Get yourself a teacher

Note: Eli is my counter-culture alter ego, who was introduced in “How Eli got his name” a couple of blogs ago.

RR: Hey, Eli, I’m back from my summer travels and ready to start blogging again.

Eli: Welcome home.

RR: One of the high points of the trip was catching a big salmon off the coast of Northern California. My son Daniel and I went out from Humboldt Bay with one of his friends who has a boat and knows fishing in that area. We had three licenses and three lines, but Daniel’s friend set up everything from the back of the boat, because he didn’t want us to get all tangled up.

Eli: Cool, I guess. At least you caught something.

RR: Yeah, that’s the point. It was easy to let him take charge because he obviously knew what he was doing, and it struck me that things don’t usually work like that in the world beyond fishing. I mean, everyone thinks they know how to run things best, and they generally don’t think of anyone as really competent. I’m sure there are exceptions, but that’s the dominant attitude, and it seems to be the worst in spiritual matters. 

Eli: Hmm, what do you mean?

RR: A couple thousand years ago, Rabban Gamliel said, “Get yourself a teacher” (Pirke Avot 1:16), but current spirituality is so subjective that people think no one else can tell them what’s right or wrong. So no one wants to be mentored or learn from the more experienced hands. And then there’s this pervasive cynicism about anyone really being competent, which just tries to shoot the authorities or potential authorities full of holes. I mean in spiritual matters, there’s such a thing as elders—folks that have gone before and been in this pursuit for a while—and the younger folks are supposed to learn from them. 

For years I’ve heard older people say that when you get old, you become invisible. People act like you’re not even there. In some of my recent travels, I’m finally starting to notice that on a first-person level. I don’t feel very old, but as I told one of my friends, you’re only as old as you feel . . . until you look in the mirror.

Eli: Yeah, in my student days there was this really old guy (like in his 70s) who used to hang around on campus, and it was a big deal that we paid attention to him. I mean he was pretty interesting, a Wobbly in his early years [a member of Industrial Workers of the World, a radical trade union], and still wearing Depression-era work clothes and a cool, beat-up fedora. He was short and slight with a crooked smile that showed his missing front teeth. He was definitely Other, but the kind of Other you can warm up to.

RR: So you didn’t act like he wasn’t there, but it sounds like he was the exception that proves the rule.

Eli: I guess so. I remember one night when he actually came into our dorm room (I think we were smoking pot at the moment) and sat down with us. He was carrying around a saw and asked us if we wanted to hear him play it. Sure enough, he got out a violin bow and extracted this eerie, beautiful, high-pitched melody line out of that plain old carpenter’s saw. I still remember his toothless grin as he looked up at the end of the tune. . . . But he was a lot older than you are now.

RR: Well, thanks, but my point is that it’s no longer cool to listen to older folks or get any kind of mentoring from them. There’s this recurrent myth in movies and articles about young people throwing off the hypocrisy and compromise of the old-timers to save the world. You hear the same rhetoric in the religious world. It’s the bread-and-butter of youth ministry.

Eli: Right, and the problem is . . .? I mean, you’re just protesting that story now because you’re on the way to becoming the old-timer yourself. You probably used to believe it yourself.

RR: Perhaps; it’s been around for decades, but it does seem to have gained a lot of strength over time. A few decades back it was radical to stand up against the older generation, but now that message is positively mainstream. I think the real radicalism would be to promote the biblical message of honoring your elders, respecting authority, seeking out a mentor to help you find the road. Instead we’re still telling the elders, “Your old road is rapidly agin.’ Please get out of the new one if you can’t lend your hand. The times they are a-changin’.”

Eli: Well, at least he said “please!” Besides, I don’t know how inspiring it is to young people to hear about learning from the old-timers.

RR: You got a hint of inspiration from listening to the old Wobbly back in college. Besides, the message that the new generation is going to save the world is a set-up for disillusionment, because it never really happens. The new generation doesn’t learn anything from the old, and then drifts into the same compromise and mediocrity that it decried a few years back. The edgy message is often the most inspiring, and honoring past generations is way edgier—and more biblical—than glorifying youth for its own sake. “Do not move the ancient boundary which your fathers have set” (Prov. 22:28). Radical stuff.

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5 thoughts on “Get yourself a teacher”

  1. Rabbi Russ,

    Excellent blog post, and a much needed message to be heard. And it is not just younger people who have much to learn. In our over-indulged, individualized spiritualities, people don’t want to “get themselves a teacher,” for they already have the answers, or feel they can just get along with “just themselves and G-d.”

    It is indeed time again to honor the words of Rabban Gamliel, and follow in the steps of the earliest disciples – who all understood that lessons are to learned from those who have gone before.

  2. You old people need to get off our blogs and our internet. Who told you about blogs anyways? Your son must have set up AOL for you…sigh. Oh, brother. Why don’t you just go play bingo or something instead of lecturing us with these boring stories?

    (Heheh I kid, I kid)

    Excellent post! And wooo dog, is that a nice salmon. Hope you enjoyed a fresh salmon dinner. 🙂

    You’re right about “everyone thinks they know how to run things best” attitude in religious matters. I see it all the time. I call such people Cowboy Religionists: “You don’t need no stinkin’ traditions! You throw out 3000 years of historical prayers, literature, worship, liturgy, ceremony – those ancients were all fools, the previous generation was misguided at best; you’re the enlightened one. “

    There’s some stinging commentary on the modern culture in your last few sentences, Rabbi. I’m thinking about the music I hear on the radio and some of the movies I’ve seen lately…”I want to rise today and change this world” is one line, “Our generation is gonna rule the population…we’re waitin’ on the world to change” is another. Certainly the prevalent rhetoric these days. I’m unconvinced it’s a new phenomenon. It’s just more in-your-face in the modern world of 24 hour news, internet everywhere, media-driven life.

  3. I’m not as sure as you are that the youthful instinct to uproot/challenge/protest is all that new. I don’t think the hippies were the pioneers of this attitude. I do agree that the children of the hippies (millennials) are walking in the footsteps of their parents. But how can we blame the apple for falling near the tree?

    And is it really such a bad thing? It’s not like we’re protesting/agitating/organizing through giant orgies, wacky religious cults, or psychotropic drugs. Our choice tools are Twitter, Facebook, and digital cameras. And we’re far more prudish than our parents’ generation (STDs & the environmental movement took care of that).

    In my experience, it’s those who are young who have the gall to stand up and push back when they witness injustice. Would Moses have struck down the Egyptian guard if he were older than 40? Weren’t Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s most vexing critics the middle-aged white moderates who wanted him to hold back his burgeoning movement while they found a “civil” way to meet his goals? Wasn’t it a 28 year old British clerk who stood up to King Leopold’s genocidal reign in the Congo? And the women who have changed the world … they’ve been young, too.

    Let’s not forget that our Messiah completed his world-changing life’s work before his mid-30s.

    So I hear you … elders serve a purpose. Their wisdom is valuable. But wisdom without zeal yields very little. Maybe the older generations need the younger generations just as much as we need you. The key here is true, profound, authentic partnership. How can we build that in our movement?

    1. Great points, Monique, and I’m sure Eli would agree with you wholeheartedly. In fact, I’d mostly agree too. My point was that the present culture has made such a virtue of youthful zeal and newness that it scorns the wisdom of the experienced. I long for the authentic partnership that you speak of. It requires a mighty bridge over the generation gap, which both sides will have to build.

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