Three Models to Inspire the Objectives of Torah Instruction In the Modern Orthodox Day School

  • by: Jack Bieler
  • Submitted on July 11, 2006

Three Models to Inspire the Objectives of Torah Instruction
In the Modern Orthodox Day School

By: Jack Bieler

This article originally appeared in Ten Da’at, Elul 5753, pp. 10-13. Appears here with permission.

The following is adapted from a paper delivered at the International Research Conference on Curriculum in Jewish Education, Hebrew University, 1989.


An increasing number of contemporary administrators and teachers in some modern Orthodox day schools are attempting to apply the findings of educational theorists and practitioners in the world of secular education. [1] These same individuals who consider their personal religious orientation to parallel the modem Orthodox school in which they work, simultaneously seek support for their educational approaches to conveying Jewish tradition, practice and thought, from within the primary sources of that tradition. The resulting tension and desired complementarity between the cutting edge of modern educational theory and technique on the one hand, and Mishnaic, Midrashic and Talmudic sources on the other, constitutes a microcosmic representation of the struggles that anyone attempting to straddle both traditional and contemporary society must constantly confront. [2] The dilemma of properly balancing Judaic and secular considerations underlies the essence of the modem Orthodox educational endeavor in general. Those of us working in schools which are philosophically committed to encouraging our students to excel in both Torah and general studies on curricular and extra- curricular levels, [3] have to strive to establish a cogent, consistent educational experience which will equip and prepare them to hold their own as well as to grow in commitment, while residing and working within a secular, if not outright pagan, environment.

This paper will attempt to briefly explore some of the sources [4] that perhaps ought to inform the educational philosophy and practical approaches that underlie modern Orthodox education today.

I. Emotional Approach

One curricular principle, based upon an interpretation of a famous Talmudic passage, is suggested by Elie Wiesel. [5] The noted author reflects upon the discussion between Rabbi Akiva and Ben Peturah with regard to the well-known moral dilemma entailing two people in the desert with only enough water for one of them to survive. [6] Wiesel recounts that initially he had been unable to comprehend Rabbi Akiva’s apparently harsh view that the possessor of the water should drink it himself, as opposed to the ostensibly more idealistic and self-sacrificial position offered by Ben Peturah that the water should be split between them. It was as a Holocaust survivor, however, that Wiesel first understood Rabbi Akiva’s solution as one that requires the survivor to maintain the memory of those less fortunate than he or she. In effect, what may have appeared as a selfish egotistical solution in the short run, became a much more altruistic and forward-looking perspective when considered over the long run. Wiesel’s specific recommendation to educators for conveying such a sense to students attending a Jewish school is the following:

Every Jew has someone in the family who didn’t come back, whether Sepharadi or Ashkenazi. I would ask every child to find the closest person in his family, maybe an uncle, or a zeidah, or a grandmother, or a sister of a grandmother – the closest person – and I would ask the child to study everything about that person…Each of us should adopt a person who didn’t come back – through letters, books, imagination – and write and live an imaginary biography. [7]

In effect, Wiesel would recommend evoking a sense of commitment within the student by irrevocably linking his/her personal existence with that of a Jew with whom he or she would come to identify personally, one who had suffered a martyr’s death at some earlier time in Jewish history. Wiesel’s approach of instilling a sense of responsibility for ensuring that the memory of those who were annihilated should live on within the hearts and minds of today’s youth, could further be justified by the sociological and psychological insight provided by the Jewish historian Lucy Dawidowicz:

Commitment to people, country or faith is, for most people at most times, slack and habitual, undemanding, subordinated to the claims of personal affections. But when communal crisis erupts, when national disaster threatens, when the very existence of one’s people is imperiled, the individual summons up his psychic vigor to stake his life, to put his selfhood on the line for his group. Crisis thus provides the occasion for self-discovery and self- avowal, dredging up dormant or repressed feelings, transforming them into affirmations of self. [8]

