Thursday, December 26, 2013

On the teaching of Gemara- Where we've gone wrong and should girls learn gemara

The way of the world is that 1000 enter for mikra (Tanach). From these, only 100 go forth and study mishnah. Of these 100, only 10 go forth for gemara, and of those 10 who enter gemara, only one goes forth for hora'ah."

Vayikra Rabbah 2:1

The question is often asked whether girls should be learning Gemara. Let's be honest, as with other issues in Judaism, this question is essentially a Rorschach Test. The answers run the gamut from categorically forbidden, to permitted, to required. Modern rabbinical leaders including Rav Yaakov Weinberg, Rav Yoseph Dov Soloveitchik and the Lubavicher Rebbe ZT”L have, to one degree or another, ruled permissively. To me, this is not the proper question. I am more bothered by the question of whether boys should learn gemara.

Anecdotal evidence, as well as questionnaires, have shown that for students, both in the US and Israel, gemara is often the least popular “subject”. While there are many ways one can explain this fact, one thing is clear from Chazal, our history and common sense; gemara learning is not for everyone.

While the above mentioned quote has been (mis)used by Rabbi Dessler to justify the curent yeshiva system, it does anything but that. While it suggests that everyone has Torah which they can (and should) learn, only 1% of those who who start are cut out for gemara learning. While Tanach is for everyone, and mishna is still for a small but significant minority, gemara is not.

Historically, even in the so- called glory days in Europe, there were few men who went on to study gemara. It was recognized as being for an elite.

Finally, just as we recognize that higher level math is not for everyone, gemara which involves the need to think analytically about complicated topics, while making a sense of an unpunctuated text, which contains two non-native languages (one for those in Israel) is not for everyone.

So why do we keep pushing gemara for all boys in yeshiva?

  • Fear- Since everybody does it, we don't want our yeshiva to be different.
  • That's the the way it was always done- Except, it wasn't.
  • The American public school system pushes the idea that all subjects are for all kids. - As much as we might pretend that we are not influenced by the “outside world”, we are.
  • When the current yeshiva system emerged, it was thought that gemara learning would help hold onto kids who might be led astray from Judaism if they didn't see that Torah study is rigorous and demanding. - Even if we assume this was correct, the exact opposite is true. Gemara for everyone is pushing many boys away from observance.

So should girls learn gemara? The answer is the same as to the question “should boys learn gemara?” If they want to and are capable of doing so.

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