Welcoming All Students to Swim Through the “Water World” of Torah


Photo Credt: SETI.org

By Yonatan Gordon

Teachers who thought maintaining classroom management in person, now have a new challenge before them. How can a teacher properly manage a community of online students?

As we hope to explain, the answer rests on the ability of the teacher to include those that at first seem “outsiders.” Let’s first take the example of the physical classroom. We mentioned in “What if Technology, Just…Vanished???” that a good teacher learns how to involve all his students in the discussion. As long as each student is sitting and listening attentively, they should all feel like involved participants in the learning experience.

But we mentioned that matters of distance need not be an inhibition to this engagement. That the devoted student should be able to immediately connect with his teacher, no matter where in the world they each happen to be. We brought the scientific topic of quantum entanglement to show that two things (in this case, the teacher and the student), can connect at speeds faster than the speed of light. To be sure, in our article “Learning to Teach with Encrypted or Discrete Messages,” we discussed how this interaction can be seen as something instantaneous.

Now that we have laid some of the groundwork, the land is fertile to begin our present meditation for today. How can a teacher effectively manage an online community of students?

In order to begin answering, we should first make mention that why we chose the term “community” instead of “classroom.” As long as the teacher and students see themselves as working together toward a common goal, then there is hope. But if there is division and separation, then no amount of physical proximity, or classroom management skills, will help to assuage the situation. Our first lesson then is that more than physical proximity, the goals and ambitions should be shared among all participants.

There is No Such Thing as an “Outsider”

To begin this part of the article, let’s first quote something we said a few months ago about Aaron Swartz:

“One of the many activities that Aaron occupied himself with was as a volunteer editor on Wikipedia. As part of his bid to join the Board of Directors, he wrote an analysis of how Wikipedia articles are written. Aaron concluded that the bulk of the actual content comes from tens of thousands of occasional contributors, or “outsiders,” while a core group of 500 to 1,000 regular editors correct spelling and other formatting errors. According to Aaron, “The formatters aid the contributors, not the other way around.” How would we explain this within a Torah content?

In that original article, we related this account to the wise son in the Passover Haggadah. But as with anything in Torah, there are many good and valid interpretations one can make for any given topic of interest. So today, instead of speaking about the search for “open source idealists” (as we called it), we are on the lookout for people who may seem like “outsiders” (what Malcolm Gladwell may call “outliers”). These are the people that the good teacher works hardest to include within the classroom discussion, and as we observed from Aaron’s findings, these could also be the very people that could help lead the discussion among the students in the classroom.

The Torah’s Greatest Principle

Rabbi Akiva said, “Love your fellow as yourself” is a great principle of the Torah. A similar principle is gleaned from the famous story of a proselyte who wished to convert to Judaism on condition that someone would teach him the entire Torah while standing on one foot. Hillel the Elder accepted his conversion and told him, “That which you hate, do not do to your friend [the negative picture of “love your fellow as yourself”]―that is all the Torah, and all the rest is commentary. Go and study it!”

Obviously, the entire Torah is a true, God-given Torah, but Hillel the Elder and Rabbi Akiva teach us that there is room to meditate on the principle that is the Torah’s “great principle”; the signpost that puts us on the right track.

The need for such guiding lights is most necessary when an outsider wishes to approach the infinite sea of Torah, and needs an anchor to show him where to begin. This is why the Torah’s greatest principle is learnt from a proselyte who comes to convert. A true convert is not obliged to know the entire Torah before he converts, but he does need to know the principal foundations of Jewish faith; then he can accept the yoke of Torah and mitzvot in all sincerity. Rabbi Akiva, that great Torah sage, also arrived at the Torah as an “outsider”; he was a ba’al teshuvah (Jew who becomes observant), who only began his Torah study at the age of forty.

These two “outsiders,” the ba’al teshuvah and the convert, who both began their Torah study from scratch at an advanced age, were in need of a shortcut strategy (and it is our privilege to learn the Torah’s great principle through their merit). Our generation too is a generation of teshuvah (repentance); so many Jews are distant from the Torah, and so many wish to return to their source. This is why, more than ever, we need a path that allows us to approach the Torah after years and generations of detachment and begin from a generalization that incorporates all the details and explanations.

Obviously, identifying the Torah’s principle philosophies is important for everyone, not only for those who are not yet versed in Torah study. Even the greatest Torah scholars and tzadikim need to identify them too. Yet, they do not have the same need to search for it as the “outsiders” mentioned above. They study the entire Torah, observe all 613 mitzvot, and relate naturally to the Torah’s great principles as a simple premise. But when the proselyte demands that he be taught the entire Torah while standing on one foot, Hillel is revealing the great principle whose light he follows; and it is Rabbi Akiva, who himself returned from the “outside,” that benefited from this very “shortcut” or general principle of the Torah.

We see from this that it was in the merit of the convert, who first came to Hillel, that this previously hidden premise became part of the public domain. Now we too, as distant as we may be, can grasp hold of this principle and allow it to help us progress to the entire Torah.

Although sometimes a great sage may find it difficult to formulate his fundamental axioms in simple terms, someone as humble as Hillel has a ready answer which is most suitable for even the most distant, lowly individual – all while standing on one foot.