This approach, however, raises the question: Should a significant portion of the curriculum be devoted to dwelling upon the various catastrophes that have affected our people? Do we, thereby, hope to mobilize our students to feel that they must perpetually come to their nation’s defense, while keeping alive the memories of those who did not survive? [9] Such an approach would appear to provide an educational dimension to the eternal alarmism that has been taking place throughout Jewish history. [10]

II. Social Approach

A second approach that attempts to assure greater Jewish commitment is to foster a sense that one belongs to a community. Norman Lamm suggests that the numerous references in Rabbinic literature to the importance of being part of a community, [11] of being engaged in acts of gemilut hassadim, [12] and of main-streaming contact with models of scholarship, [13] all promote the idea “of allowing individual citizens of a community to join it in its covenantal, faithful role.” [14] The context of this thesis are suggestions that would allow the individual beset by substantive religious doubt to maintain his or her ties to Judaism, even while attempting to resolve that doubt. Just as Elie Wiesel translated the theme of crisis and urgent response into a curricular program, Mayer Schiller proposed curricular means by which a modem Orthodox school might develop a sense of community:

…the school must increase its activities so that students can spend leisure time under yeshiva auspices. These activities should offer everything from aesthetics, athletics, music, politics, hobbies, trips, etc… the school must provide a full schedule of meaningful activities on Rosh Hodesh, Hanukah, Purim and Shabbat/Yom Tov. There must be a steady diet of lavish and joyous siyyumim and melavei malkah…a school that provides, supports and improves the activities which youth crave and transforms them into meaningful experiences against a backdrop of faith and Jewish involvement… [15]

Schiller’s vision of the ideal school involves turning the school into more of a communal experience, populated by educators who see their roles not merely as academics and classroom practitioners, but rather as generalists, committed to the total student, as well as to every aspect of the institution. Therefore, not only would curricular programs have to be devised that would promote communal sense and heightened levels of commitment on the part of the student body, training and compensation are needed to create professionals who are capable of working effectively in such an environment.

III. Cognitive and Intellectual Approach

A third model of education for enhanced and deepened commitment focuses upon cognitive and intellectual stimulation. I believe that it is valuable to keep in mind that the Talmud, according to at least one commentary, regards the Sinai experience as comparable to the conversion process. [16] Other examples of this presumed equation can be found in Masekhet Sofrim 14:18, where the practice to reciteMegillat Ruth at some point during Shavuot is recorded, a custom which is interpreted as paralleling the conversion of Ruth with that of the Jewish people as a whole. [17] The Midrash Rabbah [18] also portrays Sinai as something of a “born-again” experience, in the spirit ofYevamot 22a, characterizing conversion as comparable to tinok shenolad, a child who has been born. [19]

Of what relevance, however, is the Sinai/Conversion element to the contemporary religious experience and education? Perhaps the very transformation of a loosely organized collection of Hebrew slaves into a covenantal Torah community was meant to be a unique event that can never be recreated and relived. Such an argument could be countered by demonstrating that just as the Seder meal of Pesah ought to be viewed as the quintessential model for eating during the rest of the year – divrei Torah, guests, religious symbolism, extensive collective rendering of thanks to God [20] – similarly, Sinai is meant to serve as a paradigm for all subsequent Torah-learning activities. This is consistent with the reasoning found in the Sifre cited by Rashi on Deuteronomy 6:6: “The Torah should not be viewed as an ancient royal decree to which no one pays attention, but rather like a new decree that everyone hastens to read.”

Thus, the following syllogism can be constructed: If the Jews at Sinai were cast in the role of converts, and if contemporary Jews are expected to regard their Torah learning as a recreation of the Sinai experience, then it follows that Torah education ought to at least echo aspects of the manner in which converts are introduced to the tenets of Judaism.

However, in order for contemporary educational policy to reflect the conversion analogy, a positive approach, distinctly different from the negative one which some advocate for conversions, must be adopted. [21] We should present material that would rather inspire commitment and enthusiasm for study and mitzvah performance. Therefore, the following three approaches, suggested by Masekhet Gerim, Rambam, and in an essay by Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, are seen as more informative and encouraging for our purposes.

