Where Did the Last Mentor Go?

In grammar school, you had a new teacher every year. Just when you became familiar with one teacher, it was time to move up a grade and meet the next one. As adults, we need to take a different approach. Ideally, you should find one mentor to use throughout your life.

To find the right mentor, don’t just take the nearest expert, the one on the block. “Shop” intelligently. Get references. Check credentials. See if he lives honestly and consistently with his knowledge. Test his wisdom with questions. Find out who his own mentors are. Make sure he’s part of a respected community.

The key to a good mentor is to develop strong trust and communication. Criticism is difficult to swallow, but it’s a less bitter pill when it comes from someone you trust, someone who has insight and wisdom, someone who you believe is only out for your own good. Choose someone who understands you, and who knows your background and family history.

Above all, make sure the mentor is available. Because you can have the greatest mentor in the world, but if you can’t speak with him/her, what good is it?

If you can’t find the right person, make an “interim mentor” to bounce ideas off of and be accountable to. King Solomon was the wisest person who ever lived, yet he still had a mentor. Tradition says that as long as Solomon’s mentor was alive, he never made a mistake; once the mentor died, Solomon erred. Having an objective advisor is so crucial that even if you choose someone who is “less wise” than yourself, it’s still worth it.

Always be on the lookout and don’t give up until you find the right one.

-Rabbi Noah Weinberg
“Honor the Wise Person”
Way 10 of 48 Ways to Wisdom
Aish.com

Who is wise? One who learns from every man.

-Pirkei Avot 4:1

That doesn’t help.

OK, let’s look at this suggestion.

The idea is that, rather than expecting to learn what you need to learn about life, God, and everything by some sort of trial and error process, you should seek out one or more (ideally one) SMEs (Subject Matter Experts) in your fields of interest and consult them. More accurately, you should serve them in some capacity, observe them, listen to them, and learn from them.

That’s a short description of a discipleship process, but how many of us are in a position to dedicate a few decades (or more) to disciple under a Master of some sort?

(To get a better idea of what discipleship means in both Christianity and Judaism, see Jacob Fronczak’s excellent blog post, Discipleship in Christianity and Judaism, expanded edition.)

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that I very often refer to us, to Christians, as “disciples of the Master,” meaning disciples of Jesus. You’re right, I do. But we don’t actually have the opportunity to sit at our Master’s feet and absorb his wisdom as did the original Apostles nearly 2,000 years ago.

The discipleship model usually requires that the Master’s wisdom is passed from teacher to student across multiple generations. Students of a Master become teachers themselves and eventually gather disciples of their own, teaching them in their own Master’s name.

That didn’t happen in Christianity because of the break between the Gentiles and the Jewish mentors of old. Christianity, as we understand the term today, has experienced a distinct disconnect from the original method, style, and interpretation of the teachings of our Master. We certainly do not have an unbroken line of teachers extending from the present all the way back to the founder of our faith, to Jesus Christ.

So what do we do?

Rabbi Weinberg also said:

Human beings like independence. We hate to admit that we need others. Most people would rather learn from their own mistakes, than learn from others. We imagine we’ll just “figure it all out” as we go along. “I know I’m smart. I can work it out.”

It is an American value to be self-reliant (that is coming under question in the current political and social climate, but I digress), independent, and to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps, so to speak. If we want to learn something, we buy a self-help book or take a class. I suppose the author or teacher could be considered a mentor, but not in the way Rabbi Weinstein suggests. A mentor is more than just a temporary teacher, he or she is a guide to life, a source of not only knowledge, but of wisdom, which I would take to mean the proper application of information and experience.

A Rabbi TeachingIt’s not really a bad idea, it is just a difficult model to find actually being practiced in the modern, western world.

In the world of the Chassidim for instance, it is probably a lot more common. A Jewish yeshiva student may consider the Rosh Yeshiva or one of the other Rabbis to be their mentor. However, a life of learning in that particular context is foreign to most of us, including the vast majority of Christians. Even if we wanted to find a mentor, where would we go and who would we seek out? I doubt most Christian Pastors would want such a role. Yes, they teach, but the teaching model is more akin to the modern school classroom and is limited in time, scope, and relationship. Teaching is time-limited, on a specific subject, and the students don’t achieve anything like the intimacy required in a mentorship or discipleship relationship.

On top of that, it’s been suggested recently that religious instruction doesn’t really change human beings.

“Religion,” novelist Mary McCarthy wrote, “is only good for good people.” Weigh the violence of the Inquisition against the humanity of Martin Luther King or homicidal fanatics against Oxfam, and you have to suspect that religion supplies a context for justifying or motivating moral choices rather than a reason for them.

-Philip Ball
“Morals don’t come from God”
Nature.com

If we are believe that statement, then a good person in a religion would have been just as good in either a different religion or no religion at all. That would mean religious teaching imparts the specific mechanics of the religion (doctrine, dogma, and such) but not the underlying moral fabric that induces fundamental human change.

Ball’s article continues:

Thousands of people — varying widely in social background, age, education, religious affiliation and ethnicity — have taken the tests. Pyysiäinen and Hauser say the results (mainly still in the publication pipeline) indicate that “moral intuitions operate independently of religious background”, although religion may influence responses in a few highly specific cases.

The authors’ paper may annoy both religious and atheistic zealots. By taking it as a given that religion is an evolved social behaviour rather than a matter of divine revelation, it tacitly adopts an atheistic framework. Yet at the same time it assumes that religiosity is a fundamental aspect of human psychology, thereby undermining those who see it as culturally imposed folly that can be erased with a cold shower of rationality.

Of course, this scientific investigation discounts any possibility that a supernatural influence could be involved, and so can hardly claim that “the leading of the Spirit” is, in any way, related to the moral behavior observed within any religion’s framework. People are good or not good, not because of what they’re taught, but because of who they are, perhaps because of an evolutionary imperative.

That would mean, by extension, that mentorship also would not be a significant factor in imparting moral change in disciples or students. So even if you find a mentor, it won’t really matter. You’ll learn a great deal about the “nuts and bolts” of your religion or philosophy, but that’s only information, not wisdom and not moral instruction and guidance.

Do you believe that?

As a person of faith, I can’t really go for it, but I certainly have to consider that it’s a possibility for a certain collection of people who only take their faith so far. We like to think that our faith makes us, not the other way around, but for some, entering a religious life is just a matter of confirming who they already are as people. In that case, they (we) don’t really want to learn anything, at least anything that would contradict their (our) already established basic moral understanding.

PrayingBut what if we really could find a true mentor, one who could take us beyond the perceptual world and into one where we are actually challenged on a fundamental level. At my age, finding a mentor is an increasingly diminishing probability, but for a much younger man or woman, it is at least still a possibility.

I know some of you Christians reading this will say that “the Lord is my mentor” or “I am guided by the Holy Spirit,” but chances are, those experiences aren’t the same as actually talking to another human being. You don’t really hear an audible voice outside of your head telling you specific information and providing concrete answers to discrete questions.

What if acquiring a mentor as Rabbi Weinberg defines the person (please read the entire article for all of the details) were indeed a possibility and even a likelihood? Let’s assume the person has to be alive today and reasonably accessible (I suppose email and instant messaging would do, but face-to-face meetings would be preferable). Who would you choose and why? I don’t mean as far as a temporarily set of interactions to learn a single topic, but an extended relationship to learn not knowledge, but wisdom, to learn about life from someone who has lived, to experience God through a true tzadik or saint.

Who would you go to? Where would you find this person? Is there anyone left who is so wise, honest, and honorable, and also who is accessible?

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