Ask The Rabbi

For the week ending 6 March 2010 / 19 Adar I 5770

Off the Mark

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Mark
Dear Rabbi,

I would say I’m from a religious family – probably modern orthodox. There was a time that I strayed away from observance, but now I’m heading back. I’ve started going to classes at a ba’al teshuva yeshiva where I’ve had problems with a rabbi of one of the classes. I don’t find the material very interesting. So at first I took out my laptop to play computer games in order to pass the time. The rabbi got upset and told me to close the computer. The next day I was also bored, and when I asked the rabbi when the class would end, he wouldn’t answer me and said I was disturbing the class. So the next day I couldn’t take it any more and I asked the rabbi if there was some way he could make the class more interesting. At that point he must have been really upset because he told me to leave the class.

Now as a rabbi at such a yeshiva, I ask you, is that any way to treat a student who’s making an effort to learn more about Judaism? It seems to me that that rabbi is totally off. Not only does he not make Torah interesting, he doesn’t even try to appeal to his students. This is how it seems to me anyway. Please tell me what you think.

Dear Mark,

Please excuse me for saying this, but it seems to me that you are the one who is off the mark here – not because you don’t find the material interesting, but because of the way you yourself describe that you behaved.

I get the picture you are relatively new at this yeshiva, and that you’ve joined a pre-existing, on-going class. Now just because you don’t find the material engaging doesn’t mean that others don’t. It’s more likely that if this is a regular staff rabbi and there are people in the class, that it is interesting at least on some level to some people. I assume it’s deemed by the yeshiva to be appropriate for beginners.

For you to have taken out a laptop in the middle of a Torah class in order to play computer games is disrespectful and immature. You should have politely sat out the first class and then respectfully told the rabbi himself or someone else responsible for the program that you didn’t relate to class. Instead, although it sounds like you may have decided to give it a second chance, the next day you interrupted the class by asking the rabbi when it would end. Are you not aware of how inappropriate and rude that must have seemed to the rabbi coming from a new student?

Given the fact that your disinterest was confirmed on the second day, at that point you certainly should have politely sought out a solution after class. But to top it off, on the third day you apparently told the rabbi in the middle of class in front of the others, presumably more long-standing students, that the class is boring. Quite frankly, I can understand why, on only your third time at bat, you were benched. I think the rabbi was right for asking you to leave.

Please forgive me for being so blunt, but it seems to me that you must be told this way in order for you to understand what I think should be obvious to you. Now don’t misunderstand me. You’re not at fault for not finding the material interesting – that problem has to be tended to. But I think you are at fault for being insensitively blunt yourself toward the rabbi and disrespectful of the Torah you’re there to learn. I urge you to admit this to the rabbi and apologize for what you’ve said and done. And this is not because I think the rabbi is really mad at you, nor do I think you should take his reaction personally. Rather I think he views your behavior as an affront to the Torah, to the yeshiva and to the other students – and he probably cares enough about you too that he wants you to realize that your approach sells yourself short of the mark as well.

Yes, asking a new, ba’al teshuva student to leave class does sound extreme. However, since you’re asking my take as a rabbi at just such a yeshiva, I can say to you that I personally never experienced such extreme behavior from a student either. Please make a sincere effort to diffuse the tension and speak privately and respectfully to those concerned about how you can get the most out of the program. After all, the rabbis are certainly in the business to enable you to appreciate the Torah. If you show them a little more respect and appreciation, you will have found the recipe for success.

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