Commentary

In Our Own Backyard: A Response to David Stein’s Proposal for a New Talmud Curriculum

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Herschel Grossman

“If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own backyard.” –  Dorothy, The Wizard of Oz 

“All the rivers flow to the sea, and the sea is never filled…” (Kohelet 1:7) “All the Torah a person learns is only in his heart, and the heart is never filled.” (Kohelet Rabbah 1)

Rabbi David Stein has presented a sparkling analysis of the problems facing Modern Orthodox education and the associated difficulties of the current high school system. Rabbi Stein strives to inculcate in his students the values of Modern Orthodoxy, but has found that a number of factors – school structure, compartmentalization, and the traditional methodology of teaching Torah – add to the challenge in achieving this goal.

Rabbi Stein is to be commended for the tremendous research and analysis that he has devoted to this topic, and for bringing the issue to the forefront in such a comprehensive and convincing manner. These concerns – highlighting the spiritual malaise in Modern Orthodox education – have been noted by community leaders for quite some time (Rabbi Stein’s references start with Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm in 1969), and his suggestions are reiterations of the same theme: let us strengthen Modern Orthodox ideology by designing an appropriate curriculum and modeling for our youth the tenets of our beliefs, and they are bound to live up to our expectations.

Rabbi Stein’s intentions are good, but in the three specific areas he spotlights as needing adjustment – inculcating Modern Orthodox ideology, class scheduling, and Talmud curriculum – his proposal misses the mark.

This is because it is incorrect to assume that student loyalties would be guaranteed if we provide the right source material and they adopt our ideology. Individual decisions are rarely guided by dogma or beliefs. Instead, to reach our students and have an impact, we must first be able to reach their hearts and influence their decision-making process. What bothers young people most is not ignorance of the answers to hashkafah questions, nor understanding the rules which govern their behavior, though these are certainly important. Rather, their lives are defined by the need to choose between attractive alternatives, and the personal sacrifice this often entails. As a young person furthers his connection to Hashem he becomes sensitive to these ongoing choices, but it is only to the extent that his Torah is acquired in his heart that he can truly be faithful to its perspective.

Our goal is to introduce our students to the devar Hashem, so that they have the desire and tools to forego inviting alternatives in order to live a Torah lifestyle. To do so, we must begin not by integrating Torah with other subjects, but by emphasizing the uniqueness of Torah. We must underscore how Torah differs qualitatively from subjects like physics, biology, history, and mathematics. Torah is not just a section of the curriculum, or a specialized course of study.

This is why Rabbi Stein’s curricular recommendations miss the mark. He addresses a number of issues of serious concern to the Modern Orthodox adult, but these are only relevant to the mature individual who is fundamentally committed to Torah, yet challenged in his efforts to synthesize these values with those of a pluralistic, materialistic society. But too many of our current students don’t yet know why they should accept and submit to the Torah’s will at all. Rather than adjusting the curriculum, then, it is kabbalat ha-Torah that we first need to impart, and this is exactly what learning Torah, and specifically Talmud study, can help us to achieve.

For the same reasons, attempts to use Talmud study to promote a particular ideology, Modern Orthodox, Haredi, or anything else, will never bear fruit. By citing Torah sources to justify one’s ideological approach, we reduce the Torah to a supporting role – not the crystal clear, authoritative, and binding call of conscience that can insure fidelity to a higher set of ideals.

Torah cannot be taught with the same methodology used to impart other value systems. For not only are our rules and regulations different, but the very nature of Torah thought functions on a different plane, and for this reason, the method of transmitting Torah is distinctive and unique. Talmud is not, first and foremost, information to be mastered, but a process of understanding[1]. By engaging in Talmud study, our students are inducted into the inner world of the Oral Torah, and begin to accept from the inside its uncompromising logic and paramount importance.

In an earlier piece on this topic, Rabbi Stein put it this way: “Make no mistake: learning Masekhet Berakhot freshman year, Kiddushin sophomore year, followed by Bava Kamma and Bava Metzia in junior and senior year is not a curriculum; it’s an advanced and sacred booklist.” He proposes instead a different sort of curriculum, one that will expose students to the value systems of dichotomy and tension within rabbinic jurisprudence, and will strengthen their engagement with the broader society. His own curricular program presents varied topical selections with accompanying Talmudic texts, to be presented as a given basis for the values he hopes to impart.

But this misses the point. Of course, one must choose which Masekhet to study each year, but the precise choice of material is less important than the process of study itself. The Oral Law is not fixed, and the Talmud is one indivisible whole, not static, nor inert. In fact, this is precisely what defines Torah she-Ba’al Peh. The very idea of presenting our students with a limited body of material severs their connection to Torat Hayyim. Though the Talmud has been written, the Oral Law remains intact. The Talmud is a living organism into which our students are incorporated through the process of study. In short, a yeshiva education is not informative or instructional. It is about learning how to understand: how to recognize truth and falsehood, what is central and what is peripheral, and what is essential and what is tangential. It is not only the words on the page that must be transmitted, but even more – understanding what is not being said, and why. In this way, our students become part of the community of devotees of Hashem’s living Torah.

If this is the case, there is only one legitimate question to ask when deciding which sections of Talmud are best for young students: What is it that would best attach them to this unbroken chain from Sinai, and mold their minds to operate along the same wavelength as the Ribbono Shel Olam (as it were)?

