Sunday, January 03, 2010

How To Educate Per R. Simcha Bunim of Przysucha

With thanks to Joseph the Dreamer, who is always so joyous and who gifted me with this book. Would that I could be as joyous as you are!


The entire role of the zaddik in Przysucha was understood in such a way as not to create dependency. For dependency meant that the very quality on which everything hung- namely personal authenticity- was emasculated. For Przysucha, imitation, especially imitation of the zaddik, was the greatest sin. All a zaddik could do was to be a guide, a role model. By his very presence, by his own spiritual integrity, the student could find his own integrity as well. The function of the rebbe was to help people become themselves and to serve God in their truth. Vicarious redemption runs counter to the most basic values of Przysucha.

The following is a classic example of how. R. Bunim saw his role as a leader.
    After the death of R. Uri of Strelisk (known as the Saraf), one of his disciples came to R. Bunim in order to join him. R. Bunim asked, "What was his (R. Uri's) main approach in his holy work to teach you the service of God and the paths of Hasidism?" His main approach (answered the hasid) was to implant in our hearts a sense of humility and lowliness. And his holy custom was that whoever came to him, whether he was an important rabbi or a wealthy person, he first had to take two big buckets and to fill them with water from the well in the marketplace, or do some demeaning work in public.

    R. Bunim...replied: "Let me tell you a story. It once happened that the king declared that three people- two wise men and an idiot- were to be placed in a dark dungeon. Every day, food and utensils were lowered down to them. The thick darkness confused the mind of the idiot so that he couldn't understand what they were giving him. For example, he thought that the spoon was a plate and so on, and thus he didn't know how to hold the cup to his mouth to eat and drink. Thus, each time, one of the wise men taught him, with signs, how to know what the utensils were, but it was necessary to teach him each time, because each time they were given different utensils. But the second wise man sat silently and didn't teach him anything. On one occasion the first wise man asked the second wise man, 'Why do you sit silently and not teach the idiot anything, so that I have to toil each time to learn with him? Why don't you teach him for once?' The second wise man replied: 'You are continually making an effort to learn with him, but there is no limit. For what will you do if tomorrow, they give him another utensil? Yet again you will have to teach him. And what will be if he knows how to use this, and does not know how to use that? I'm thinking and figuring out how to make a hole in the roof to let in light, so that then he will see everything."

    (The story is from G. Rosenthal, Hitgalut ha-Zaddikim, ed. Nigal, 114-115; Ma'amarei Simhah, 43; Or ha-Ganuz, 409-410.)

What is the meaning of this parable? Isn't the wise man who feeds the idiot every day more compassionate than the wise man who sits pondering? R. Bunim explains that, as kind as the first teacher is, the idiot is totally dependent upon him, so that the first wise man's efforts are misplaced and possibly misguided. For R. Bunim, education is not some sort of roadmap in which you can cover all the situations of a man's life: "For each time they would give him different utensils." The nature of education is to develop in the student the ability to be able to deal with situations that neither he nor the teacher has ever encountered.

The second wise man, who is totally engaged in thinking how to pierce the ceiling of the dungeon so that everybody can receive light, is not callous. On the contrary, he represents the rebbe/ teacher whose focus is on how to make the pupil autonomous. Such a teacher is truly kind, unlike the one who makes the other dependent. This parable is therefore a critique of the type of charismatic leadership in which the disciple never achieves religious maturity. The prison is the world in which we live; the idiot doesn't know how to function; to pierce the ceiling is to bring "enlightenment" to the disciple. Everything, therefore, has to be concentrated on this goal.

The ending, "so that then he will see everything," suggests that light (i.e. insight) is not controlled by the person of the rebbe/ teacher. Thus, this is not an image of a hasid soaring on the wings of his rebbe so much as being inspired by the teacher to soar. The wise man facilitates light, but it is ultimately not refracted through the teacher. In in the final analysis, the enlightenment one receives depends on who one is and on the ability to build oneself from within.

Moreover, because the light does not come down to the student through the person of the Rebbe (although it does come because of him), this suggests that there is no one path; for everyone receives the light depending on who they are. This is in contrast to R. Uri, who insisted that everyone "carry two buckets of water"- an approach without any individuation, in contrast to that of the light, which is received personally.

R. Bunim's parable is a critique of R. Uri's entire approach to character building. It is possible for a teacher to demand a certain behavior (in this case, that even an important person must be prepared to engage in simple, humble tasks), but there is little guarantee or assurance that when he returns home he will have internalized the quality of humility so that it becomes part of him- for education, by definition, must be personal; it cannot be limited to a single approach.

