Klal Perspectives – Summer 2014
Too long went by without a new issue of Klal Perspectives, a journal that always provoked animated discussion about matters vital to the Orthodox community. The Summer 2014 issue is devoted to the state of boys’ high school chinuch, and marshalls the opinions of some of the most respected names in secondary Torah chinuch in the West.
Why the long delay since the previous issue? Did the editorial board run out of steam? Did the readership lose interest? None of the above. Below you will find a more accurate (although perhaps not more satisfying) explanation in the Foreword to the issue. (I know the guy who wrote it….) Following it are the summaries of the individual contributions.
The editors hope that not only will this issue stimulate vigorous discussion, but that the contributors will be brought though it to closer personal contact. Perhaps, through working together, they might develop practical solutions to some of the problems discussed.
Matters of great worth and significance, says Maharal (Gevuros Hashem, Chapter 30), cannot spring up willy-nilly. They take time to develop. They grow slowly, from darkness to light. While Maharal teaches this in regard to things of great supernal value, the editorial staff would like to believe that our efforts at addressing the needs of the Torah community might, at least be-z’eir anpin, follow the same rule. That would help us explain the long gap in time between the last issue and this one.
Maharal aside, readers will appreciate how difficult it was to produce the pages in front of them. The centrality of Torah study almost defines our community. We lovingly dedicate time to it above all other endeavors; we rhapsodize about its importance. We daven, as did countless generations before, that our children should know the joy of immersion in Torah.
No surprise, then, that any conversation about changing the way that our schools teach Torah is sometimes shut down quickly. When people outside the community or on its periphery exert pressure to “modernize” and “upgrade,” we batten down the hatches, taking a position ofאל תגעו במשיחי . Many of those who question aspects of our system of chinuch are met with suspicion, as if they are prepared to compromise the very foundation of our community. And indeed, sometimes the wrong people are prepared to do just that.
Yet, the importance of Torah itself dictates that approaches to Torah change in the course of time. Because ישראל ואורייתא חד הוא, a commonality of fate binds them, explains Rav Hutner (Pachad Yitzchok, Chanuka, Maamar 10). What happens to Klal Yisrael affects the way Torah is taught and learned. Rav Hutner distinguishes between a half-dozen approaches, just in the first rungs of Torah’s transmission. We should not be surprised that as Divine hashgachah changes some of the major and minor currents of our communal life, how we engage limud Torah may subtly change as well.
To suggest specific changes responsibly, however, takes a combination of experience and courage. This issue of Klal Perspectives assembles a group of contributors who can lay claim to both. Because of this, they offer something new to our readership. We know of no shortage of those who will criticize everything in the Torah world. Neither do we lack apologists, who will not tire of defending everything about the status quo. Klal Perspectives was interested in neither of these, but sought out people of loyalty to mesorah who had the courage to share their positive suggestions.
Our contributors do not grope for words with which to articulate the importance of serious, engaging limud Torah. They appreciate its variegated berachos. They have also served as educators long enough to have witnessed changes of emphasis in the past, and understand their necessity.
It should not be surprising, then, that there is much agreement in regard to maintaining focus in the high school years on serious study of Gemara. The contributors are sober and considered about the pitfalls for many students, but their experience tells most of them that Gemara must remain the primary focus even for students who do not flourish in our schools today. Their needs can and must be addressed through other derachim in learning, including bekiyus and halacha-focused learning. They offer practical suggestions about how to choose the proper school for a teen, and how to generate passion for Yiddishkeit.
To keep the conversation on a common platform, we limited our invitations to write to educators within the yeshiva world, where rabbeim, parents and talmidim all expect a long day of limudei kodesh, with a primary emphasis on Gemara. We are cognizant of the fact that this expectation is not shared with all parts of the Orthodox world. In some communities, there is more flexibility, and a different set of challenges. We refer the interested reader to the intriguing thoughts of Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, shlit”a, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion, about similar issues in the Dati-Leumi community in Israel – some (but not all) of which will apply to parts of the American Modern Orthodox community.
An apocryphal story tells of a cardiologist who picks up his car after some service, and voices surprise about the cost of the repair. “You know, Doctor,” says the mechanic, eager to demonstrate the justice in the bill, “both of us really do the same thing. The car’s engine is like a heart. Getting it to function properly is exactly what you do. I know that you charge far more for your services. You shouldn’t be complaining.”
Not ready to concede the point, the physician responds, “Really? I’d like to see you fix an engine while it is running!”
Our contributors, like the surgeon, understand Torah chinuch to be the heart of the Torah community, and the engine that drives allegiance to Torah and propels students to proper avodas Hashem. They have the skill and experience to suggest ways to improve its function.
Having come this far, readers can appreciate why this issue is thinner than previous ones. Hard as we tried, many people on our list of potential writers were not willing to participate, or could not complete what they began. Readers might now understand that high school chinuch is not the only issue fraught with pitfalls for contributors. In fact, the issue we are now publishing is the third topic that we worked on as a team since the last one. We began work in earnest on two other topics. We carefully debated among ourselves. We drafted questions, and assembled lists of potential writers. We called; we urged; we cajoled. Two of those efforts ended in failure. We could not get enough people willing to meaningfully weigh in on those topics – after months of work and planning had gone into them.
In other words, the lapse of time between issues should not be interpreted as our having lost some of our enthusiasm for the premise of Klal Perspectives. We labored throughout. To the contrary – our aborted issues only brought home the realization that some issues are so complex, that people are not yet ready to engage them publicly. Our work continues, and we daven for the siyata d’Shmaya to one day make a contribution to mending all the pirtzos in geder Yisrael.
