Monday, August 10, 2015

Tears for a Broken System- Protesting an approach that fails most of our boys

It was, at once, one of the most beautiful and one of the saddest things I’ve ever seen. “Shmuel”  a 15 well-behaved and polite 15 year-old boy, was sitting in shul after Shachris going over a mishnah using a Hebrew-English mishnah. Even with the help of the English translation, Shmuel was struggling. As I listened to him struggle with both the Hebrew and English words, it seemed clear to me that he didn’t understand what he was learning. While there was great beauty in his effort to learn and his refusal to give up, I felt great sadness watching him struggle. I thought of the gemara in Chagigah where it discusses HaShem crying for one who can’t learn Torah and tries anyway. While there different ways to understand the gemara, one approach that I’ve heard is that HaShem sheds tears for those like Shmuel, because there are other ways for him to serve HaShem, approaches in which he could succeed.

I thought of Shmuel when I saw the cover of this past week’s Mishpacha magazine. Over a picture of a boy holding up a gemara, the headline screamed “Yes, Your Son Can Love to Learn”. While the article described the approach of a loving rebbe who has come up with a teaching style, and approach to review that helps some boys become more successful in learning gemara, the headline promised parents much more. It seemed to say that even if your son does not love to learn, he should, and we know how to make it happen. Furthermore, while the word gemara was absent from the headline, it was clear from the article that the only focus was on boys learning gemara. Taking this into account, Mishpacha was suggesting (insisting?) that your son can and should love to learn gemara.

I thought of Shmuel’s parents. Might they be fooled into thinking that he can love to learn gemara, if only he would try harder and his rebbe would try a different approach? What of all the boys who are in yeshivahs for boys who have “rebelled” against the system? Is the solution to what ails them to be pushed back towards a religious life where only gemara learning marks one as a successful Jew? Is there no other way to be a frum Jew? Is there no other meaningful way to learn Torah? What exactly is wrong with Tanach?

In a well known Midrash, it is said that of 1000 who begin learning Tanach, 100 move on to mishna, of which, only 10 make it to gemara. That’s one percent. There was no suggestion that the other 99% could or should learn gemara. Why do we insist on being smarter than Chazal, especially those of us who are so careful to listen to other things that they say?

I have no problem with the article itself, excluding the implied suggestion about the gemara-only approach. I understand that a headline stating “Here’s a Rebbe with an approach that some schools might consider” might not have been as exciting, or even qualified to be on the cover, but how much longer will we push our boys into a harmful one-size-fits-all system, a system that should make all of us join HaShem in his crying?

"It was, at once, one of the most beautiful and one of the saddest things I’ve ever seen. “Shmuel” a 15 well-behaved...

Posted by Pesach Sommer on Monday, August 10, 2015


  1. Pesach, I love you like a brother but this is not an example of pushing our boys into a one size fits all system. It's an article about how to be mechazek boys who are already in mainstream yeshivahs and are happy. It's an article with a claim to make them more successful than they would be otherwise. There are plenty of articles (in Mishpacha, no less. Lancaster Yeshiva comes to mind and others) lauding the praises and successes of yeshivas who cater to the disenfranchised and uninterested. I would try to straighten you out if I can get you to go running

    1. Mainstream yeshivahs? Perhaps. Happy? I'm not so sure.

  2. "The gemara only approach" predates Rabbeinu Tam, and while he had a hard time fitting the practice to the texts, Rabbeinu Tam does do so. It is an old practice endorsed by rishonim. Not so trivial to dismiss.

    Perhaps we should take the Rambam's resolution -- gemara and lomdus for experts AFTER they mastered Tanakh and established halakhah. (Leaving aggadita to its own mitzvos -- the development of ahavas veyir'as Hashem [Yesodei haTorah 2:1-2] and Hilkhos Dei'os.)

    And then there is the evidence of our grandparents' generation, before today's education system. Yes, shuls offered daf yomi; the first in the US was the YI of Boro Park, given by R/Dr Mirsky. But more common were Chayei Adam, Minchas Chinukh and Mishnayos; and in other circles, Ein Yaaqov.

