There’s more to life than Gemara
Yeshiva high schools need to reconsider their unrelenting focus on Gemara
What can I say? Gemara classes bored me. Hours upon wasted hours, I would sit there in my yeshiva high school, as words like “sugyot”, “braitot”, “Rashi”, “Tosefot”, and even “Shev Shmateta” (I received three copies of the latter for my bar mitzvah) swirled around my head.
The years passed. By the time I entered my Hesder yeshiva, I had managed to resolve some of my differences with the Gemara. A combination of good teachers, no tests, and a pressure-free environment permitted me to occasionally enjoy a juicy page of the Talmud.
Nevertheless, I wasn’t exactly in love. Since then, I’ve joined – on a voluntary basis – classes on the daily or weekly page, but not too much more than that.
Many of my friends haven’t cracked open a Gemara since high school. But they’re all Orthodox Jews with religious wives, and they observe the mitzvot (religious commandments) and watch Channel 2 at home.
Ironically, their own children are now forced to sit bleary-eyed in front of the Gemara. Yet, the twenty volumes of the beautiful “Vilna Shas” (a classic edition of the Talmud) - which they received as a wedding present from their in-laws and which sit decoratively on the bookshelf – are only opened once a year, before Pesach, in order to shake out the dust from between the pages.
Why do the yeshiva high schools place such heavy emphasis on Gemara? Just because. Because the founders wanted to show that not only do yeshiva high schools offer secular studies, but they are also “real” yeshivas, like the holy haredi ones. To put it more succinctly: Because that’s how it’s done in Ponevitch (one of the foremost Lithuanian haredi yeshivas in Bnei Brak).
As a result, yeshiva high school students are required to meet the lofty standards of the advanced yeshivas. But the students are told that they needn’t worry.
If they learn Gemara now – in Aramaic and without Rabbi Steinsaltz’s translation – they’ll have an easier time later. Why? Again, just because. Stalemate, or as they say in the yeshivas, “Teku” (i.e., Elijah the Prophet will come and resolve the dilemma).
Then there’s the old question of the chicken and the egg. The extremely difficult Gemara classes ensure that the yeshiva high schools will not appeal to teenagers from less-religious families.
Thus, if you want your son to study together with other boys from homes like yours, you must send him to a place where they continuously churn out Gemara tractates. Your only other option is a girls’ school.
Bingo. You’re trapped. Gemara becomes the ultimate selector.
Is it really the right way to go?
Two hundred years ago, in Volohzin (the prestigious forerunner of the modern yeshiva), Gemara fittingly took pride of place, because those students encompassed the crème de la crème of Russian Jewry. However since then, as if on auto pilot, generations of boys have found themselves cozily – albeit unhappily - ensconced in front of one tractate or another.
They say that Gemara sharpens the mind. But does any yeshiva head have a sharp enough mind in order to ask himself whether Gemara is really the right way to go? What’s the point, if Gemara lessons do little to promote love of the Torah and fear of God?
Let me stress that I continue to be amazed by the incredibly vast depth and breadth of the amazing Torah composition known as the Talmud. I certainly have nothing whatsoever against the Gemara itself; my beef is with its instructors.
I believe that as they prepare for their lives out in the real world, our teenagers should be also (please note that I said “also!”) taught subjects that are more germane and relevant to the challenges they are sure to face. For instance, they should delve into “The Kuzari”, “Duties of the Heart”, and “Path of the Just”.
Students should be introduced to entire chapters of Maimonides’ “Mishneh Torah” and should probe the “Sefer HaChinuch” and works by Rabbi Kook and the Chafetz Chayim. The boys must study the laws of Shabbat and kashrut, Mishnah, the reasons behind the mitzvot, and Bible with the commentaries.
Do they know what to respond and what to ask? Are they familiar with the prayers and the fundamental principles of the Jewish home? Have they become acquainted with our land through the Bible and with the Bible via the land?
Orthodox girls do all of these things and much more. Thus, their religious world is more complete and more vital than the boys’ world – even without wholesale Gemara. And that’s why the girls are likelier to remain observant.
A waste of time?
Some claim that commercial amounts of Gemara - as is the custom - are appropriate for the most advanced high-achieving students, who can handle linear algebra before they’ve completed addition and subtraction. Perhaps this approach suits - although I have my doubts – haredi boys whose whole life revolves around the Torah.
So, then let Gemara be taught in the advanced yeshivas, the institutes for rabbis and dayanim (Jewish law judges), and in synagogue daily and weekly Gemara classes. But where in the Torah does it say that one must study Gemara exclusively?
For many crocheted-kippa-wearers, the high school years comprise the one period in their lives when they’ll devote any significant time to learning Torah. Why squander 1,000 hours a year (!) on a mere 30 to 40 Gemara folios?
In hindsight, we graduated high school with a limited amount of Torah-related knowledge and a great deal of frustration. Our homes had provided us with good habits and a simple love of the Torah. If we were lucky, we discovered the inner beauty of the Orthodox Jewish experience.
But Gemara was always pure torture at worst and a waste of time at best. When I would hear the opening lines of Tractate Brachot - “From when do we recite the Kriat Shema in the evenings” - I would inevitably doze off. (I guess that was the time to recite Kriat Shema in the mornings.)
My conversations with today’s students have revealed that little has changed. Yes, all sorts of modern, alternative methods have been attempted: study groups, learning by topic, computer printouts and acupuncture. However, the Gemara itself has remained static.
We have excellent instructors, dedicated rabbis, role models, and scholars. But their lives can be described as “all Gemara; all the time.”
There is some hope. A few yeshiva high schools have slowly and hesitantly added a handful of new and enthralling subjects to their curricula. For instance, there are some students now studying Hassidism, Jewish music, and the history of the Tannaim and the Amoraim. Yet, these examples are sporadic at best.
“What will everyone think?” remains a deeply rooted and paralyzing fear. Educators are too scared to wander off the tried but unsuccessful path. They refuse to recognize that their students are searching for a wider and more diverse range of answers and religious experiences.
Maybe one day, a yeshiva head will decide to close his Gemara – if only for a few minutes – and to consider a broader curriculum. And those students who have spent the day mastering the Bible, Jewish law, Jewish ethics, and Jewish thought will be offered a rare treat.
In the evening, they will be invited to sit down with the yeshiva head and, together, tackle a page of Gemara.