2001 Put the Ed Back in Jewish Education
Chananya Weissman

February 22, 2001, Yeshiva University Commentator

Jewish education is something we all take very seriously. We spend enormous sums of money on it from kindergarten all the way through. It factors significantly in our decision where to live. We turn down schools for ourselves and our children for seemingly trivial reasons that others just wouldn't understand. In light of this, we must ask ourselves: why is Jewish education such a dismal failure?

Before addressing this question, perhaps I should legitimize it. After all, so many of us have a rosy impression of Jewish education. These optimists claim that more Jews are learning Torah today than ever before. They boast that new Yeshivas can hardly open up fast enough to accommodate all those who wish to attend.

They are correct. But they are also misinterpreting the positive signs and completely ignoring the alarming ones. True, the number of people who learn Torah today is great, but the overall quality of learning is at a nadir. People who have spent twenty years attending the most respected of yeshivas from grade one on still can't read six lines of gemara that haven't been pre-chewed by Artscroll or some learning aid. (I, too, find certain aids beneficial, but it's time we found a cure.) Parents with a full educational background would fail a second grader's chumash test (closed book). Students who excel in learning never acquire the motivation to continue learning at that level once the external rewards and pressures disappear. And you know, I find it hard to blame them.

Walk into a seforim store, any one you choose. What do you see? The display windows and front of the store are filled with advice books, feel-good-about-yourself / Judaism / God books, and kabbala-for-people-who-don't-know-anything books. Creampuff seforim; hard on the outside but hollow in the middle. That's all that's being produced by our generation. The real stuff is in the back.

In short, Jewish education is currently an ignorance factory. The reasons for this are many, but the prevailing learning hierarchy is as big a reason as any. It begins when the child (for purposes of this article I refer strictly to boys' education) reaches ten years of age. At that time he is thrust into the world of gemara, straight out of singing chumash and Rashi and memorizing mishnayos. Have you ever wondered why this Herculean transition is forced upon our youngsters? For two reasons. First, because educators believe it's time the children stopped wasting their time with those other things and got down to business. Second, because it impresses people that the school “accelerates” their students' development, and schools like to impress people more than anything else.

Even the brightest of children are not mentally prepared to learn gemara at that early age, and they become easily frustrated. For some kids, entering the world of gemara marks the first time they have ever been overwhelmed by their schoolwork. And for all you parents out there inwardly gloating that your kid is doing just fine, I regret to inform you that chances are that he too is being harmed. The same mental exertion that a ten-year-old must put forth to grasp even the simplest of Talmudic concepts could and should be applied toward the acquisition of everything that comes first.

Why should he spend three years struggling to learn the basics of gemara, when he could be learning Tanach from beginning to end and establishing a solid foundation for future studies? And wouldn't children be better off learning the Hebrew language while their ability to do so is at a peak? With these tools and a few years of added maturity, our youngsters would be well prepared to take the next step. Under the current system, the problems only multiply for the “accelerated” youngster, ultimately leading him to become the average Jewish adult, who is lucky to find some time for learning.

The failure in Jewish education lies in great part to a disparaging attitude towards Tanach, nay, towards anything non-talmudic. Tanach study is reserved for women, Biblical scholars, and children (a group more commonly known by their talmudic name – isha, shoteh, vekatan). Have you ever wondered why a Yeshiva student who can handle picayune, intellectual talmudic matters needs a Stone chumash to dredge up a dvar Torah for the Shabbos table? Is it coincidental that the vast majority of contemporary divrei Torah on the parsha do little more than psychoanalyze a Biblical figure, merely quote something from generations ago, or assert a weak answer to a fabricated question? These are the same minds that can seemingly do wonders with a piece of gemara (I say “seemingly” because gemara is predicated on a strong familiarity with Tanach, and anyone who lacks that is necessarily suspect in gemara as well).

The greatest tragedy of al, however, is not widespread ignorance of Tanach. It is complete and utter contempt for it. The Tanach (a.k.a. “Bible”) department at Yeshiva University is absolutely outstanding. Most departments have some teachers that are good and some that are clueless, but the Tanach department is truly underrated. It is a place where many students who have been damaged by years of Jewish non-education can finally come to appreciate the relevance of Tanach to all other learning.

So what happens? MYP, the honors college of learning programs, the presumed home of all the “serious” students, harbors an attitude as refreshing as an ice cold glass of saltwater on a hot summer day: Tanach is a waste of time. I was told by one senior MYP administrator that they don't allow students to take two Tanach courses in the same semester, even if they can do so without missing a shiur. Hey, anyone who wants more Tanach can simply switch to a different program, he suggested. Gee, thanks. The implication is that they were making a concession to allow MYP students to take even one Tanach course, a necessary evil. I was further informed point blank by a prominent figure in the Tanach department why the MYP administration forbids students from taking two: this is the time we're supposed to spend learning.

The lights are on, but nobody's home.

This scary attitude is manifest in yeshivas of all stripes. It is only one of the many failures of Jewish education (too many to list in one column), but it's a big one.

People with influence in the field of Jewish education need to rethink their ideology, and everyone else should pressure them to do so. Schools are businesses, after all, and they want your patronage. It's time people focused a little less on the gratification afforded by intellectual-style learning and got back to the traditional, tried and true system. I don't necessarily recommend zero exposure to gemara until the ripe old age of fifteen, but, like kabbala, it should be kept in its rightful place in the learning structure for people of all ages, albeit a primary place.

After all, we don't dance with a shas on Simchas Torah.