    It was common in the Arukh haShulchan's day to have a chevra shas, learning a daf a day if not on a global schedule like Daf Yomi. Here's his opinion of it (YD 246:17):
    ערוך השולחן יורה דעה סימן רמו
    ובלשון זה השיב רב האי גאון לרבינו שמואל הנגיד תקון הגוף ומשור הנהגת האדם הוא עסק המשנה והתלמוד ואשר טוב לישראל כי לימוד התורה יועיל לעצמו ולאחרים שכמותו ויועיל לעמי הארץ כי ימשכם לדרכי התורה והמצוה וכו' וינהגו כל ההמון לאחרית טובה ותקוה וכו' ולא תמצא יראת שמים ויראת חטא וזריזות וענוה וטהרה וקדושה אלא המתעסקים במשנה ובתלמוד עכ"ל [הובא בריב"ש סי' מ"ה] ועכשיו בדורותינו אלה צריך האב ליזהר הרבה על בניו ובנותיו שלא יפלו ברשת המינות והאפקורסות שנתרבתה בעוה"ר ונתקיים בנו בעקבא דמשיחא חוצפא יסגי חוצפא כלפי שמיא ועוד ועוד ד' ירחם עי' ש"ך וט"ז סק"א שכתב בשם הדרישה הבעה"ב שלומדים רק איזה שעות ביום טוב יותר שילמדו ספרי פוסקים ולא גמרא ע"ש ובוודאי שעל כל איש לידע דיני אורח חיים ומקצת דינים מיו"ד וח"מ ואהע"ז המוכרחים לכל איש ע"ש בה' ת"ת להגרש"ז ז"ל אמנם ראינו כי אם כה נאמר להם לא ילמדו כלל כי רצונם רק ללמוד דף גמ' בכל יום ע"כ אין להניאם והלואי יעמדו בזה וכל ד"ת משיבת נפש ומביאה ליראת ד' טהורה:

    1. One more thing to keep in mind when looking at the topic is - it wasn't so long ago that only a minority of boys went on to learn in yeshiva. So Rabbeinu Tam's arguments were made, he was referring to a group of yeshiva guys who were already thought to be the creme de la creme.

      In our day, with nearly all Orthodox kids going into some sort of yeshiva program, the one size fits all approach can and should be reevaluated.

    2. Good point about Rabbeinu Tam.

      The problem with a more customized approach is that we can't afford the cookie cutter, how are we going to pay for the greater resources something more customized would require?

    3. Oops, I didnt' say everything I had planned to.

      Good point about Rabbeinu Tam, it makes him sound more like the Rambam. The Rambam has the student divide his study into thirds, but once he knows miqra and mishnah, talmud is the primary study.

  3. In the time of R Tam, only that 1 in 10 or 1 in 100 or fewer were in yeshiva to begin with. The Ashkenazi emphasis in Gemara was a leftover from the Gemara only approach of the major Geonic academies. The medieval Sephardi curricukum was more diverse and emphasized Talmud only for the truly gifted student. Rambam himself never wrote for the masses, rather about his own ideal for the chacham.

    1. You seem to presume Babylonian origins of Ashkenazim. It is more accepted, on the grounds of pesaq, minhag, siddur and genetics, that Ashkenazim have more Israeli origins (via Constantine encouraging northward migration from Rome and via Provence) than do Sepharadim. This is why there is a stronger geonic voice in the Rif and the Rambam than in Rabbeinu Gershom, Rashi and Tosafos. Prof Agus and more recently advocated by Ta-Shma theorized that much of the Baalei haTosafos's project was motivated by the acceptance of Talmud Bavli as "The Gemara" and yet the existence of practices whose ancestry come from Israeli and are at odds with what we found there. (I don't see enough evidence in actual content.) But to me, the confirming genetics was the clincher.

      If the mediaval Ashkenazi curriculum was more focused, I wouldn't blame the geonim. Since I don't know the medieval Sepharadi curriculum, I won't comment. For that matter, the geonim saw themselves, for good reason, as the successors to the amoraim of Bavel. That would influence their writing -- they wrote mostly shu"t and relied on shas more than other of chazal's writing. I don't know their curriculum in terms of their own learning schedule, never mind that of the masses in their day. In fact, I don't even know what part of the geonic period the mishnah and shas went to manuscript from orality.

      There is reason to believe from the Four Rabbis story (the origins story involving pirates taking captives and different communities ransoming each) that it's really about when we finally said "eis la'asos Lashem" and put those texts to mass distribution in writing -- as late as the last generations (mid-10th cent) of the geonim!

      I am not asserting that point; just pointing out how hard it is to pin down. If there was no mass distribution of shas yet, the masses weren't focusing their studies on it.