According to Masekhet Gerim 1:3, if, after hearing about the tragedies of Jewish history, the convert nevertheless decides to continue the process, then: “…they bring him down to the place of ritual immersion and they immerse the parts of his body normally covered, with water, and they say to him some of the details of the mitzvot, in order that he will give the tithes of shikhhah, leket, peah, and ma’aser.” And, in the same chapter, halakha 5 states:

After immersion, he emerges, they say to him things that are good and correct: “To whom have you chosen to attach yourself? You should be joyful! To He who declared, ‘Let the world exist.’ For the world was created only for Israel. And no one is considered God’s children other than Israel. And there is no one more beloved before God than Israel. All of the things that we said to you [that appeared to be discouraging] were simply intended to increase your reward [for doggedly pursuing your intention and going through with the conversion].”

These statements do not have to be viewed as discouragements, but rather, since they are declared during the mikuah ritual, the final part of the conversion process, they can be understood as encouraging a deepening of commitment in the individual newly entering the Jewish faith.

A similar but less absolute approach can be recognized in the words of Rambam. Rambam writes that significant attempts are made to discourage the candidate by means of references to the “burden of the Torah” and the “trouble involved with fulfilling its mitzvot.” [22] But, if the convert nevertheless demonstrates willingness to continue, then, says the Rambam: [23]

…they make known to him the essentials of the faith, which is the unity of God and the prohibition of idolatry, and they go on at great length about these matters: [24] And they make known to him a few of the easy mitzvot and a few of the severe mitzvot, and they do not go on at length about these. [25] And they should not present him with a great deal of material nor with a large amount of detail, lest he [the person who is interviewing the candidate] cause him to be troubled and consequently turn away from the good path to an evil path, for initially one should pull a person with words designed to be attractive and that are gentle…

If the convert continues to persist, then the Rambam even redefines the difficult historical conditions to which Jews have been subjected: “And this that you see the Jews in a condition of pain in this world, it is really a good thing that is being preserved for them, for they cannot receive most of the goodness that is to be their reward in this world, as do the other nations, lest they [the Jews] become haughty, and they sin and they lose their reward in the World to Come.” [26]

The references to persecutions is given yet another slant by Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, [27] when he explains that the process of conversion entails not only the individual accepting mitzvah and faith commitment, but also becoming a link to the community at large and having an empathy with the collective fate of the Jewish people, for better or for worse. While such an explanation could be quite daunting, the positive aspect can be emphasized as well: upon becoming a Jew one becomes a part of a community – even if it is a community that is often hard-pressed to maintain its existence.

Another evocative source with respect to the relationship between conversion and contemporary educational policy is found in Yevamot 79a. The Talmud discusses the background and details of the events recorded in II Samuel 21, in which the Givonim take revenge on Shaul’s family for his destruction of Nov. In the course of its account, the Talmud discusses the reaction of outsiders to these events:

The passers-by would say: ‘What is the nature of these [the individuals who were being tortured to death by the Givonim]?’
They would be told: ‘They are members of a royal family.’
‘And what did they do?’
‘They dealt improperly with inferior converts.’ [28]
They said: ‘There is no nation more worthy of joining than this one. If this is the manner in which members of the royal family are brought to justice, ordinary citizens [guilty of criminal activity] all the more so will be tried. And if this is the manner in which the rights of inferior converts who are victimized are protected, full-fledged members of the Jewish people, all the more so.’
Immediately, 150,000 people converted to Judaism.

In this case, no mention is made of the attempt to discourage those interested in converting. The Talmud in Yevamot 24b notes that in the times of Dovid and Shlomo, converts were generally rejected because of the concern that their only motivation was the relative prosperity and power enjoyed during the reign of these two kings. The type of historical conditions that are listed at the beginning of the passage in Yevamot 47a, designed to discourage converts, hardly applied during the rule of the second and third Jewish kings. Nevertheless, it is significant to point out that what attracted the converts, according to Yevamot 79a, was the fairness and air of justice that was perceived to pervade the Jewish community.