The Wikipedia Classroom

There are several important ways that this story relates back to our present discussion. The first, as we mentioned before we introduced the story, is that this great principle of  “Love your fellow as yourself” was made known to us by a simple convert. This can be viewed as similar to the great many discussions and pages on Wikipedia that are begun by people searching for a “shortcut” way to present some topic of interest. In this sense, the Wikipedia “insiders” would then relate to those who already versed in Torah and mitzvah observance. They are the ones debating the correct “spelling and formatting errors” spanning the thousands of pages of the Talmud, and other particulars of Jewish study and observance. While the study of the particulars is important for the convert as well, as a result of coming from the outside, more than those already well versed in the Torah, they rely more heavily on general principles to keep them on the proper path.

Water Worlds

There is a recent astronomical finding that can serve as a helpful metaphor for our discussion. It was recently discovered that there are two habitable planets about 1,200 light years away, Kepler-62e and Kepler-62f. The point of interest for these “best candidates for planets that might be habitable” that we would like to stress is that, “these planets are unlike anything in our solar system. They have endless oceans.”

Now imagine that we wanted to see ourselves as living on one of these two water worlds. In order to get there, there would be many preliminaries before setting forth on the journey. In order to travel the 1,200 light year distance, we would need a strong and sturdy space ship equipped with some form of warp drive technology. In addition, we would need to bring a makeshift island apparatus to live on. Of course, in order to make our life there a sustainable one, the weather and climate would need to be such that the vegetative and animal life that we bring, would grow and flourish there on our little island. So too, in order to better understand the mindset of the “outsider,” we can relate it to this person preparing to embark on this 1,200 light year journey.*

In order to prepare oneself to engage the endless seas of the Torah, the “outsider” realizes that indeed there is much to learn. What does the humble and compassionate sage then respond to this person? That although there is much to learn, the seas are friendly and habitable. “Now that you know that this is a place you can venture forth to,” says the sage, “Go and swim through it!”

So this was our metaphor, to relate the question and journey of this convert, to a person seeking for signs of habitable life on far away planets. The first lesson then is that to know that the Torah’s greatest principle is to “love another like yourself,” makes the entire realm of Torah study and observance more habitable.

Making Headlines 

What then is the solution for the teacher with an online classroom full of students? For sure he needs to convey details, otherwise those that are already learned will grow bored of the lesson. But in another to attract the two “outsiders” as well (the convert and the ba’al teshuvah), he also needs to mention generalities. This could be compared to a politician who gives a speech lasting over an hour, but only a few short “sound bites” get played by the media. By and large, those excerpts that most make headlines and generate public interest, are compelling because some general principle was stated in them.

For instance, as with prior Apple products, there are rumors now about what the new iPad 5 will be like. Perhaps the most noted aspect in the headlines is that it will be “thinner” than previous versions. As we explained in our Apple Turnaround Series, the attraction to “thinner” iPads rests in the hope that eventually, we will be able to appreciate the “iPad experience” even without the iPad.

But the same goes for content itself. The outsiders make the best people to initiate new discussions, because they are the ones immediately drawn to the headlines. They know what’s of interest in the world because they were there. While they are now coming the class to hear the full hour-long talk, they are still very aware of which sound bites from the class can make headlines.

What then is an outsider most apt at doing on Wikipedia? Starting new pages. When it comes to filling them in, what we are now saying is that perhaps the details are best left for the “insiders.” The “outsiders” then are the most curious students. Not because they have grasped the entirety of the lesson, but because they ask the most stimulating questions. They are the ones publicizing these headlines and sound bites of their teacher, or starting the new discussions, that the public will be most interested in. They hear of the discovery of these water worlds, and they ask the question that everyone wants to know the answer to: Is this a place I could potentially live in?

So too, the convert that came to Hillel wasn’t just expressing a personal question. His question was a general one (and perhaps the most general question one can ask about the Torah): Do I have a place in the Torah? (i.e. Is this something that I could potentially inhabit, and swim through?).

This question, and the subsequent answer, turned a once private domain answer, into something that now belongs to the public domain. Anyone can start a page on Wikipedia, and it is through these pages, that the whole website because more “habitable.”

This then is another reason why we were so fond of this finding from Aaron. Sometimes, it is the “outsiders” that show us what all those thousands of pages are really all about.


* Is there anything significant about the fact that these water worlds are 1,200 light years away? It is if we’d like to bring some kosher fish with us. Every kosher fish needs to have both fins (סְנַפִּיר ) and scales (קַשְׂקֶשֶׂת ).

While the value of “fins” is 400, the value of scales is three times that, or 1200. This indicates that there is something about this journey that is more scale-like than fine-like.

The sages point out that every fish that has scales is automatically assumed to have fins. This leads to an obvious question. We know that the Torah contains nothing superfluous. If every fish that has scales has fins, why does the Torah specify that a kosher fish need have both scales and fins?

Our sages explain that there is no reason to specify the fact that fish have fins other than to “increase and enhance the study of Torah” (יַגְדִּיל תּוֹרָה וְיַאְדִּיר ). King Solomon built a pool of water at the Temple, representing the sea of Torah. Rabbi Akiva likened the Jewish people to fish swimming in the sea of Torah. There is an intrinsic link between fish and the essence of the Torah, which specifies fins for the sole purpose of enhancing and beautifying itself.

Instead of a swimming pool then, we chose to build for ourselves the imagery of these newly discovered water worlds. The emphasis on scales, as the sages explain, rests in the ability to master the particulars of the Torah. Such was the case with Rabbi Avika himself, who although he became a ba’al teshuvah at the age of 40, merited to interpret even the cantillation marks (טעמים) of the letters in the Torah.

Excerpted and freely adapted from material on RabbiGinsburgh.com and Inner.org


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