My teenage son’s teacher (a young rabbi) has a Facebook account, where he jokes around with students, friends, and colleagues. He is a personable guy and has never posted anything truly inappropriate, but I still feel this level of familiarity and ‘jocularity’ with a teacher erodes boundaries. Am I simply being Old School? Or is there something strange about it?
The respect that a teacher of Torah has to have for himself and for his students is a topic that has been discussed for as long as there have been teachers of Torah. The midrash relates that Joshua was chosen for leadership over Moshe’s own sons because Joshua attended on Moshe in the study hall.
The tension between seriousness and familiarity is a difficult path which is commented upon in the sources. The Talmud relates that Rabbah, the great Babylonian Sage would begin his classes with a joke, the attending rabbis would laugh, and then they would sit in awe and fear as he taught the lesson. Maimonides writes that a Sage who walks outside with even a stain on his coat has committed a grievous sin. He is also very adamant about the respect that a student has to show a teacher. At the same time, Maimonides writes that: “Just as students are obligated in the respect of their teacher, so too must a teacher respect his students, and bring them close to him. …A person must be very careful with his students and love them for they are the children who bring joy in this world and the next.” (Mishneh Torah, Talmud Torah 5:10).
In the twentieth century, one of the great Hassidic masters who was killed in the Shoah, Rav Kalonymous Kalmish Szapira, wrote a book whose object was to model for teachers how to behave towards their children. One of the arguments that Rav Szapira made was that if God could bring Godself down to the level of humans in order to teach them Torah at Sinai, does it not behoove a mortal teacher to bring him or herself to the level of their students in order to teach them?
If your son’s teacher’s intent is to open a path for his/her students so that they might find their way into Torah, the teacher is standing on solid ground.
One of the most common mistakes young teachers make is attempting to become their students’ friends before they are viewed by the students as their teacher. Facebook is for friends. To get on, you request to be friended and are accepted or not. To friend someone is to consider them an equal and to share with them details of your life. I would be concerned about friending any of my students (I have been an high school teacher for over forty years) because I believe it sends the wrong message about my relationship with them. I am extremely friendly and am a compassionate ear and an emotional support. However, my students are still children who need boundaries and direction from an authoritative person. Friending them blurs those boundaries and reduces my effectiveness. Furthermore, as a Rabbi I believe I have an obligation to instill the concept of Kavod Harav (respect for the Rabbi), not because I need that respect but rather because children need to learn how to show proper respect to people in positions of authority so that they can be successful in the social and work world.
Let me add that most schools have websites where students can post requests or questions for their teacher and receive e-mail communications in return. I think these sights are a much more professional and effective way to “friend” students, without exposing them to all of one’s personal data, relationships, idiosyncrasies or preferences open to everyone one friends through Facebook. May I suggest you speak to the school principal about your concern and suggest that he encourage his teachers to connect with their students through the school’s website rather than Facebook.
The online world seems to expand exponentially every year. As imaginative online denizens come up with new ideas of connecting, it takes something of a real maven to make sense of what each service does and does not do.
Facebook is, of course, the granddaddy of them all. There are more people on Facebook than are residents of the United States and each one of them can ‘friend’ another. With that many people online, there is always a risk. And, indeed, we have seen what happens when strangers meet online and ‘friend’ each other.
This is absolutely something that you should monitor. You need to see who your child’s ‘friends’ are and, in my opinion, if you ask the question and you get a vague answer, immediately take away the computer until and unless you are satisfied with the answer.
However, social media also serves a vital purpose, especially when there is good personal contact online between rabbi and teenager. In fact, I personally have an online account and communicate with everyone in my congregation – if they have ‘friended’ me – on Facebook and Twitter.
I know what is appropriate and inappropriate to say. I would hope that that is the case with all rabbis and teachers who are ‘friends’ with your child. Sadly, that is not the case. It is therefore incumbent upon you to monitor all communication with your child online and, if you feel there is anything untoward, inappropriate or can be misconstrued by your child, you take it up with the rabbi without hesitation or fear.
The chances that anything immoral or untoward is happening is, happily, very low. In fact the social media world is a good way to teach, to reach out and to share the values that the rabbi teaches in classes. To deny your child the access to that may be ‘Old School.’ But it is never ‘Old School’ to watch out for your child. Watch and read the rabbi’s posts. ‘Friend’ the rabbi yourself and whatever s/he puts up is what you and your child will see. However, if there are private messages between rabbi and child that give you pause, find out what is going on.
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