Goals of the Day School Movement: Torah scholars, all?

  • by: Zvi Grumet

From Ten Da’at, Volume VII, Number 1, Fall 1993. Appears here with permission.
Historically, until the mid-twentieth century, yeshiva education past the elementary level was considered a luxury, usually afforded to those who showed extraordinary intellectual promise.1 The classic story is told of a young boy who was not very successful in his learning. One night he overheard his parents debating whether to leave him in yeshiva or teach him a trade. He begged his parents to let him prove himself worthy by allowing him to continue learning. They finally agreed, and the young boy grew to be the man known as Rabbi Elhanan Wasserman.2
The modern presumption that every Jewish child from an observant home will, minimally, attend yeshiva at least through high school, may be related to at least two factors.3 First, increased prosperity made it financially feasible to keep a child in yeshiva. Second, it became clear that maintaining a youngster’s Jewish identity and commitment in contemporary society without formal Jewish education was nearly impossible. This is in contradistinction to the European model in which fundamental values and identity were absorbed and osmosed through the family and community. In the environment of North America, the community, and all too often the family, ceased to be effective vehicles for nurturing that Jewish identity, and so the yeshiva became entrusted with that task. The yeshiva had thus shifted roles from molding potential scholars to providing a Jewish environment and culture from which a child could absorb and nourish a Jewish identity.4 Informal surveys of graduates of yeshivot indicate that it is in this area of Jewish identity that yeshivot have achieved their greatest success.
As the community changed, there developed increased demands for curricula that would produce talmidei hakharnim. Day school graduates wanted their children to have more intensive Jewish learning, and the post-Shoah influx of Eastern European Jews with their yeshivot raised the standards and expectations of yeshiva education, including the increased emphasis on the study of Gemara.
Today, many yeshiva day schools servicing a wide Jewish community are faced with both of these conflicting goals. Students from homes with a strong Jewish environment need a school that will focus on Jewish content, whereas students lacking the supportive Jewish environment at home need a school that will focus on building and nurturing that environment. There is the danger that schools will not recognize these differing needs, and thus not offer the varied programs needed to address them.
For centuries, Jewish learning has meant analysis of texts. In particular, the study of Gemara and commentaries has been the hallmark of Jewish scholarship, its mastery the crowning achievement of the scholar. The reasons for this are quite obvious. The technical skills required for Gemara study include learning its language, deciphering its grammatical shorthand and compensating for its lack of punctuation. Its advanced complex logic is on a level not usually encountered until graduate study. For example, on an unresolved disagreement between two Tanna’im, the Gemara raises three possible analyses. Rashi comments on the second of them and Tosafot question Rashi’s approach and offer an alternate one. This example is neither atypical nor especially complicated, yet it involves four layers of logical (as well as historical) complexity, unmatched in any other sphere of learning that a teenager might encounter. Additionally, the study of Gemara involves the ability to compare, contrast, analyze, classify, synthesize, evaluate and deal with conceptual abstractions, much of which the famed child-psychologist Piaget demonstrated are simply beyond the capabilities of a typical pre-adolescent, as well as of many adolescents. Rambam, in Hilkhot Talmud Torah 1:11, defines Gemara as “reflection, deducing conclusions from premises, developing implications of statements, comparing dicta, studying the hermeneutical principles by which the Torah is interpreted, until one knows the essence of these principles and how to deduce what is permitted and what is forbidden from what one has learned traditionally.”5
It is no wonder that, classically, Gemara study was reserved for the intellectually advanced and mature student. The Mishnah suggests that Talmud not be taught before the age of fifteen after the child has already mastered Humash and Mishnah.6 Hukkei HaTorah, the educational handbook of the medieval community of Worms, Germany, written in 1309, notes that the father of the slow learner was advised that his son “perform good deeds because it is difficult for him to study, lest on account of him brighter students will be slowed down.” Only after this selection process was completed, was intensive Talmud study introduced. Similarly, Sefer Hasidim felt that ‘Talmudic studies are not for everyone: if you see that [the boy] can study Bible but not Talmud, do not pressure him to study Talmud.”7 The takkanot of the kehilla of Krakow (1551) established that even once they had reached the proper age of fourteen, only those students with outstanding intellectual capabilities were permitted to study Gemara and encouraged to become scholars. Those deemed unqualified were sent for vocational training.8
Our modern educational system seems to posit that we can improve upon hakhmei haMishnah (and those who followed them), and so we begin teaching our students Gemara in fifth, sixth, or seventh grades, convinced that we are giving them a head start on their careers as talmidei hakharnim. But these classes do not in any way resemble Rambam’s description of Gemara. Instead there are word lists to memorize, questions and answers to learn by rote, and abstract concepts to understand, such as borbirshut harabbim and how dropping a gum wrapper can be equated with digging a pit in the middle of a street.
