Lessons From a Great Teacher

Bernard Grossfeld2

Professor Bernard Grossfeld

Great teachers make an invaluable contribution to their communities and to their students. They not only teach. They foster a love of learning in their students, they support the growth – intellectual and moral – of their students, and they inspire their students to incorporate their learning into their daily lives.

Professor Bernard Grossfeld was one such great teacher. He died on July 17, 2013, at the age of eighty. He was my teacher. That is to say that I was one of the hundreds of students who had the privilege of studying with him over his long career. Rabbi Grossfeld, Dr. Grossfeld, Professor Grossfeld: he was all of these, each signifying the highest level of scholarship and the unquestioned authority to teach.

Bernard Grossfeld had a distinguished academic career. He was born in Vienna, Austria, in 1933. As a child he spent nine years in Shanghai, China, where his family had taken refuge in order to escape the persecutions that presaged the Holocaust in Europe. In addition to his rabbinical studies, he obtained a bachelors degree at UC San Diego and a masters at UC Berkeley. In gratitude for his US citizenship, he joined the US Air Force, where he served as a chaplain. He completed his doctorate at Johns Hopkins University.

He was a professor in the Hebrew Studies Department of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee for 26 years, serving a chairman during much of that time. During this period he became the preeminent authority on the Targums (targumim), the Aramaic interpretive translations of some of the books of the Hebrew Bible. He revitalized the field of Aramaic studies and established the Targums as a valuable resource in the study of the Aramaic language, biblical texts, and Jewish intellectual history.

Upon his retirement from UW-Milwaukee, he accepted an offer from the Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership in Chicago to serve as Professor of Hebrew and Rabbinics. It was there that he completed his outstanding career. He taught online and onsite courses in the Master of Jewish Studies program as well as courses on the biblical text and related material.

I studied with Professor Grossfeld at Spertus from 1999 to 2006. I was part of an ongoing group of students who became known as The Grossfeld Group, which still continues. We started out in the first Introductory Biblical Hebrew course as a rather large class, but over time we became a small group of about a dozen students who were committed to the study of the Hebrew Bible. After the two-year Introductory Biblical Hebrew course, Professor Grossfeld acceded to our request for more study of the biblical text. We sampled the legal portions of the Torah and studied major portions of books that included Jonah, Proverbs, Esther, Psalms, and Jeremiah. When we came to Daniel, we studied Biblical Aramaic, the language in which the first half of the book is written.

We didn’t only read the texts. Dr. Grossfeld supplemented our readings with selections from the relevant commentaries and from the Talmud, which he translated for us as we tried to follow along. He brought in illustrations to improve our understanding of obscure terms. As we progressed, Dr. Grossfeld offered to introduce us to Rabbinic Hebrew, the language of the earliest commentaries. It was at this point that my workload and other obligations began to detract from the attention I could give to the study of Hebrew. I took my last class in the fall of 2006.

Professor Grossfeld was an exemplary teacher. He came to class prepared, not only for the material that we would study that day, and not only for the questions that we were likely to ask, but also for the questions that he pointed out that we should have asked. He did not allow the schedule on the printed syllabus take precedence over the goal of assuring that we, the students, obtained an in-depth understanding of the text, its implications, and its context. He gently pushed us to dig deeper into the biblical text: everything could be found there.

Professor Grossfeld’s manner of teaching was appropriate to a graduate seminar, the kind of setting to which he had become accustomed as a university professor. In our class, only one student was pursuing a master’s degree. The rest of us were auditors, non-credit students. Nonetheless, Rabbi Grossfeld taught the course with the seriousness of purpose that characterizes advanced study. He respected us as learners, as biblical scholars in the making. In each class, we would each read and translate one verse. We were then given a chance to comment on the reading, noting grammatical or syntactical problems presented by the text or allusions to other texts. We could also offer a theological or philosophical or historical comment on the meaning of the text.

Then it was his turn; he would ask the questions that we didn’t think to ask and engage us in a discussion on the topic. He understood if we were sometimes less than fully prepared for a particular class. But he always expressed his high expectations for us and his confidence that we would meet these expectations. We, in turn, took our studies seriously. We read, researched, probed the dictionary and concordance, and came to class with pages of notes: translation, comments and questions.

In his conduct of our classes, Rabbi Grossfeld demonstrated the characteristics of a great teacher. He came prepared, not only with his vast knowledge of the material, but with pages of notes and handouts for that evening’s class. He demonstrated genuine respect for his students, all of us older than the average graduate student, only a few of us preparing to teach biblical studies courses, all of us with ongoing commitments to families and jobs. He believed that we deserved the best that he could give us and he gave us his best, week after week, quarter after quarter, year after year.

He respected our intellectual capacity to learn and apply biblical languages and to grasp the logic of rabbinic reasoning expressed in the Talmud and the commentaries. He was also patient with us. When we struggled with grammar or translation, he gave us the emotional support of an attentive silence, correction as needed, and, finally, encouragement.

Some of you may know that I had a successful career as a community college teacher and that I received some amount of recognition for my work. I had many teachers who contributed to my understanding of teaching and the values that I brought to my work as a minor scholar, teacher, and advisor. As it happened, the beginning of my best years as a teacher coincided with my time studying with Bernard Grossfeld. I quite consciously incorporated his example and his values into my approach to teaching. Rabbi Grossfeld was a great teacher who contributed greatly to me and to many other students. He will be missed.

May his memory be blessed.


4 Comments on “Lessons From a Great Teacher”

  1. Ana King says:

    Bill: This tribute flows so easily and so poignantly because it comes from that place within you that personifies the essence of that transformative teacher. You…”minor scholar?” HA! Never underestimate yourself. In the years I had the honor of working with you at Truman College, I witnessed how you cultivated in our students that same quest for knowledge beyond the syllabus that Rabbi Grossfeld had done for his students. You never stopped studying or researching — even after you’d attained the highest ranking and earned distinction wirhin the City Colleges of Chicago. You have had and continue to have a major impact on your colleagues and (former) students.There’s nothing “minor” about that!


  2. Tim Miller says:



  3. Mark Schneider, PhD says:

    Although I obtained a MSJS from Spertus in 2007, I continued auditing Dr Grossfeld’s Talmud and Midrash courses until he stopped teaching in this program in 2009. Although I could never get enough class time with him, since the late 1990s, other students were too frightened by the Hebrew and Aramaic to make sufficient enrollment for the courses to proceed. Apparently, Dr Grossfeld died a few days after I was at Spertus last, in 2013, but there was never a notice sent by Spertus to the distance learning students. I was shocked just now to learn of his demise by googling his name. The topics he chose for both of his courses were different each summer and followed very interesting themes. This is a tremendous loss.


    • wsettles says:

      Prof. Gross feldspar was indeed a remarkable man. I was never a degree student, but I remain impressed by the joyful seriousness with which he taught those of us who were auditors.

      I hope that your career at Dartmouth is going well.


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