The Halakhic Issue of Rejecting and Dismissing Students

Jan 26, 2005

This article originally appeared in Ten Da’at 1,2 (1987). Appears here with permission.

The community involved with Jewish education, the chinuch community, is beset by a variety of problems, all of them challenging, and most of them defying simple solutions. I would like to address myself, from a halakhic perspective to one critical issue that plagues administrators, educators, and lay leaders involved in school affairs.

Surely every school is faced, at times, with a decision about rejecting or dismissing a given student. In fact, even success can create its own problems. Is there a point, for example, when a Yeshiva can tell prospective applicants, “Sorry, registration is closed?”

Obviously one cannot make blanket statements. Each and every case has to be decided on its own merits. Still, I believe that one can provide a Torah perspective, a Torah vector, if you will, on these topics.

It is best to begin with the well-known passage in Masechet Bava Batra 21a:
…Rav Yehuda said in the name of Rav; But the name of that man is to be blessed, to wit R’ Yehoshua ben Gamla, for without him the Torah would be forgotten in Israel. For at first if a child had a father, his father taught him Torah and if he had no father he did not study…They then made an ordinance that teachers of children should be appointed in Yerushalayim…Still if a child had a father, the father took him to Yerushalayim…and if not he would not go…They, therefore, ordained that teachers should be appointed in each district…and if the teacher punished them they would rebel and leave…Until R’ Yehoshua ben Gamla came and ordained the institution of teachers for children in every district and town.

A close analysis of this passage will yield the following information:
1. Before the takanah of R’ Yehoshua ben Gamla, the prime teacher and transmitter of Torah was the parent.
2. There was an interim period, before R’ Yehoshua ben Gamla, when Torah was taught by people other than the parent. Then, however, when the child “rebelled” he simply quit the system.
3. Finally, R’ Yehoshua ben Gamla established a system of schools in every district and town. It seems, from the context, that after R’ Yehoshua ben Gamla, the child who “rebelled” did not leave the system.

It is interesting to note that, in the Gemara, the rebellious child’s leaving the school is mentioned only in the interim period. No mention of the child who “rebelled” is made in the period of full parental involvement, nor in the period after R’ Yehoshua ben Gamla’s takanah. Why not? It would seem to us that the issue of children rebelling and the proper relationship to such children is a universal concern at all times.
It would seem that with R’ Yehoshua ben Gamla a radical transformation took place in the nature of responsibility to teach Torah. At first, as stated, the responsibility was the father’s. At the second stage when, for whatever reason, the father could not discharge his responsibility, he took his son to Yerushalayim and privately arranged with an individual teacher for the education of his child. Finally, with R’ Yehoshua ben Gamla, the responsibility to teach Torah began to devolve on the community.

Indeed, a check of Rambam’s formulation of the relevant halakhot in Hilkhot Talmud Torah will show the same reading of the halakha. Rambam begins Hilkhot Talmud Torah with the individual exemptions and obligations of Talmud Torah. Then, in the second chapter, he opens with the communal responsibility and the formulation of R’ Yehoshua ben Gamla’s takanah, to “appoint melamdei tinokot in every country, district, and city.”

One would infer from the above that as long as the obligation to educate is individual in nature, there can be cases where learning is not universal in nature- the student “rebels” and leaves. An individual teacher may not be successful with a particular student. He may say, “I give up,” and is then no longer responsible for his education.

This is not the case, however, with the Jewish community. The community must transmit the mesorah. The community must be successful. At the communal level, the tradition has to be taught, implemented, and transmitted. Hence, after R’ Yehoshua ben Gamla’s takanah, there is not provision for the student who “rebels”. Even the rebellious student must be accommodated.

Another point ought to be made about the takanah of R’ Yehoshua ben Gamla. My sainted Rebbe, Rav Yitzchok Hutner, noted R’ Yehoshua ben Gamla’s strange introduction…”But, the name of the man is to be blessed, to wit R’ Yehoshua ben Gamla…” The Gemara says, “But he should be blessed.” It would have been proper to state R’ Yehoshua ben Gamla is to be blessed. Why the introduction of “But….”?

Rav Hutner saw in this one word a lament of the deteriorations of Kenesset Yisroel. The ideal situation is indeed that the Torah should be taught not by a hired individual, nor by a school. The ideal is, and at one time was, that the father teaches his son Torah. The transmitter of Torah, ideally, is the parent. However, this ideal state of affairs did not last. The situation of the father teaching his son Torah ceased. A breakdown occurred in the ideal transmission of the mesorah. To save the system from breaking down further, R’ Yehoshua ben Gamla ordained the establishment of a school system, “the institution of teachers for young children in every district and town…”

In other words, R’ Yehoshua ben Gamla’s institution, thought lifesaving for the Jewish community, came about by a decline from the normative and ideal situation. It came about because, alas, the ideal state where the father taught the child Torah no longer existed. To take note of that fact, Chazal, while praising the takanah of R’ Yehoshua ben Gamla, introduced the episode with “But…”

In light of what has been said, today’s Yeshiva represents two institutions. It represents the Jewish community, whose duty it is to transmit Torah. It also represents the father who, ideally, should have taught and transmitted the mesorah.

As we pointed out before, the community cannot reject a student. It cannot say that we have no place for a particular student. A father, by the same token, will certainly not reject his child. As a matter of fact, a glance in the Gemara cited above will reveal that in both of those situations, in the period when the father taught Torah to his child and in the period after R’ Yehoshua ben Gamla, no mention is made of the student who “rebels” and leaves the system. The clear implication is that somehow, neither the father nor the system can reject the “rebellious” student. Indeed they dare not reject him.

This is illustrated, aggadically, in the Gemara Pesachim (119b) which states that in the future, when G-d will arrange a banquet, He will look for someone worthy of the honor of Birkat Hamazon. First, G-d will ask Avraham Avinu. But Avraham Avinu will decline because he has a son, Yishmoel, who did not turn out so well. Yitzchok will decline the honor because Esau was not the best of children. Finally, G-d will turn to Dovid, and, indeed, Dovid will gratefully accept the honor and lead the Birkat Hamazon.

There is one difficulty with this Gemara. If Avraham and Yitzchok were disqualified not because they were unsuccessful parents who could not keep their children in line. It was not their fault that their children opted out of their tradition. Rather, the disqualification of Avraham and Yitzchok was grounded in something else. It was grounded on the fact that they rejected their rebellious children. It is here that Dovid distinguished himself. Certainly, Avshalom did not walk in Dovid’s footsteps. Avshalom rebelled against him. But never did Dovid reject his child, rebellious as he was. Never did Dovid reject Avshalom.

It is out of this perspective, I believe, that questions, difficult questions to be sure, such as the rejection of a student, the dismissal of a talmid, the closing of registration, should be viewed.

We all intuitively agree that to turn prospective students away from school is in the category of Dinei N’fashot. Still, the fact that we ask the question tells us something about the manner in which we relate to the student. We only raise the question of acceptance/rejection because we think of the students as a stranger. A parent, obviously, does not ask whether he should accept of reject his child. A parent never rejects a child. As Schools and Yeshivot who represent the community and the parents of Klal Yisroel we must pursue policies of acceptance and openness. Practically speaking, educators must design programs to meet the special need of these students, and the community must provide the resources to implement these programs. Only then will we find bracha.