How NOT to Teach Gemara in High School, Part III

[Intro, Part I, Part II; once again, all bracketed comments are mine]

The Problem of Motivation

Up till now we discussed the problems which derive from the study itself. In order to overcome these difficulties, there is a need for strong motivation on the part of the student.

What are the sources of motivation for the gemara student?

There would appear to be three main ones, one which is lishma and two which are not. We should not avoid discussing “not lishma” sources (of motivation) in the framework of this discussion, if only because of the chance that from not lishma, people will come to do lishma.


The concept of lishma is a fundamental one in Lithuanian yeshiva education, which was partially passed on to yeshiva high schools and Hesder yeshivot by Ramim who were educated in these institutions (presumably, Charedi yeshivot). (However) Over the past few years, the personnel of Ramim in religious-Zionist educational institutions are almost entirely composed of graduates of its own institutions and educational system.

Therefore, the value of Talmud Torah lishma as a central value of religiosity is placed in competition with other religious values, such as devekut – the fundamental value of Chassidut, serving society, integrating in the the state and the army &c – all central religious-Zionist values, as well as additional values of modern religiosity: “בכל דרכיך דעהו”, “Torah Im Derekh Eretz”, “Torah VeAvodah”. All of these come in place of, or at least alongside, (the value of) “and Talmud Torah Keneged Kulam”.

It goes without saying that students who are not overflowing with yir’at shamayim and were not brought up in households of Torah and Belief do not see significant value in diligence in Talmud Torah. The problem is that even students with powerful religious feelings and a feeling of belonging to Torah and Mitzvot, can find other channels, important ones, of religious dedication, and not see Talmud Torah, and certainly not study of gemara, a central value in their religious and spiritual work.

Intellectual Interest

It is obvious that one of the components of the motivation to learn gemara is the intellectual interest. In this regard, gemara study is similar to high level study of mathematics and physics. This is true both in the sense of the study requirements and in terms of the interest in the subjects not because of their religious and ideational contents and not as a “useful” matter, but rather as an (purely) intellectual one.

However, this sort of intellectual curiosity is not shared by everyone. In the past the yeshiva world was meant for select individuals, for intellectual elites. Gemara, in this day and age, has become a subject which is open to all. It therefore follows that we cannot rely (solely) on intellectual curiosity (to attract and keep students), in much the same way that we cannot expect interest and intellectual tension from all the students in any other theoretical subject.

Social Status

In the yeshiva society, lomdish ability is a tool for social ranking. In a society in which at the head of the (social) ladder stand Gedolei Torah, and which does not have a significant (social) status system which competes with the value of gadlut in Torah, there is a great attraction, even at the not lishma level, to grow in Torah. This is a society which formally and publicly bends all strata of society before the highest stratum – that of chachamim. Therefore the title of “ben Torah” which is given to young people is a title of honor. The respect and the status, combined with the fact that other gates of mobility are not open to the same degree, and do not gain similar appreciation, are a very strong motivating factor in yeshiva society.

In our educational system, the state of affairs is entirely different, because the social ranking is different. People with a knitted kipa are present all throughout (Israeli) society, the government, the army &c. It is not at all clear that a “ben Torah” is more valuable, in terms of social status and the honor he receives, from an outstanding military officer or successful businessman.

What this means is that we cannot create on this basis a motivational cause of study.

The Profession

In the Charedi-Torah society, the inspirational figures and the preferred profession is a high-level Torah-related profession, but not in ours. As goes the social status so goes the profession. One can use the importance of the subject of mathematics as a precondition for academic studies in the sciences (to motivate students), and one can compel the study of English because it is a crucial prerequisite for any important job. In contrast, gemara has no “professional horizon” except for those who aim to become klei kodesh (religious professionals), a very uncommon and unpopular goal in our society.

Until a few years ago (this article was written in 2001), the subject of gemara was necessary to remain in a Torah framework after high school. In other words: (knowledge of gemara was) an entry requirement for a hesder yeshiva, which for its part was a “religious insurance certificate” for the period of military service, as well as an “entry ticket” into yeshivish-Torah circles in the religious-Zionist camp.

The appearance of the mechinot (pre-Army institutions), the change in the social composition of religious-Zionist society and in its cultural and spiritual trends, and other factors, took the crown away from the hesder yeshivot, who are now coping with a shortage of students. The readiness to absorb students based on reduced standards increased, and the gates of hesder are no longer sealed before students who slacked off gemara in high school. Moreover, students no longer see Hesder as the only option. One can choose the path of full army service, shiluv (Kibbutz Hadati yeshivot that have their students serve three years and learn two) or mechina, when all of these options do not require a similar level of gemara study (as Hesder).

Next: The Problem of Competition


Hi, my name is Avi Woolf. I'm an American-Israeli MO Jew living in Israel. I have a background in Israeli (as in Land of Israel) and Jewish History and an insatiable need for knowledge. I also have professional experience as an editor, translator and indexer. Enjoy the ride! If you are interested in using my services or just want to drop me a line, contact me at:
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8 Responses to How NOT to Teach Gemara in High School, Part III

  1. Pingback: How NOT to Teach Gemara in High School, Part IV | QED

  2. fred says:

    this article is very important, and i hope to add my own hearos when you are done…

    um, is hesder really suffering from a dearth of students?

  3. Pingback: How NOT to Teach Gemara in High School, Part V | QED

  4. Pingback: How NOT to Teach Gemara in High School, Part VI | QED

  5. Pingback: How NOT to Teach Gemara in High School, End | QED

  6. Shlomo says:

    FEWER than in the past. (To avoid ambiguity)

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