Krav Maga Ethics of the Fathers, The Two Sides to a Question
By Moshe Katz

Hillel the Elder (first century B.C.E. Babylon - Jerusalem) 

He used to say, the Shy or Timid man cannot learn, a man without patience cannot teach, and one who is too deeply involved in business will not grow in wisdom. (Ethics of the Fathers, Chapter 2)

There is a great deal here for us in the Krav Maga world of today. Let us learn. 

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (June 20, 1808 – December 31, 1888, Germany) offers the following insights and interpretation: "He who is too timid to ask questions for fear of betraying his ignorance to his fellow students will rather go without instruction will never acquire knowledge. A pedantic person, lacking patience with beginners whose learning capacity is still largely undeveloped, will not be successful as a teacher. He will frighten his disciples away and they will learn nothing from him."

What we see here are that there are two sides to asking a question. In order to be successful, both sides must be understood. Let us start with the student. You are in the class; others seem to be very advanced. In a dojo you see strong athletic martial artists who seem to have been born to kick, but you feel inadequate. You want to ask a question, but you are afraid to display how little you know. You are afraid that the students, or even the teacher, will mock you. (And this indeed is the situation in many martial arts schools, like Cobra Kai in the film). Not everyone is built for asking questions, it actually takes a lot of courage. To develop the skill to ask a question takes time but it is a skill we should all cultivate. 

I recall my first day at UCLA. I came from a Jewish school, there were only 5 students in my class, a small cozy group and we were all good friends and very similar. Suddenly I found myself in an introductory class at UCLA with over 500 students in the class, not my kind of people, not my friends. I felt alone and outnumbered. I did not have any questions on my mind but I knew that I had to raise my hand and ask a question, to overcome the fear of asking. I knew that if I did not ask a question that day, I would remain silent for the next 4 years. So I thought of an intelligent question and raised my hand. 

That day I met one of my closest lifelong friends. He too was Jewish but kept a low profile out of fear. (Yes, even in these days, even in the USA, Jews are afraid). Later on he came over to say hello. We remained close friends for the next 37 years until his unfortunate passing. During my upcoming trip to California I will visit his family, as always. 

After many years of friendship Robert revealed to me what made him come up to me after class and introduce himself. He said, "Here we were, first day of class, hundreds of students, and who is the first to get up and ask a question? this blatantly obvious stereotypical looking Jewish guy, with a yarmulke, beard and side curls, and ritual fringes (prayer shawl) on display. I thought my God! who is this guy! What courage, I have to meet him."

The timid cannot learn. We must learn to ask questions, we must learn not to be afraid, otherwise we remain silent, and we remain ignorant. 

But there is a way of asking a question. Here is a way not to ask a question. Hey Sensei, this technique is bad, it does not work, it makes no sense. (i.e. do you have any idea what you are doing here?). 

A better way to phrase that would be, "excuse me sir, I can't seem to make this technique work for me. Perhaps I am doing something incorrectly. Can you guide me?"  (I.e., I respect your knowledge and experience, please help me figure this out). 

As a frequent flyer I study airline behavior and norms. Turns out that the answer you receive from a flight attendant is very much dependent on how you ask the question. Kindness, courtesy and respect go a long way in getting that extra drink or better seat that you hoped for. Being rude and demanding will not get you very far. 

Thus, the first side of the equation comes from the student, learn how to ask the question. Do not be afraid of displaying your lack of knowledge, that is why you are in the class, to learn. It is OK to admit that you are having a problem with a technique, the instructor should be understanding and not belittle you. And the instructor must create an atmosphere where no one is afraid to ask questions, where the other students are understanding and patient. So now, to the other side. 

The teacher must be receptive to questions. Yes, it is an interruption of the class, yes, it slows us down, yes, we want to move forward, but the teachers must understand that there can be no progress unless the students are allowed to freely express their doubts and misunderstandings. No student wants to be made to feel stupid, no student wants to be ridiculed. 

As teachers we should view the question as an opportunity to delve deeper into the issue, (the technique). I normally find that my understanding of the technique improves when I have to explain it to someone who does not get it. I often pick up a nuance, a small detail, something that I was doing but I was not focusing on. Now that this issue has come to light, due to the question, I am able to improve my teaching. That is why an experienced teacher is a better teacher. As the rabbis say, "from all my students I have become wiser". 

Thus there are two sides to a question, the one asking and the one responding. Both require training. The ignorant cannot be wise. 

The passage continues with "and one who is too deeply involved in business will not grow in wisdom". Sadly, I have seen this to be true. Many well-meaning individuals enter the field of self-defense for good reasons. However, at a certain point, their "clients" become more important than their own improvement. They stop growing, as martial artists, as instructors, as human beings, it is all about the "Business". It is no longer a teacher - student relationship, it is a Proprietor - Client relationship. Woe is us.  

Never stop learning, never stop growing.

When I find myself in times of trouble...I turn to our rabbis for their wisdom.