Photo Credit: Courtesy Rabbi Lebovic

Jewish life in the U.S. is vibrant and pulsating. The Torah community keeps growing and a yeshiva education is becoming the norm for more and more families.

But as with any other state of expansion and development, there are birth pangs and labor pains. In that vain, certain attitudes need to be re-evaluated in order to solve some problems.

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Most yeshiva students are directed along one track, with the result that many students fall by the wayside, unable to keep up with the learning. They have particular difficulty with the analytical reasoning process of Gemara, a subject for which not everyone is readily suited. This can engender a feeling of inferiority and a weakened self-image in the child.

We don’t expect adults to sit through classes that are beyond their reach, so why should we expect our kids to? These children are normal in every respect but find it difficult to keep up with the rigorous demands of a yeshiva learning schedule. (Students who require “special education” are not under discussion here. Such young people indeed require altogether different approaches and programs.)

A general pedagogic rule of thumb is that the goals and standards set for the student must be only slightly beyond his immediate reach, so that it is within his ability to eventually reach them. Students can readily sense when others have given up on them and they will easily comply in a self-fulfilling prophecy. What is the benefit of a learning experience that leaves them confused, lacking self-confidence, unproductive, and disillusioned?

As the years go by, the problem increases, as teenagers often get turned off and sometimes leave Yiddishkeit altogether. Such is human nature: people like to do that at which they succeed while avoiding activities that demonstrate their mediocrity.

According to a survey I conducted among educators, some 25 percent of students experience the difficulties described above. Think of what that means in terms of sheer numbers, especially as the yeshiva student population continues to grow.

Educational systems throughout the world operate on various tracks so that all students can function efficiently, with a sense of accomplishment and growth, each according to his level. Students tend to acknowledge their respective intellectual levels and inclinations, and don’t fall apart if they can’t make it or are not interested in the advanced math and science classes. A curriculum should not be geared solely to a small elite segment of students who excel scholastically (unless the curriculum is designed and designated as such).

The Midrash (Vayikra Rabbah Chapter 2) states that only ten out of a thousand students grow to be fully proficient in Gemara. This certainly doesn’t mean the educational system was geared primarily for one-tenth of the student body. On the contrary, every child was educated properly and thoroughly “al pi darko” – each according to his particular needs.

What I advocate might seem revolutionary to some, but I believe, after much discussion with seasoned educators, that nothing short of a new and fresh approach can avert the monumental problems that may soon engulf us.

An alternate track for students of the type described above should consist of a four-pronged program:

1) Greater emphasis should be put on the student gradually acquiring mastery of the entire Mishnah. Many great educators, including the Maharal of Prague in his commentary on Devarim 6:7, hold that this should be done, in any event, by all students, as it paves the way for a more thorough and well grounded understanding of the Gemara.

In most of today’s yeshivas, Gemara study is started at an early age without the benefit of extensive knowledge and overview of Mishnah. While Gemara skills are thus gained at an early age, they are not built on the firm foundation of a systematic and gradual educational progression.

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3 COMMENTS

  1. I find this posting extremely interesting. Only after attending Yeshivot for five years did I come to the realization as to why I was being taught Gemarah as a central subject in Yeshivah, and what I figured out was, that it was so central, because the system is to teach a thought process, and sharpen the mind. After all, we already have a Code of Jewish law, a Shulchan Aruch, so we do not study Halachah from the Gemarah. If I would have been told this from day one, it would have been tremendously helpful to my studies and understanding.
    Kol Hakavod!

  2. I think it would be an excellent idea if yeshiva students were taught how to react to physical violence in such a way that thugs would never again take take the risk of attacking anyone who looked as if they were a yeshiva student or charedi. Perhaps it should start with krag maga lessons for those who were less inclined to book learning, though it would do no harm if everyone knew it.

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