An additional implication which stems from the conversion analogy is that rather than teaching all mitzvot, selections should be made in order to encourage maximum commitment and personal growth. As the religious commitment of students advances, such selections take on even greater importance.

One could also deduce from the references about discussing theology, i.e. the uniqueness and oneness of God, that more time should be spent on investigating the parameters of belief and faith. This might be done, not in the academic context of Jewish philosophy which tends not to be terribly personal or of immediate relevance, but rather in terms of how individuals participating in the modern world perceive the dimensions of belief and how some stumbling blocks to belief might be dealt with. The issue of reward and punishment does not have to be approached exclusively from the perspective of its literal delineation, but also philosophically, with regard to imparting an awareness to the student that he/she is responsible for his/her actions, and that there will always be accountability and decisions in the psychological, moral and social make-up of any individual. Also of great importance in fostering a life-long allegiance to our teachings is the concern that Jewish life be perceived as a moral, consistent and just system.

While the sources in question do not provide specific examples of what should be taught and how, the general outlines that these examples promote are most indicative and highly suggestive.


[1] See my “The Day School Talmud Instructor as Teacher,” Ten Da’at, Vol.3 No.1, Heshvan 5749, Fall 1988, pp.21-4, as an example of extending contemporary general educational approaches to the specific discipline of teaching Talmud.

[2] For a summary of the conflict, with regard to emphasis, that modern Orthodox schools currently find themselves facing, see my “Sensitizing Day School Teachers to Issues in Values Education,” Ten Da’at vol.6 No.1, Nissan 5752, Spring 1992, pp.5- 9.

[3] This paper in effect seeks to apply the discussion regarding compartmentalization and integration that I presented in “Integration of Judaic and General Studies in the Modern Orthodox Day School”, Jewish Education, Vol.54 No.4, Winter 1986, pp.15-26, to the specific case of the modern Orthodox educator who wishes to avail him/herself of the latest thinking in terms of educational theory and practice, and still strives to faithfully represent the perspectives of Jewish tradition as enunciated in primary sources.

[4] One such source that I have already presented in a previous article is Nedarim 37a. See my “The Day School: A Modern Orthodox Jewish Community’s Reflection or Guiding Light?” in Ten Da’at, Vol.5 No.1, Heshvan 5751, Fall 1990, pp.27-28

[5] Elie Wiesel, “On Teaching Jewish Identity,” in Jewish Education, Vol.43 No.4, Winter-Spring 1975, pp.9-11.

[6] Bava Metziah 62a.

[7] Wiesel, p.10.

[8] Lucy Dawidowicz, “Jewish Identity: A Matter of Fate, A Matter of Choice,” in the Jewish Presence: Essays on Identity and History, Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich, New York, 1978, pp.7-8.

[9] Such an approach casts an interesting light on the very thoughtful article by Karen Shawn, “Goals for Helping Young Adolescents Learn About the Shoah,” Ten Da’at, Vol.5 No.2, Iyar 5751, Spring 1991, pp.7-11. It would seem to me that Wiesel would see Teaching Goal #7 (p.9), “maintaining and strengthening my students’ Jewish identity,” as much more central than merely being the seventh in a list of 17. Since Dr. Shawn identifies herself as a “teacher of English” (p.7), a member of the faculty of the Lawrence Middle School in Lawrence, N.Y., as well as an educational consultant to ADL’s Braun Center for Holocaust Studies, she might not share the same priorities that an educator in a modem Orthodox Jewish day school might have. But then again, is this not tne point, i.e., that those of us looking for guidelines must constantly temper what it is that we read in educational journals, even Ten Da’at, with the concern that perhaps what is being presented comes from a point of view that has not been fully informed by the issues that we are attempting to address in our own specific endeavors? Of course, there is another important issue that lies well beyond the scope of this article: to what extent ought the general studies curriculum reflect the fact that it is being taught within the context of a modem Orthodox school (assuming that the teachers of these courses will not necessarily be committed to such a religious orientation, let alone be Jewish)?