~The Quest for Authenticity: The Thought of Reb Simhah Bunim by Michael Rosen, pages 116-118


Dune said...

Thank you for posting this; it is a beautiful parable. This is indeed the (at least in general) the way a Rav should be. Just as there are different faces there are different natures and each person needs to serve God in their own path as themselves, just as the different tribes had different functions. That being said, I do think that R' Uris method also has merit. Many times people with alot of wealth forget what it was like to toil in the manner of a laborer or they never did toil. Also rabbanim sometimes speak in grandious ways and don't truly empathize with the reality of the persons' condition and what they are going through. Rav Uris method I think was to remind them that not everyone lives life in spiritual or physical comfort. To remind them, the next time they give advice to someone - that they remember or understand what the person is going through whilst trying to keep the mitzvot and correct attitude, and not to treat the person as though he/she was just a reflection of themselves; but to treat each individual as an individual according to his/her needs, emotions, and situation.

Adam said...

This hearkens back to the ancient aphorism: "Give a man a fish, and he'll be fed for a day. Teach a man to fish and he'll be fed for the rest of his life." (Though I've always been partial to "Give a man a fire, and he'll be warm for the rest of the day. Set a man on fire, and he'll be warm for the rest of his life.")

While generally true, and I agree with R. Bunim, the parable also illustrates a lesson on extremes. Without the first wise man, the idiot may have starved and wouldn't have been alive to enjoy the light the second wise man would have eventually achieved.

Likewise, in teaching there is always a balance between doing things for the student and allowing them to figure something out for themselves. While throwing them into the deep end to learn how to swim has a certain Zen Master-like appeal, it doesn't work in a situation where you want everyone to survive and to grow.

A Rebbe's (or any educator, for that matter) goal should be for their student to achieve autonomy, but care must be taken the lofty goal of eventual autonomy doesn't blind the inure the teacher to the times where their immediate and total intervention really is required.

The best method seems to me, as is usual in debates like this, to be a synthesis of the two: One should have the goal of the second wise man, but the day to day demeanor of the first.

Joseph the Dreamer said...


First of all, I'm truly glad you enjoyed the gift.

Secondly, this post is awesome! Thanks!

Anonymous 1:45,

Reb Simcha Bunim's approach was to have an individualized method of teaching for each unique individual. Thus, he is not necessarily against a wealthy person toiling to be able to empathize but rather is against ALL people that are wealthy (some who already DO empathize with the laborer) to have to learn the same lesson the same way.

Dune said...

Joseph the dreamer:
Thank you for the clarification; and for correcting my misunderstanding of rav Bunim due to my not having complete information.

Joseph the Dreamer said...


You bring up a good point and I cannot say I totally disagree with you. However, I think the point of the parable has to be taken in context of the statement made to him (R' Simcha Bunim) which he was responding to. (For example, he wouldn't have let him starve, but he believed that he would figure it out for himself, had he had the right utensils. Had he seen he's starving, he probably would have fed him but that would just prolong his figuring out how to "show him the light." So he let the first wise man occupy himself with the more mundane task.)

Also, it should be pointed out that the people that were drawn to Pershischa in the first place, were people who were very interested in, and capable of, autonomy. People who believed that one should ride on the coattails of a tzaddik by having the tzaddik do all the thinking/decision-making for him did not hang out in Peshiskha.

And I guess it's possible to extrapolate from here that Reb Bunim held that every "idiot" is capable of autonomy at some point.

(Or that Reb Bunim himself held that an "idiot" should learn by Rebbe's who didn't share his philosophy on education.)

Hope that comes across clearly...

Anonymous said...

The radical individuality of the approach of R. Simcha Bunim of Przysucha is in sharp contrast to your call for submission that you preached in dignity in defeat.So which are in you? Are you in flux?

Joseph the Dreamer said...

Dear anonymous,

Halacha does not contradict individuality. You can be extremely individual and autonomous.

Pershischa's philosophy was to only submit to GOD, as opposed to some that submit to humans (Rabbis, society, etc.)

Anonymous said...

so now translate that to our current education system, especially given the financial constraints.
the point on self selection is also important-do all belong there or is this just one room in a very large house?
Joel Rich

Shades of Grey said...

This is quite interesting... I think I may have to purchase (and read) this book.

franz said...

I had been thinking of reading this book for some time and came across this post while doing a search just before finally pulling the trigger.

I thought I'd let anyone know that is intereted that Amazon dropped the price to $21.86.

Menashe said...

The real Tzaddik is the one who helps you to discover the Tzaddik that is within you because he, the Tzaddik, has already done it with himself.