Below is a summary of each article. As always, we would love to hear from you.
Rabbi Simcha Cook: Are Our Yeshiva High Schools Servicing their Charges?
Considering the incredible changes that have swept our community in recent years, perhaps the time has come for our gedolim to broadly reexamine the preferred goals of a yeshiva high school. There is a need for more yeshivos that not only cater to the brightest students but that also offer an adjusted though fully meaningful program for the less gifted and the less motivated. Students need opportunities to express their unique talents and to have certain ruchniyus needs met through ongoing conversations about the wide range of hashkafa issues most relevant to teenage bochurim.
Rabbi Sholom Tendler: The Contemporary Yeshiva High School: The Challenge and the Opportunity
There is a significant body of students who seem to fit into traditional yeshivas but do not seem to be thriving there, and they deserve our attention. Though some suggest that a dominant focus on Gemara is not appropriate for these students, there is no way to create the dynamic and vibrant Beis Medrash environment necessary to inspire students without intensive Gemara study. The solution includes an approach to Gemara itself that incorporates varying teaching methodologies, targeting a wider range of students with varying aptitudes and personalities.
Rabbi Ahron Lopiansky: Educating the Education Consumer
Parents are the true consumers of high school chinuch and, by their choices and articulated objectives, it is they who are in the strongest position to initiate and influence a process of improvement in the schools. To exercise proper influence, parents must develop a keener appreciation for the needs of their children and for the method and criteria for choosing a yeshiva. To do so, they should keep in mind that there is no “best school,” only what is best for their child, and that the keys to evaluating a yeshiva are looking for success in imparting the “three C’s” – Clarity, Cumulative knowledge, and Creative analysis.
Rabbi Yeshai Koenigsberg: Reconciling Mesorah and Innovation: The Two Dimensions of Chinuch
When considering the terms under which the mesorah for conducting a yeshiva may be flexible and when it is unchangeable depends, among other things, on the distinction between education and inspiration. While there is a timeless approach to teaching Torah, there is a mandate for each generation to present it to their students in the language to which they will respond. Steps can be taken to improve the education of students through the traditional teaching Gemara and to inspire them with the language of love, success and encouragement.
Rabbi Shlomo Goldberg: Winning the Peace: A New Fifty-Year Plan
In the midst of astounding success in the rebuilding of Torah after World War II, a variety of significant and painful challenges have developed for the community. With a focus on producing the gedolei Torah so sorely needed by the Jewish community, yeshivas have trended towards elitism by celebrating only brilliance and accomplishment, with unfortunate results for far too many of their students. The time has come to re-envision the yeshiva high school system to meet the broader chinuch needs of the general student population.
Rabbi Dovid Katzenstein: The Educational Needs of Today’s Talmidim
While Gemara is properly the central limmud of a yehiva curriculum, today’s students seem to be getting less and less of an education in the other vital areas of Torah, such as Chumash, Navi, Halacha, Hashkafa and Tefilah. In order to provide our talmidim with the satisfaction and confidence they need to be successful bnai Torah throughout their lives, we need to take a fresh and more committed approach to each of these subjects, while continuing the current emphasis on traditional Gemara learning.
Rabbi Moshe Hauer: Reviving der Alter
While the current yeshiva high school system is designed for those who can excel in serious learning and yiras shamayim, it is serving many who will not reach that level of intensity. To ensure that more of those students do not become alienated, but instead gain from the atmosphere and take its inspired commitment forward into their lives, yeshivos – both high school and post-high school – should consider expanding or altering their staffs by providing additional rebbeim whose primary responsibility would be the cultivation of the personal and religious development of the talmidim.
I was astonished to see Rav Cook suggest that Business Ethics should be part of a secular curriculum. What is most of Baba Metzia and Baba Batra if not business ethics?
Can we speak of a broader system or broader community, or is there so much fragmentation that no identifiable group “owns” responsibility for educating all school-age Jews in its vicinity?
Unfortunately teaching business ethics will not be enough because:
1) Heterim of all sorts are given by certain poskim to justify all types of shtick.
2) It is basically impossible for many in the frum world to make ends meets in an ehrilich fashion.
Unless there are some serious changes in attitude and lifestyle the teaching of ethics while important wont be enough.
“What is most of Baba Metzia and Baba Batra if not business ethics?”
The first step to any solution is acknowledging the problem. The problem here is not that some kids cant understand Gemara, but that our teachers convince themselves that they cant. Nearly every one of the articles makes the assumption that Gemara is only for the best and brightest, and then proceeds to analyze how each contributor thinks our uninspired, dimmer-witted brethren can be addressed. But this is like the equally-risible claim that only “the best” go to Kollel. Has it not occurred to anyone that some or many of those uninterested in the Gemara might simply not find it intellectually compelling? That its logic structure is unconvincing, or the answers better than the questions? In fact, we know this is the case (that not liking Gemara has nothing to do with relative intelligence) because so many of such students excel in other scholastic areas, including other Torah areas.
I don’t personally feel this way about Gemara, but it would be foolish to ignore the reality that many, in fact, do. It is a form of laziness or defense-mechanism to say, of those not interested, that they’re just not “cut out” for it. Good teachers should be able to demonstrate, even to such students, the beauty of the Gemara. To get them to take the Gemara on its own terms, rather than on terms imposed by other standards. There is a value to studying the Gemara that everyone should be able to grasp.
Upon careful reading, the meticulously crafted forward’s explanation of the delay and relative lack of content in this issues is thoroughly depressing to those of us who were hoping that Klal Prespectives would offer something a little more ‘more’ to the challenges facing the broad Torah world.