on the Narada Sutras (Dudley, MA: W.B. Eerdmans, 2007), 2.

[9] Amma Theodora Saying 5, p. 83-84.

[10] Abba Silvanus Saying 3, p. 222-223.

[11] Abba Sarmatus Saying 2, p. 225-226.

[12] Abba Sisoes Saying 12, p. 214.

[13] Abba Timothy Saying 1, p. 237

[14] Abba Moses Saying 13, p. 141.

[15] Maura McKenney, “When the Bargain is Naught? A Comparative Study of Abraham and Muhammad’s Dialogue with God” for “Comparative Theology as Spiritual Practice” GTU SPHR 4705, taught by Professors Dan Jolsyn-Siemiatkoski and Daniel London, December 12, 2011.



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