Rabbi Avi Weinstein

The Most Important things I learned Came from Shop Class?

In Uncategorized on June 22, 2009 at 9:07 am

Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work is philosopher/bike mechanic Matthew Crawford’s meditation on the value of skilled labor as a work choice. He eschewed the life of a think tank wonk for the joys of rebuilding master cylinders, and making Harley engines hum. He claim that the problem solving of such work helps him understand Heidegger. The integration of the mind with one’s hands.

Jews, at least American Ashkenazic Jews, have not been great fans of earning a living with one’s hands even though the Sages of the Talmud often had day jobs as cobblers, blacksmiths and farmers. The adulation of intellectual abstraction created a reaction called hasidism which legitimated Jewish artisans and their sincere aspirations to connect to the Divine.

I never understood why craftsmanship was not more of a Jewish value. Certainly, the dictum, Torah Im Derech Eretz urged people to have a profession, but for what purpose? Only to earn a living so as not to rely on the kindness of relatives or strangers, or in order that ones learning be informed by ones work? Crawford argues the latter, as would I. The best learning comes from the integration of worldly experience with lofty ideas–the merger of heaven and earth.

The problem is a question of balance and prioritizing that such a life presents. How much time should be devoted to each enterprise? One might follow Shammai’s advice:

Fix set times for Torah. (Pirkei Avot 1:14)

I assume he means every day. Shammai knows that the demands of work are such that they can easily take over most of the day. Therefore, he argues, part of the day’s routine has to include the Jewish examined life–Torah study.

As for those who denigrate the elegance of building cabinets, or the feat of diagnosing and curing an ailing carburetor, I am not among you. I stand in awe of those who do these thing well because I know if they examined their work, as Crawford does, they can teach me things that I would never get on my own.

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