Friday, July 29, 2016

What Should a Yeshiva Education Entail?

Is learning Gemarah all there is?
A thought provoking post on Rabbi Yosef Bechhofer’s blog, YGB, asks the  following question: What do we expect kids to walk out of Yeshiva to know? The question is posed by a relative of his on another blog called Divrei Chaim.  It is asked of both boys and girls.

I would expand on that a bit. What is actually taught? Do schools teach everything we as parents would like our children to learn? What should a core curriculum of a Yeshiva high school look like? And how much of it should we expect the graduates of that school to retain?

Divrei Chaim provides a number of answers he feels are of critical importance in which he feels most children fall short. Implying that the schools fall short in their mission to teach it to them. They either do not teach certain subjects at all, or don’t teach them well enough for the students to retain.

I agree with his thinking. Although not entirely with what he says is lacking. Especially in one area. Back to that later.

As it pertains to Yeshiva high schools for boys, most do a decent job when it comes to Gemarah. At least for the top tier students in any given class. Unfortunately much of the bottom tier probably tunes out and ends up becoming uninspired adults at best. If they do not go OTD. 

They will go through life as perfunctory Mitzvah observers without giving thought as to why they do them.  That can be fixed by expanding the curriculum to reflect more of what goes on in girls’ high schools. There are a variety of Jewish subjects studied by girls that are practically ignored by boys. Like Tancah, Chumash with Meforshim (commentaries like Rashi and the Ramban), Jewish History, and Machsava (Jewish thought/Hashkafa/philosophy). Most Yeshiva high schools ignore those subjects. They should not. Especially that last one. They do so at their own peril. And ours.

Understanding basic principles of belief is probably the first thing any Yeshiva student should learn. Even before he opens up his first Blatt (page) of Gemarah.  Girls do a bit better in that department through their Machshava classes. But boys get nothing! In our day where belief is so frequently and easily challenged, the teachers themselves need to better educated on this subject so they can answer all of these new challenges. Without understanding our core beliefs, one can easily become dislodged from observance? What’s the point of following Halacha if belief in God and His Torah (where Halacha originates) is so easily challenged? And teachers can’t give answers?  

This is one reason why there are so many young people that fall away from observing Halacha – seeing no point to it in the modern world. They end up uninspired with no understanding or even knowledge about the fundematals of belief.

Focusing on only one subject ( i.e. Gemarah in Yeshiva high schools) can so easily be undermined when challenges from the outside world found so easily online hit them in the face. That is where I would focus the attention of educators now if I were in a position to do so. I would require ever potential Mechanech to be trained to answer those questions in order to be certified!

What about the other subjects Divrei Chaim believes are necessary? Like at a minimum - Chumash and Rashi for girls?  In my view there is no bare minimum for girls. Just as there is no maximum. Girls should be taught the way Mishlei tells us to. Chaonch L’Naar Al Pi Darko - teach your children according to their own path.

If a girl doesn’t know every Rashi in the Chumash it should really matter. What she does have to know is Halacha. That should be the 2nd most important focus of Mechnchim. For everyone. Boys and girls.

What about Gemarah? That too should be based on each individual. Both for boys and for girls. If a girl wants to learn Gemarah, she should be entitled to… and learn it to the best of her own personal ability. That should be the case for boys too. Pushing them into a curriculum of Gemarah only leaves a lot of boys out in the cold. They too should study the Torah that they are capable of studying and not pushed into something they are not.

Not everyone has a ’Gemarah Kop’ - an aptitude for studying Gemarah. This is not necessarily a function of intelligence, although it can be. It is a function of a person’s psychological makeup too. Some people like chocolate ice cream and some don’t. Those that don’t should try another flavor. Everyone is different. The requirement to learn Torah is fulfilled  – not only by learning Gemarah – but by a variety of other Torah subjects as well.

The one thing lacking from Divrei Chaim’s list, is Limudei Chol. In my view that is a vital part of living in the modern era. I’m not talking about preparing young people by giving them the tools to succeed later on in college. True an education there will enable one to make a better living. That is certainly of primary importance. But I’m talking about something else.

I know it’s a cliché, but one needs to be ‘well rounded’ in areas outside of Torah as well if we are going to represent ourselves to the world as knowledgeable people. We can’t expect to be respected if all we know is a Blatt (page of) Gemarah. If we don’t for example know who the founding fathers of this country are… or we don’t know the basic principles of democracy or the constitution; or know some world history; or basic science; or we don’t know how to read, write,  or in some cases even speak English well… we won’t be respected and will then be unable to fulfill out mandate of being a light unto the nations.

This of course does not mean we ignore or minimize our knowledge of Gemarah. That is foundational. All of us need to know it at some level. But we can’t be focusing ONLY on that. If we cannot show the world that we are an enlightened people, then our Torah will not be as meaningful to them.

So yes, Limudei Chol should be a vital part of our children's education... along with the aspects of Limudei Kodesh mentioned above; and what we should expect our children to know when they come out of Yeshiva. Anything less short changes them, us, Klal Yisroal, and the world.