Monday, April 15, 2013

Socrates and the Fat Rabbi

It's a common rule of public speaking: Tell a joke, and you loosen up the crowd. This idea isn't a recent one--it can actually be found in the Talmud.

"Before he began his lesson to the scholars," says the Babylonian Talmud (Shabbat 30b), "Rabba used to say a joking word, and the scholars were amused. After that, he sat in dread, and began the lesson."

According to Talmud scholar Daniel Boyarin in his book, Socrates and the Fat Rabbis, the joke isn't merely an attention-getter or an aperitif, something to make the serious lesson go down easier. Instead, Boyarin says, the two are equally necessary to teach any lesson. On one hand, laughter creates connection with another person, making it possible to communicate knowledge from one to another. On the other, there needs to be some yirah--usually translated as "fear" or "awe"--which refers to the respect, deference, and attention that students pay their teacher.

We've all had teachers that we've feared, and teachers that we've loved. Perhaps what the Talmud (and Boyarin) is suggesting is the best teachers are those who, in measured doses, make us feel a bit of both.

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