By Rabbi Jesse Paikin '18
For too few short months in my final year of rabbinical school, I had the distinct zekhut to be a disciple of Rabbi Aaron Panken, z”l, our blessed teacher. As my thesis advisor, he guided me with wisdom, care, and dedication as I navigated the rich depths of the Talmud. If I can, in this brief space, capture even a glimmer of what it meant for me to learn with and from him, I hope that it may merit his memory to be for a blessing for us all.
Among all of the topic-specific material we chewed on, Rabbi Panken also taught me to be careful about overstating what the Talmud is trying to say, about the importance of not biting off more than I can chew (something my parents and teachers have been trying, mostly unsuccessfully, to get me to do since I was three years old), and about the proper placement of a colon before quotation marks. For these things alone, I owe him an immense debt of gratitude.
But it was the Talmud that drew me to studying with Rabbi Panken, and it was his passion for uncovering its eternal wisdom which inspired me every day during our year of study. With a material known for being impenetrable, esoteric, and challenging, Rabbi Panken’s gentle yet encouraging presence nurtured a spiritual practice within me. Perhaps everyone might recall the labours of a year of thesis-work, surrounded by piles of texts that greet you upon opening your eyes in the morning, and tauntingly say goodnight to you in the evening. It is true, there were many days when my to-do list seemed to grow. But through Rabbi Panken’s steadfast dedication to balance mastery of the text with an eye toward innovation, he helped me discover how the study of Talmud can be a pathway to explore our own distinct place in God’s universe.
One moment in particular stands out for me. One of the texts we settled on as a focus of study comes from Hagigah 3a-b. There, the rabbis engage in an examination of the metaphorical qualities of Torah. Discussing the flowering nature of hiddushim, and the miraculous ability for Torah to generate piles and piles of teachings from a seemingly limited canon, the rabbis ask an audacious question, accompanied by no less audacious an answer: If interpretations of Torah are limitless, how is one ever to master it all? Their answer: you have to listen to everyone. You must open your heart and attune your ears to hear the statements – even those that are contradictory – of your teachers, and your ideological and philosophical opponents. Only then can you truly be said to be a student of Torah.
How’s that for a message of truth desperately needed today?
What I didn’t know in selecting this text is that it was already one of Rabbi Panken’s favourites. I only learned after his death that it had appeared on many of his course curricula and was a regular source of inspiration for him. But rather than mould my learning through his hands, he allowed me to encounter the text on my own terms, with fresh eyes, attuned ears, and an open heart. Rabbi Panken, in learning this text with me, himself embodied its wisdom with such clarity. Through this seemingly small act, he taught me what it meant to be a rabbi and teacher – one who makes room for many to approach our tradition, hears the interpretations of others first, and who delights in learning from all.
I said that it was my zekhut – my honour and privilege – to learn from Rabbi Panken. The word zekhut comes from the word zakh, meaning pure and clear (itself a term used to describe Moshe Rabbeinu’s leadership). Rabbi Panken was truly a pure and clear soul – a teacher without pretense, a leader full of honesty and integrity, a servant of God, whose outsides matched his insides with such clarity. With each and every opportunity I have to study and teach Talmud for the rest of my life, I will always carry with me his example of what it means to be zakh. May his righteous memory be for a blessing.