Much as we would like to think of school as a positive and happy place, we cannot dismiss the necessary element of fear as part of the educational experience. In order for teachers to maintain respect and order, students must have some degree of fear in relation to their authority. Of course, taken to an extreme, children who experience overwhelming dread and anxiety will not learn well, and even if obedient, will be less likely to exhibit healthy assertiveness, risk taking and critical thinking. As it says in Avos (2:5),”
וְלֹא הַבַּיְשָׁן לָמֵד, וְלֹא הַקַּפְּדָן מְלַמֵּד, nor can a timid person learn, nor can an impatient person teach.”
In today’s daf, we will look at some Jewish perspectives on this, as well as educational psychology.
Our Gemara on Amud Aleph discusses the cases in our Mishna about an adult who is believed to testify about what he saw as a minor. The Gemara considers the necessity of each clause of Mishna. One clause teaches that in order to ratify a contract signed by his rebbe, one can testify as an adult about the handwriting of he observed as a minor. The Gemara considers that perhaps only this kind of testimony is valid, due to the “fear of his master (rebbe)”. What is the motivating factor of this fear?
Rashash says that he will be careful to recall it correctly because he would not want to displease his rebbe, in having misidentified him. The Shittah Mekubetzes says that since he has fear for his rebbe, he will try to emulate his rebbe’s handwriting, and thus have an intimate awareness of it.
There are a couple of noteworthy ideas that emerge. For the Rashash, the fear is operative in present day terms, as a motivator for the student to accurately recall if this indeed was his rebbe’s handwriting. In other words, the fear of dishonoring his childhood rebbe, today as an adult, is going to motivate a more precise and discerning retrieval of past memory. On the other hand, the Shittah’s understanding has more to do with the child’s attachment to his rebbe and wish to emulate him. The fear is more of a worshipful and adulatory quality, as opposed to dread. It also is fascinating to see the wish to emulate his rebbe extend to handwriting. This is not as strange as it seems, as we find that Hillel and Shammai emulated the mispronunciation of their rebbes Shemaya and Avtalyon (See Mishna Eduyos 1:3, Bartenura).
Educational experts draw a distinction between authoritarian and authoritative teachers and school environments. Authoritarian structures are based on a fear of punishment, which can be physical or psychological, such as corporal punishment or humiliation. Authoritative environments are based on a fear of disappointing the revered teacher rather than being punished by them. While I think it is naïve to believe that a society, school, or classroom can be maintained with no fear of punishment, I do believe it is ideal to keep it to a minimum and instead cultivate an authoritative approach.
Going back to the Shittah versus the Rashash, clearly the Shittah’s interpretation of “fear of the master” is authoritative, not authoritarian. He says the child will be deeply acquainted with his rebbes handwriting because he WANTS to emulate him. However, upon reflection, even the Rashash’s peshat, which is more based on fear of the rebbe’s wrath (Rashash’s exact words are “fear of being rebuked by his rebbe”), is bounded. The fear is not coming from the past, as when he was in the cheder. Instead the fear is in the present, that his past rebbe will be upset at him if he gave inaccurate testimony about his signature. The lomdus of this might be that Rashash feels for the testimony to be accurate, there needs to be an adult motivation and engagement in the issue to ensure the accuracy that an adult mind brings to the attestation. But psychologically, the Rashash’s peshat might also be taking into consideration that the pedagogical needs of children, who need a more gentle approach than adults, should not necessarily involve heavy doses of fear. The fear in this case was that of a fully formed adult ego which can process that kind of pressure differently.
Translations Courtesy of Sefaria, (except when, sometimes, I disagree with the translation .)