In the Acts of the Apostles, Christians learn the name of the renowned teacher of the Law, Gamaliel, a leader in the Sanhedrin, grandson of the great Hillel, “a man respected by all the people”—and also one who knew both St. Peter and St. Paul. Paul, according to Acts 22:3, was himself tutored in the law at Gamaliel’s feet; Peter met him under more unsettling circumstances, when he and the other apostle were brought before the Sanhedrin to answer for their stubborn insistence of preaching the gospel even after the Sanhedrin had forbidden it. Some would have had them executed, but Gamaliel counseled otherwise:
“So now I tell you, have nothing to do with these men, and let them go. For if this endeavor or this activity is of human origin, it will destroy itself. But if it comes from God, you will not be able to destroy them; you may even find yourselves fighting against God.” (Acts 5:38-39, NAB).
If that last conditional statement seems to suggest not only pragmatism, but possibly also sympathy for the Christian cause, well… it may have. The Christian tradition has long held that Gamaliel was himself converted to Christianity and was then baptized by none other than St. Peter (as well as St. John).
Gamaliel, I must admit, is just the sort of figure, learned and wise, who made me want to become a teacher myself. I did not just want to think about ideas or to interact with people. I did not just want the activity of instruction; I wanted to become the sort of person who could be a reliable guide. I wanted to be wise. Now, almost thirty years after I first stepped to the front of a classroom, I feel as if I’ve walked some way down that path, and also as if the goal is farther away than ever. Classes begin again in just three weeks. So, what should I do?
Gamaliel, as it turns out, has some advice. In Pirkei Avot, a part of Jewish teaching called the Mishna, a number of the sayings of this great teacher are preserved. One phrase, long taken to heart in the Jewish tradition, is a very simple one: משנה טז רבן. Get yourself a teacher.
When I first read these words years ago, I heard them as a student. Yes, I thought. I need a teacher. How else will I become a teacher myself? How else will I become wise? Now, though, I hear them as directed to teachers, too. “Lifelong learning,” or some such thing, is an ideal that all of us have heard extolled. But this is a little different and little more personal. Get a teacher. Find and sit at the feet of those who have things to teach you. Make yourself their student.
Rabban Gamaliel, grandson of Hillel, would have had the chance to learn from many great teachers. As a saint, he got himself a teacher in Jesus. And thirty years on, I am still about the task of getting a teacher for myself, too. How about you? Happy feast.