Enter the weaker students, the ones who already have difficulty with Hebrew (not to mention Aramaic), the ones for whom mathematical, literary and scientific conceptualizations are significant hurdles, for whom learning must be concrete and relevant, else it will be vacuous and meaningless. Not only they not succeed in learning Gemara, they will conclude that they cannot succeed in any Jewish learning. Yet, we refuse to recognize and accept the fact that these students will not become scholars and should, thus, not be educated toward that goal.
All of us have, at some point, encountered students who are not particularly gifted intellectually and who, as a result, often lack the drive and motivation to excel. Many are identified early in their school careers and remain within the system until they reach high school. Assuming that the family is committed to if yeshiva high school education, that student will be subjected to another four years of an intensive double program with an emphasis on textual skills Tanakh and a stress on analytical an conceptual skills in Gemara. More often than not, they continue to grapple with intense frustration and emerge with sense of futility and inadequacy.
“Yeshiva education for all” is the battle cry of the day school movement. Yet, what sort of yeshiva day school education are we promoting? Are we advocating an education that will make scholars out of our s best students and frustrate the rest, one that will allow all of them to becomes productive ba’alei batim, committed is raising Jewish families and active in the Jewish community? The question is not merely theoretical it relates to the correct of our educational enterprise, to our curriculum, and indeed, to the underlying goals of our educational institutions.
Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler, despite his criticism of the approach of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, nevertheless credited thoroughly observant laypeople than traditional yeshivot in Eastern Europe.9 I submit that day schools have a mandate, if not a responsibility, to first air foremost produce thoroughly observation, and committed laypeople. If, in addition some of them become budding scholars, hineh mah tov umah na’im.
What is needed, then, is an overhaul of the curriculum to match the goals of this mandate. What is being proposed is not a replacement of the “traditional” curriculum, but rather, the addition of an alter native one – one that does not merely offer the weaker student a watered down curriculum, but a fundamentally different one with distinct goals of its own. The primary purpose of that track is to educate students to become the backbone ofthe Jewish lay community. Following are samples of what might be included in the design of such a track. Hopefully, it will encourage serious discussion and debate (The comments are limited to a high school level, although their applicability to any grade should be self-evident.)
The focus of this approach must be concrete and practical. That means that a class in Humash should not stress analytical or translational skills, but should concentrate on the content and message of the Humash. Rather than struggle to read through Rashi inside, a discussion of his comments or of the topic in the text itself, along with a practical moral or philosophical lesson, is recommended. Students should become familiar with names, events and ideas in Tanakh, not necessarily with the texts (or analysis of texts) associated with them. Rote memorization of word lists should be eliminated and replaced with a focus on a few carefully selected words which are then used repeatedly in class discussions, so that they become part of the students’ working vocabulary.
There should be a strong emphasis on practical halakhah, rather than on the study of halakhic compendia, or the intricacies of complex halakhot. For example, instead of studying the text on halakhot relating to the preparation of food for Shabbat, a halakhah laboratory (a.k.a. kitchen) should be employed, and the mechanics of how to prepare and heat food on Shabbat should be demonstrated so that students will recognize real-life situations when they encounter them. Specially prepared English halakhah guides should be used as lab manuals or as review materials for the halakhot learned in the laboratory.
The Torah She’be’al Peh component of the curriculum should consist of Mishnah study and the introduction of issues raised in the Gemara about those Mishnayot (with use of the Gemara text depending on its complexity and on student ability). In addition, a component involving the study of and an approach to aggadah as a source of Jewish ideas is invaluable.