[10] This is documented most powerfully by Simon Rawidowics in “Israel: The Ever-Dying People,” in Studies in Jewish Thought, Phila.: Jewish Publication Society, 1974, pp.210-26.

[11] See for example: Berakhot 8a, 28b – the need to participate in communal prayer; Rosh HaShanah l7a – the magnitude of the sin of separating from the community; Ta’anit 11a – the expectation that an individual will empathize with the situations in which the community finds itself.

[12] See for example: Peah l:l – the magnitude of gemilut hasadim in terms of the reward that is reserved for its performance; Sukkah 49b – gemilut hasadim’s superiority over charity; Beraishit Rabbah 8:5 – gemilut hasadim as a justification for the creation of man.

[13] See for example: Berakhot lOb – the equation of assisting a talmid hakham and offering a sacrifice; Shabbat ll4a – the requirement that a talmid hakham’s manual labor be performed for him by members of his community; Ketubot lllb – whoever associates with a talmid hakham is equated with clinging to the Divine Presence.

[14] Norman Lamm, “Faith and Doubt,” in Faith and Doubt; Studies in 1raditional Jewish Thought, New York: Ktav, 1971, p.30.

[15] Mayer Schiller, “Realities, Possibilities and Dreams: Reaching Modern Orthodox Youth,” Ten Da’at, Vol.3 No.2, Adar 5749, Winter 1989, pp. 25-6.

[16] In order to account for an apparent lacuna between Exodus 19:8-9, where the Torah twice mentions that Moshe reported to God concerning the response of the people, without any indication that there had been additional information presented for their approval or disapproval, the Talmud in Shabbat 87a, cites the interpretation of Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi. The editor of the Mishna claims that that the two verbs in question, i.e., “vayashev” and “vayaged” do not refer to two different missions carried out by Moshe, but rather, by two aspects of his original presentation ro the people; specifically the punishments that lay in store for anyone who would violate the Divine Law, and the rewards that were to be besrowed upon those in compliance with the mitzvot. The beraitah in which Rebbe’s words are to be found provides two alternatives in terms of the sequence: either “vayashev” is to be understood in light of the root “shavev” indicating “affliction” and “difficulty,” hence punishments, and “vayaged” is associated with “agaddah,” something positive that engages and spurs enthusiasm within those who study it, similar to rewards; or “vayashev” is an allusion to yishuv hada’at, something pleasant, i.e. the rewards, and “vayaged” is to be cast as a word related to “gid” or wormwood, something bitter and difficult to withstand, namely punishment. Aside from the wordplay that is going on in this passage, it might be said that at issue is the sequence of the educational process by which an initiate into a religious system is brought. MaHaRShA, in the paragraph beginning “Bitekhilah piresh,” draws attention to the parallel between the source in Shabbat 87b (Rebbe’s delineation of the connotations of vayashev and vayaged) and a passage in Yevamot 47a-b which describes the procedure by which a potential convert is interviewed. After confronting the individual in question with a brief synopsis of the persecutions and calamities that have dogged the Jewish people throughout their history up to the present, the Beraitah instructs the individual to whom the convert has come, to: “Inform him of a few of the easy mitzvot and a few of the severe mitzvot, and to inform him of the responsibilities of giving the poor the tithes of leket, shikhha, peah, and ma’aser ani, and inform him of the punishments of the mitzvot…and just as he is informed of the punishments of the mitzvot, he is made aware of the granting of rewards.” According to MaHaRShA, the sequence of first mentioning punishments and then reviewing the rewards, parallels the first version of rebbe’s interpretation of what Moshe told the people with regard to these matters, reflecting that they were being approached by God as converts. Such a view allows for an understanding of shloshet yemai hagbalah (Exodus 19:10-11, 15) not only as a prerequisite for prophecy, but also as a purification and pre-conversion process reminiscent of that undergone by Yaakov’s family prior to their return to Canaan, as described in Genesis 35:2.

[17] See Avudraham and Teshuat Hen cited in Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Shperling, Serer Ta’amei HaMinhagim U’Mekorei HaDinim, Jerusalem: Eshkol, pp.245, 281.

