Thursday, December 26, 2013

Gemara II- Is Gemara ONLY right for anyone?

Let's pretend for a moment that we know how to teach gemara; both in terms of reading and analytical skills. Let's further pretend we have the right people in our classes and the right rabbeim teaching them. Even if that was the case, would it be proper to have a gemara only Torah curriculum?

“All Torah that does not have with it (include within itself?) derch eretz, in the end will come to nothing.”

Pirkei Avos

“If he merits it, the Torah he learns is an elixir of life, if he does not merit it, it is poison”.

Yoma 72b

At first the second half of this statement seems strange. Can the Torah one learns ever be poison? I can understand if the implication is that not following the laws of the Torah can be deadly, but Torah itself? Somehow, it seems that Torah learning can lead to a negative outcome. Let us try and discover how this might be so.

When I was looking for a yeshiva high school for my oldest son, I was troubled to discover that all of the yeshivahs I considered, more or less, had no other limmudei kodesh other than gemara. Sure there was a smattering of halacha in a few, while others had weekly parsha quizzes based on the boys going through parsha at home, but the strong majority of the time involved learning gemara. No real Tanach, no machshava, and, perhaps most disappointingly of all, no mussar (I do not, of course, refer to mussar schmoozen about why “goyish music” is bad, and the like. Sadly, there's plenty of that. I refer to the uplifting mussar of Slabodka). Could anyone but the most committed Brisker really believe that there is no need for mussar? Post-high school the situation is even more bleak as yeshivahs essentially become gemara factories.

I would be scared to make my next point if it it was not based on an idea of the Vilna Gaon. The GRA famously compares Torah not learned lishma (however one defines that loaded term) to rain. Just as rain makes everything grow, flower and weed alike, Torah, when not learned lishma, makes good people better, and bad people worse.

I have met many products of the best yeshivahs. Some, are among the most decent, mentschlich and kind people I know. Sadly, others are just the opposite. Can anyone who has seen the almost weekly barrage of negative headlines over the past year involving men who learned in yeshiva, claim that Gemara only is transformative? I have seen two many examples where a “gemara kup” not tempered by mussar, has led to justification of abhorrent behavior.

It pains me to write these words, but I feel that I have no choice. Even if Rav Chaim was correct in his assertion that mussar is like medicine and only the sick require it (said to explain his rejection of mussar for his yeshiva), are we as healthy as we think we are?


  1. Even for a student with superb gemara skills, gemara ONLY isn't proper. I mean, would you say that a kid that is genius at math should only study math? No! The kid needs all sort sod other skills in life - reading, writing, communicating, knowledge of world around him/her, etc. The same applies to limudei kodesh, the kids need all sorts of information ... including gemara.

  2. well said. but again, change seems to only start at the top in the ortho jewish world, so your best bet is to go undercover and become a gadol and then push these fixes in, just like the Alter did (he was really MO but realized all orthodoxy needed some positive reinforcement).