Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Chinuch Our Boys Deserve- Creating a better Torah curriculum for boy's yeshivas

[The following is about boy’s chinuch in more yeshivish type schools. I have written elsewhere about chinuch issues for girls, as well as chinuch in Modern-Orthodox schools.]

I have a great idea. Let’s have all of our boys start studying ancient Chinese legal theory, in Chinese. They’ll start in 5th grade. No, better yet, 4th grade. Within a few years we will add study of some of the basic ideas of Chinese legal theorists from the middle ages. Once they master that, by, let’s say 8th grade, we can throw in some later more complicated theorist’s works. The goal is that all of our children will ultimately get PHDs in ACLT. With enough effort and help from Heaven, we can do it.

Okay, maybe not, but how is it any more reasonable to suggest that all of our boys start learning gemara as young as 4th grade, without having mastered Tanach, mishna, or basic Hebrew? How can we put them in classrooms where they try to understand Tosefos, when it was written and intended for those who had mastered shas? Was Rebbe Akiva Eiger writing for 9th graders? Please don’t respond by citing tradition, as the idea of universal gemara learning for boys is less than 50 years old. The midrash talks of only one percent of boys who started off with Tanach moved onto gemara (Elef nichnas l’mikra...eser nichnas l’talmud). A mishna in Avos suggests that hascholas gemara should happen at age 15, and the gemara, later echoed by the Maharal and Meharsha, among others, suggests that the way to master gemara is to first cover ground without going into depth, and only then move on to sevara (ligmor v’hadar lisbor). How can we who so often take the words of Chazal so seriously ignore them when it comes to the chinuch of our sons?

Having spent more than 15 years in chinuch, I have seen too many of the korbanos of this system. Boys who think they can’t learn Torah when they haven’t been exposed to most areas of Torah, including Tanach, machshava, Jewish history and more. Boys who might have succeeded at learning Gemara had they started at an age when they were cognitively ready, instead of being turned off by their “failure” to understand at an age when they should have been learning something else. 4th graders who have already shown that they have learning issues including ones connected to a second language, who are pushed to learn a complex topic in a third language, with no other educational options until they reach high school. Grown men, including rabbis, who lack familiarity with basic works of Jewish philosophy, or a sophisticated approach to learning midrash.

So what do I suggest?

All boys should cover all of Chumash by the time they finish 8th grade. Initially, they will begin with Rashi, but by 6th or 7th grade other mephorshim should be introduced. This will introduce boys to the concept of machlokes and that there is more than one way to read a text. It will also introduce important concepts from Jewish thought. Nach should be taught as well, at least on the level of peshat, and, if we want to help boys become better at davening, Tehillim should be taught and analyzed.

Mishna should not be treated as gemara for dummies, but it can and should be used as an introduction to Torah She’B’al peh. In addition to introducing important concepts from the world of halacha, it is a good text for introducing gemara-type analysis in a language with which the boys are somewhat familiar. Additionally, it has nekudos, something that gemara does not, and does not have the challenge of being overly complex or analytical.

Yeshivas should start gemara later. Personally, I would suggest the beginning of high school as a good time to start, but I recognize that that will be too radical for most yeshivahs. At the very least, I would recommend holding off until 7th grade, and then, only for those who have shown mastery of the other parts of Torah. Even then, it should be recognized that truly understanding gemara and Rashi is no small thing, and might be the point where many boys will stop. An emphasis should be put on skills; both reading and analysis, and not just memorization. Additionally, aggadeta should not not be skipped, and should be taught with seriousness and rigor.

For those for whom gemara is too challenging for any of the possible reasons I mentioned above, there will be other options. In addition to continuing with, and mastering mishna, halacha can be taught as well. I do not mean by going through a text like the Kitzur (personally, I prefer the Chayei Adam), but by showing how halacha develops from passuk or gemara, to halacha l’maaseh. This would include the learning of some gemaras, but without the usual gemara-style learning.

Machshava should be introduced by high school. Age appropriate texts and concepts should be used with an emphasis on essential topics like tzaddik v’ra lo, schar v’onesh, teshuva, olam haba and so on. Jewish history should be taught as well. It is an interesting and important topic and can be used to emphasize the Yad HaShem that has allowed our people to live and thrive.

I do not suggest that the current system is not working for everyone. Boys who have the ability to sit for long periods of time, as well as interest and ability in complex and nuanced topics, but they are a minority. It is time to provide all of our boys with a Torah education that works for them.

1 comment:

  1. Great post, Pesach. I think, based on your experience that your suggestions are pretty solid. Especially the treatment of teaching Halacha. A number of the articles in the Summer 2013 issue of Klal Perspectives hit similar targets (the issue is all about chinuch in boys' high schools).