[18] On the phrase “hiko mamtakim,” (his mouth is most sweet) found in Shir HaShirim 5:16.

[19] Rabbi Elimelech Bar Shaul, in his work, Mitzvah VeLev, Part 1, (Tel Aviv: Avraham Tzioni, 1967, pp.13-5) discusses this phenomenon with respect to a spiritual awakening that should take place in every Jew, as opposed to the radical legal transformation in terms of personal status that applies only in the case of the conversion of a non-Jew to Judaism.

[20] See “The Seder Meal,” in Shiurei HaRav: A Conspectus of the Public Lectures of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, ed. Joseph Epstein, Tova Press, 1974, pp.91-3.

[21] For example: a) the terrible events of Jewish history are meant to be intimidating, b) the multiplicity of easier commandments are designed to discourage him or her by the extent of compulsive behavior that Judaism requires, c) the citing of the difficult mitzvot are obviously daunting, d) mentioning leket, shikhhah, peah and ma’aser ani are intended to cause consternation over the numerous donations that have to be made to the poor, e) the punishments are clearly frightening, and f) even with respect to the rewards, the emphasis that they will be forthcoming only in olam habah rather than in olam hazeh.

[22] Mishna Torah, Hilkhat Issurei Biah, 13:14.

[23] Ibid. 14:2. 23. Ibid. 12:2.

[24] The fact that Rambam also mentions that theology should be included in the presentation to the potential convert is informative for our discussion. Unfortunately, many modem Orthodox day schools, in the interests of not being perceived as watering down the traditional diet of primary sources including Talmud, Humash and Navi, rely on the occasional digression of the teacher to cover matters of hashkafah, rather than devoting serious classroom time to such study. The competing considerations of focusing upon specifics as opposed to dealing with the broader overview, can be understood to be at the heart of why the Hagaddah, in its answer to the question attributed to the hakham (Devarim 6:20), rather than present the Torah’s very theological answer (Ibid.21-5), opts instead to direct the parent to provide an halakhic answer based upon Torah SheB’Al Peh (the halakhot of Pesach, to be found in the last chapter of Masekhet Pesakhim). The concept that material found in Torah SheBiKhtav concerns itself with the broader implications of religion is beautifully expanded upon by Rav Kook in Orot HaTorah, Chapter 1 (Jerusalem: Hoshen, 5733). It also makes a powerful argument for learning Tanakh b’iyun – in depth-rather than as an exercise in biki’ut – the more perfunctory manner that characterizes the schools who see “covering text” as their prime objective and communal mandate.

[25] Rashi, in his commentary on Yeuamot 47b, on the phrase, “and they do not go on at length” states that this is in order not to frighten the individual away. It would appear that this perspective would reflect agreement with Rambam rather than Meiri and MaHarSha in terms of what the ultimate purpose of the interaction with the candidate for conversion is.

[26] Halakhah 4.

[27] “On Conversion,” Tradition, Vol.23 No.2, p.6.

[28] The Givonim entered the Jewish community under false pretenses, according to Joshua 9:3 ff. The only reason they were allowed to remain was to dispel a possible impression that the word of the Jews was not honorable, despite the lack of any legal requirement to honor the covenant that had been made under false pretenses. Because of their dishonesty they are being referred to as “inferior,” as opposed to typical, converts.


RABBI BIELER, a Contributing Editor of Ten Da’at, is the Assistant Principal for Judaic Studies 7-12 and Lead Teacher at the Hebrew Academy of Greater Washington, Silv

  • About Lookstein

    The Lookstein Center is dedicated to providing critical supports for Jewish educators as they learn, teach, and lead in the twenty-first century to ensure an engaged and educated Jewish community.

  • Become a member

    Membership packages are available for individuals, schools, and organizations.

    Learn More

  • Connect on Facebook

  • Contact us

    The Lookstein Center
    Bar Ilan University
    Ramat Gan 5290002, Israel
    Phone: +972-3-531-8199
    US Number: +1-646-568-9737
    Fax :+972-3-535-1912