To show Talmud’s relevance and vitality, we need to engage our students’ minds and peel away the layers that conceal the heart of each sugya. This can be done best while studying Nashim and Nezikin[2], whose ready case law lends itself easily to sharp and riveting analysis that demands full and intense concentration, forcing the student to regularly shed assumptions and polish his thought process. A captivated mind quickly discovers a universe of subtle detail in worldly matters, and this is more effective – and ultimately more relevant – than the highly touted method of tracing a particular Halakhah from beginning to end, or finding justification for and/or responses to modern sensibilities.

True, novice students are not on this level, but this is precisely why the role of the Rebbe is critical for our youth. As grating as it may be to modern sensitivities, the Rebbe must be a voice of authority. Democratic principles are wonderful tools for a lively and engaging classroom experience, but they can never capture the true flavor of Torah mi-Sinai. The students must sense that their Rebbe is transmitting echoes of his own Rebbe, and in that transmission the sound of Sinai can still be discerned. The teacher of Torah must contain more than (s)he is imparting. In this way, students will detect something of the unlimited nature of Torah, and know that the teacher is holding back much more, teaching them now only as much as they can understand.

To influence their students, the educator/Rebbe must be immersed in the intricacies of a difficult Talmudic problem before presenting it to others. If a complete evening was spent in the attempt to decipher a difficult Tosafot, or find an answer to Rabbi Akiva Eiger’s question; if teachers stay awake while contemplating a philosophical dilemma, they will have no problem drawing their students near. If, on the other hand, they merely present a lesson plan, and demonstrate only that the Torah also has interesting answers to relevant questions, students will not be convinced of the Torah’s unique status and authority. For this reason, in my view, today’s greater access to Torah through database searches, while certainly making life more convenient, does not merit the hoopla or investment promoting digital progress in Jewish education. None of these innovations will solve the fundamental challenges described by Rabbi Stein.

Rabbi Stein notes insightfully that the disinterest in Talmud study among Modern Orthodox youth is an existential threat to our quest for integration. Before rejecting the classical forms of Gemara as inappropriate for today’s youth, shouldn’t we first determine if the traditional yeshivot are facing the same problems? Are Haredi youth equally disengaged?

This brings us to another key aspect of Talmud study: the mode of learning. Rabbi Stein’s description of the problem is right on the mark, but for a different reason: many of our students spend years in the classroom, but have yet to study Torah on their own accord. This setting may be conducive for studying information, but is not ideal for Talmud Torah, which is best presented in the traditional beit midrash learning seder, a self-contained dimension of learning without end – no interruptions, no distractions, and no breaks, where students are bound neither by lesson plans, subject matter, or curriculum.

But Rabbi Stein’s own suggestion for scheduling imagines every possible alternative other than one: that of the traditional yeshivot. In the traditional method, Talmud is not a subject but a way of life. In fact, a well-known practice in yeshivot of old was to study for days on end, with the most diligent students persisting until they dropped from exhaustion. Not that this was sound advice, but, just as life has no interruption, and man breathes without a break, Torah is best studied in the same manner.

In his haste to distinguish the Torah study of Modern Orthodoxy from the traditional yeshivot, Rabbi Stein does the community a disservice, for everything he is looking for is right there: project-based learning, and owning the material. A young man analyzes the Gemara and presents his insights to his havruta, who immediately adopts a different angle, pushing his friend to think the matter through more fully. This debate helps clarify his thoughts, and the haburah that he prepares for peer review forces him to work hard to overcome a skeptical reception. He owns the material now, and he writes down a personal summary of every sugya, which the yeshiva may even publish. Creativity and engagement are on full display every morning in a local yeshiva beit midrash.

The direction of Rabbi Stein’s integration is puzzling. Why should an emphasis on synthesis focus on adjusting the traditional methods of Talmud study, the fulcrum and foundation of Torah commitment, and not the STEM studies, sociology, or English literature? Attempts to transform Talmud class into acculturation is not synthesis, but instead does away with the primary component of what was meant to be synthesized within the student: limmud ha-Torah for its own sake. If Rabbi Stein’s concern is that students are not identifying with this ideal, it means we have failed to communicate to them the primacy of limmud ha-Torah. To therefore discard authentic Gemara learning in favor of a curriculum highlighting Modern Orthodox tensions in engaging with society, or autonomy versus authority, and unity and diversity, is not addressing the problem; it’s throwing in the towel.

Rabbi Stein challenges us: “We must ask ourselves, then: what does a Modern Orthodox curriculum actually look like, and how should it be taught? Should Modern Orthodox Torah learning aim to be essentially identical to what is being studied in the yeshivot of Bnei Brak – with the only difference being that we also value the science laboratories or literature classroom – or must we chart out new curricular approaches to communicate our values?” To this I would respond simply: Well, why not?

Assuming that many of the traditional yeshivot are successfully transmitting Torah in an authentic form – and despite their myriad problems, by all indications to a large degree they are – why should Modern Orthodox students be denied access to the same? Let Torah be studied on its own terms. Let the students connect with the Tree of Life and let it define their essence. Once incorporated, its eternal light will naturally guide their study of madda, derekh eretz, activities, and investigations, thus achieving a true integration of the highest order.


[1] See Ohr Israel, letter 18.

[2] See Ohr Israel, letter 6.