How NOT to Teach Gemara in High School, Part VI

[Intro, Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V; once again, all bracketed comments and emphases are mine – AIWAC]

The Teachers – The Gap Between Yeshiva and High School

Talmud teachers are by and large graduates of hesder yeshivas and yeshivot gevohot, and they tend to look for solutions to problems from the place where they received their primary educational-Torah training. However, the solutions provided by the yeshiva gevohah are not effective for the ages of elementary and high school.

The Yeshiva Way of Learning

In yeshiva, there is no instruction in the basic skills of gemara study. The yeshiva assumes this ability to be a given, and the student who lacks these tools acquires them through the experience of studying in the Beit Midrash. Some of these tools are not acquired at all. The yeshiva does not impart linguistic fundamentals which allow for accurate reading of Talmudic Aramaic, it does not impart a systematic introduction to the Oral Torah, and the main focus of learning in the first years is in the study of the works of the rishonim, and an ideational-conceptional analysis of the rishonim’s teachings. Later, in kollel, the emphasis is placed on deriving the practical halacha. The yeshiva student did not receive, therefore, organized training for basic study of gemara.

The Values of Torah Study in Yeshiva

 Yeshivish study does not support the value of studying gemara in and of itself. The emphasis is placed either on studying to learn the halacha or in conceptual analysis. In practice this means a flight from the gemara itself. There is scorn for the study of beki’ut (broad study and knowledge of gemara itself), and there is even a focus on specific masechets and specific chapters which are appropriate for the accepted pattern of study.

The matter of relevance to religious and spiritual life beyond studying halacha, is not emphasized in yeshiva. More than that, there is – to a certain degree – a sanctification of irrelevance based on the model of “Torah Lishma” of R. Chaim of Volozhin and “Halachic Man” of Rav Soloveitchik. The focus on halacha does not create tension or interest for many students, and it is more appropriate for talented older students who are training for instruction and the Rabbinate. The focus on an abstract conceptual analysis which interests the young man who chooses to dedicate a number of years of his life to learning Torah – it is doubtful if this is appropriate for the psychological and intellectual development of the teenager.

In terms of social status – the yeshiva does indeed give honor to its students. However, it offers a solution only to the most gifted. Not every student earns a privileged status simply by being a ben Torah. There is an internal hierarchy in the yeshiva. Those who excel are the ones towards whom all of the educational effort of the system is directed. The system is geared towards the one in a thousand who will leave to instruct, with the rest finding themselves quitting at various stages – to the army, to university – without returning to gemara.

Again, we are not dealing here with the problem of yeshivot gevohot, but rather the type of solution they offer the gemara teacher. The gemara teacher does not receive from the yeshiva tools with which he can grant status, importance and prestige to the entire field. Therefore, he too, like his Rabbis in the yeshiva, encourages the minority of excellent students, and looks forward to their continuing in yeshiva and growing in Torah. As for the rest of the students – he has nothing substantial to offer.

The value which is emphasized in shaping the image of the yeshiva graduate is the value of chinuch (loosely and in this context – value and religious education, not skills). It speaks of the value of dealing in chinuch, going to work in chinuch tasks and so on. In this context, what is generally thought of is the mission of religious chinuch, and strengthening religious society and its education system.

There is no emphasis on instruction as a value. There is no idealization of training gedolei Torah, not at the level of Hesder yeshiva and its graduates, and certainly not at high school level. Even the inspirational figure of the Rosh Yeshiva in most religious-Zionist yeshivas is not that of a genius only in Torah, but an all-inclusive personality, an educational figure and a leader for his community. Therefore, even the teacher who leaves yeshiva for high school, wishes to be first and foremost a mechanech (one who deals in chinuch) and a guide. The matter of gemara, of intense study, is seconday for many teachers and Ramim.

Thus is explained the need to create “religiosity” through various tools: how do we create frumkeit in yeshiva – if at all? The “tish”? The tunes of devekut? Few are the mechanchim who believe that from the toil of learning one page of gemara after the other, one can arrive at the most important accomplishments expected from the system: raising youth that are Shomer Mitzvot and God-fearing.

A “cognitive dissonance” exists in hesder yeshivot as well. Tanach and machshava, which are relatively less important subjects, constitute to some extent the backbone of yeshiva education. It is there that the Rosh Yeshiva and the Ram – whether in a machshava class or a parshat shavua class – imparts his primary messages. The yeshiva student who comes home does not talk of the latest innovation in shiur klali (general gemara shiur), who cares about that?

However, if there was some new innovation in the parsha, an original idea in machshava or a socio-political position, it will be spread and be a topic for discussion. On this side, in the shiur of Tanach, machshava and emuna, at the drasha and the mussar shiur, the student discovers that there is thought that is more modern, more academic, more relevant – both in instruction and curriculum. In less time they feel they are getting a lot more!

Self-Study, Voluntarism and Freedom

Another basis for the success of the yeshiva is self-study. This is the cause for the surprising leap (in learning ability) between the end of high school and the beginning of the first year in yeshiva. But the Ram in yeshiva high school and religious high school does not have the option of earmarking so many hours for self-study. This is due to the demands of other subjects, the need to focus on a specific subject and prepare students for the Bagrut exam, as well as the fact that the students are not arriving voluntarily, out of choice, and therefore do not feel obligated to study during seder. The high school-age student is as a “child who runs from the school”, and a self-study seder is an invitation for escape – either physically or mentally – to other occupations.

The matter of voluntarism creates an additional gap: in yeshivot gevohot, there are generally no obligatory requirements in terms of the content of study. The student learns where his heart desires, and at the rate his heart desires. Even if there is a central direction in the learning, there is enough room for other areas, and there isn’t the tension of exams and grades. In the yeshiva high school and in religious high school, the system is very specific, does not allow for freedom of choice, and therefore does not allow the student the necessary feeling of freedom to learn of his own volition.

All these problems of turning the yeshiva graduate into a high school teacher are supposed to be solved by the teaching colleges. However, as opposed to academic subjects, where the basic rules of the academy exist to a large degree in high school as well, when it comes to gemara the essential gap between the world of yeshiva and the world of high school is so great, that there is no chance that the colleges will succeed in the little time they have to change the pattern of thought, study and values the prospective teacher has toward gemara. The attitude of yeshiva graduates to the classes of the colleges is one of scorn, and more than that they disregard the classes given on their subject – gemara – since in their opinion, they excel in it after the many years they spent studying it in yeshiva.

Last but Not Least: Teachers – Lacking in Training

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About AIWAC

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: opdycke1861NOSPAM@yahoo.com
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5 Responses to How NOT to Teach Gemara in High School, Part VI

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

  2. chortkov says:

    Hi,

    thanks much for this. Is there a way to combine these posts into one post to make for easier reading/printing (for shabbos reading)?

    • AIWAC says:

      That’s ironic, since I split the posts up so that people wouldn’t be exhausted from reading so much on the web in the form of a blog post :).

      I will concentrate the whole thing into a document for download in a new post.

  3. Shlomo says:

    great post

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