Thursday, December 04, 2008

Producing the Well Rounded Orthodox Jew

Rabbi Gil Student had an interesting post this week on the topic of Modern Orthodox Education. In essence it was a review of a booklet consisting of essays by Modern Orthodox educators on the great challenges facing their educators.

Among the challenges mentioned is transmitting a Jewish world view. That is – instilling a perspective whereby one judges all perceptions from a Jewish perspective. This may be done via specific courses like Hashkafa or Mussar - or by infusing every course with it. I would add that both should be utilized in any Orthodox curriculum.

Rabbi Student suggests that one of the biggest problems Modern Orthodox educators face is that Modern Orthodox schools are often "big tents" and include students from a wide variety of backgrounds. As such it is difficult to instill an attachment to Judaism of the type expected from devout Orthodox Jews.

These are all valid points.

But frankly I do not see this as simply a Modern Orthodox problem. These points could very easily be a concern to Charedi educators as well. In my view the best approach to education would be a universal one that encompasses all problems facing both Modern Orthodoxy Charedim. I think that there is a lot of overlap in the kinds of problems each face - as well as problems unique to each.

The goal of a Jewish education must be to produce well rounded Jews. As such a well rounded curriculum is required. The school will then not only produce learned Jews, it will produce ethical and moral ones too. It must include equal emphasis on Halachos Bein Adam L’Makom (man and God) and Adam L’Chaevro (man and man). It must include more than just a curriculum of Gemarah.

My own educational experience was both Charedi and Modern Orthodox. My elementary school education and high school through the 10th grade was Charedi: Yeshivath Beth Yehudah and Telshe. 11th grade all the way through Semicha was at the Modern Orthodox Hebrew Theological College (Skokie). Skokie’s education was far more well rounded than that of Telshe.

Telshe emphasized Gemarah almost exclusively. I say almost - because in high school they did offer: a daily 10 minute Halacha Shiur, a twice a week Navi Shiur, and a once a week semi-voluntary Musar Vaad. There were also occasional Sichos Mussar where one of the high school Roshei Yeshiva would address the students. And of course there were secular subjects – a fully accredited high school. But there were no classes on Hashkafa, history, philosophy, or any other subject that would make one well rounded about Judaism. Certainly not post high school.

Skokie, on the other hand did have courses in those subjects some in high school – the rest in college. It did not really water down our Gemarah learning. We were all expected to go to our Gemarah Shiurim; first, second and night Seder (Chavrusa learning - partner study - in the Beis HaMedrash).

Secular studies classes were in the late afternoon in high school and evening for college – usually twice a week. Yes - we did miss night Seder twice a week. But the bottom line is that we had the opportunity to be well rounded Jews with a wide breadth an depth of Torah knowledge as well as knowledgeable, well rounded, and ethical Jews.

Not that Telshe didn’t want their students to be knowledgeable on those other subjects. But they did not provide any formal opportunities to engage in them. Telshe students are basically on their own for that. For Telshe and for every other Charedi Yeshiva, it is Gemarah almost 24/7 - especially after high school.

In my view there ought to be a universal approach to Jewish education. One that includes courses of the type I had in Skokie. It would detract only minimally from the time devoted to Gemarah study but for a very worthwhile purpose. The product of such an education would be far superior to one without it. There is no reason one cannot not have it all. God wants us to be good Jews in every sense of the word. Not just Talmidei Chachamim.

I should add that for Charedim, women’s education already does much of this. The curriculum at a most Beis Yaakovs has many of these courses. Except for Gemarah… and possibly Halacha - young women who come out of these schools are often more knowledgeable on these subjects than are their male counterparts. For Modern Orthodox young women it is certainly true that they get these courses. They might also learn Gemarah.

It is true for both Modern Orthodoxy and Charedi Judaism that each has its own set of circumstances. While problems may overlap in many cases - each has problems that are unique to it. The big tent problem Rabbi Student refers to is a problem in Charedi schools too. Charedim are not that monolithic. Each student there brings their own differing Charedi perspectives to the classroom.

So any curriculum should adapted to the needs of the community it serves. But the core should be the same in my view. It should include healthy doses of each of at least the following: Jewish philosophy, ethics/Mussar, History, Hebrew grammar, Halacha, and secular subjects… and of course Gemarah. Gemarah is the centerpiece of any Yeshiva as that is the core and source of all Halacha and many other things about Judaism as we practice it today.

The challenge in Modern Orthodoxy is in transmitting a sense of attachment to Judaism; a greater sense of devoutness; and greater care in Bein Aam L’Makom via Halachic observance. The challenge in Charedi Judaism is in transmitting a greater sense of the Bein Adam L’Chavero; and how to properly interact with the world at large - that is - how to see the Tzelem Elokim in all of mankind.

And both could use greater emphasis on ethics/Mussar.