While looking over the fascinating discussion on the lookjed list on gemara education, I came across the following fascinating post. The author wondered aloud why there is no discussion of gemara education for the non-Orthodox. I thought I might address the issue here:
My first response to the titular question is that it isn’t. Secular and mixed “batei midrash” in which everything – including gemara – is taught and studied are a growth industry. In addition, books on Judaism – including ones which discuss gemara sugyot – come out regularly under the auspices of Yediot Acharonot’s “Yahadut Can Ve’achshav” series. However, I assume the poster was referring to non-Orthodox high schools, not adult Jewish self-education.
I have to wonder how one would go about teaching gemara in a non-Orthodox educational environment. While it’s certainly possible, gemara learning (done properly) requires a broad background and knowledge of Jewish terms and thought. It should only be taught in non-Orthodox schools that place heavy emphasis on knowledge of sources – not just general ideas or ideologies. Otherwise, it will be difficult if not impossible to teach it.
As for how to teach it to a crowd that is not committed to halacha in the Orthodox manner, I think I can suggest a number of directions:
1) Topical: Instead of teaching by bulk (so-and-so amount of dapim or mesechtot), teachers should prepare specific topics and mine the sources of Mishna, Talmud, rishonim and acharonim to get a broad understanding of the subject. Students will understand that these sources are a veritable treasure trove of “Jewish” cultural and national info and, one hopes, will be curious to keep learning. These topics can range from philosophical (theodicy, for instance), sexuality and relationships, to historical issues related to Jewish life in the diaspora (such as yayn stam).
2) Debate: Another important function can be learning the quintessentially Jewish (certainly in the toshba) art of debate – not just form, but also substance. Taking select and famous debates and arguing the different sides can get students involved in Jewish sources in a way no story given by a lecture ever could.
In addition to learning the debates themselves, students can then go into discussions about the boundaries of debate, acceptable limits and so forth. Students can decide for themselves whether various sanctions (such as Raban Gamliel’s coercion of Rav Yehoshua regarding Yom Kippur) were justified or not.
3) Halacha: Just because students aren’t committed to halacha in the traditional manner does not mean they shouldn’t engage it. Discussions of halacha’s authority (from various theological and scholarly perspectives, from the scholarly perspective &c) and what it “means to me” could be very fruitful. A discussion of customs and their place in a non-observant setting could be quite fruitful.
Students could discuss their own view of their obligation to continue traditions and customs. A historical look at how much Jews absorbed in past generations could also enrich discussion.
So what do you think, dear reader? Are these directions good? Does Oral Torah have a place in non-observant educational settings?
NOTE: Please don’t be afraid to leave comments, even if you disagree strongly. As long as comments are civil and on-point, I let them pass through without a problem.