There must be a strong component of action, not just theory. Students can create model Jewish communities within their schools and actively participate in the inner workings of their home communities. They should be required to be involved in some sort of communal organizational work whether it be with younger children, the elderly, the physically handicapped, the ill, participating in the hevra kadisha, Hatzalah, kashrut supervision, fundraising for local charities, lobbying for Israel, integrating new immigrants from other countries, or any number of other involvements. Students must learn to function as integral parts of, and as possible future leaders of the Jewish community.
Hashkafic areas need to be dealt with directly and systematically, not simply relying on Rebbeim to deal with issues as they arise. Weaker students, in particular, need strong guidance and direction, as well as a clarification of fundamental Jewish values and ideals.
The above is geared to the student ba’asher hu sham. It addresses the real needs of students, preparing them for life as active and committed members of the Jewish community. It relieves the academic pressures of a rigorous intellectual dual curriculum and enhances their self-value as individuals and as Jews.
Any new approach raises questions; not least among them are issues of practicality. Which schools should provide the dual tracks? How are students for the “alternate curriculum” to be chosen? How is stigmatization to be avoided? These issues are merely variants of those that schools are already confronting.
Most yeshiva high schools of significant size (and many smaller ones) already track their students based on previous academic records. Any school already providing “honors” and “non-honors” classes has the ability to provide this alternate curriculum with students selected in much the same way. The issue of stigmatization is also a similar one, with the exception that in the new curriculum students don’t perceive themselves as being provided with a watered down version of an existing program, but rather with an alternate, different one. As far as determining student appropriateness, similar criteria can apply, with room for inappropriately assigned students to adjust their placement.
An additional question is whether students in this alternate curriculum will be prepared to continue their post high school limudei kodesh, for example, in Israeli yeshivot. The answer is no, and yes. On the one hand, it is not the goal of the program to provide skills for continued learning in the same way that traditional learning programs do. Many of the students identified for this program would otherwise not have been inclined to continue any kind of studies, especially those in which they experienced their greatest frustration. Their participation in such a curriculum presupposes the goal of preparing them to function as committed ba’lei batim in the Jewish community.
On the other hand, their participation will not have banned their chances for continuing Jewish learning. In fact, it is proposed that the likelihood of their continuing their Jewish learning will have actually been enhanced. If they learn to value themselves as Jews and because of positive learning experiences as Jews capable of learning, they are much more apt to want to continue their Jewish learning. Furthermore, there already are a number of yeshivot designed for students whose skills and backgrounds are more limited and that provide an atmosphere for positive learning.
It took many decades for the Jewish community to admit that there are Jewish children with physical and emotional handicaps and learning disabilities. Do we have the honesty to admit that not at Jewish children are meant to be scholars? Do we have the courage to provide accordingly? We must not fear change and innovation. We are not sacrificing Jewish tradition; we are molding tradition.
1See Melvin Isaacs’ Doctoral dissertation for the Azrieli Graduate Institute (1991), Attitudes of Day School Principals and Teachers toward Gifted Education, especially pp. 51-58.
2Similar, although slightly different stories are told about other great Jewish leaders including Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehudah Berlin, the Netziv.
3See Alvin 1. Schiff, “Jewish Education in Greater New York,” Jewish Education in New York-Comparative Demographic Report 1970- 1990, BJE of Greater New York, 1991, pp.3- 18. See also Harold S. Himmelfarb, “The American Jewish Day School: The Third Generation” in Private Education and the Public Interest: Research and Policy Issues, Patricia A. Bauch (ed.) Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1991.
4On nurturing and maintaining a strong sense of Jewish identity within the students, see, for example, the symposium in Tradition, summer 1972 (vol.3, no. 1). This, in fact, was the guiding principle of the educational system established by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch in Germany, whose communal model is a much closer reflection of the American Jewish community than are the Eastern European models.
5Translation from Isadore Twersky, A Maimonides Reader, New York: Behrman House, 1972, p.65.
6Avot 5:25. See the comments of Maharal of Prague on this mishnah in his Derekh Hayyim.
7 Encyclopedia Judaica, vol. 6, pp. 409-410.
8I am indebted to Dr. Edward Fram for finding this source in an unpublished manuscript.
9 Mikhtav Me’Eliyahu, vol.3, pp.355-356. See also Norman Larnm, Torah Umadda, Northvale, New Jersey: Jason Aronson, 1990, p. 120 and notes 22-23.