An Education Manifesto

Part II Learning from the World of Learning (Ideas #32)

Many of us owe a great deal to the yeshiva system. Even more important than knowledge and skills, our religious inspiration was largely formed by the years spent within the yeshiva walls. Clearly, there is much to be gained by carrying over certain aspects of the yeshiva model.

While it is our thesis that the yeshiva curriculum is totally unsuited to the needs of the Jewish masses, there are at least three components of the yeshiva experience that are invaluable: 1) the atmosphere of intensity, 2) the rigor of approach to text and, hopefully, truth and 3) success in bringing about strict adherence to halacha.

1) Former High Court Judge Menachem Elon once recalled the unmatched intensity of his days at Yeshivat Chevron. The single-minded pursuit of understanding that exists in the classical yeshiva is clearly invigorating. Elon described it as a pursuit unlimited by time or schedule. In spite of its overwhelmingly intellectual nature, the complete dedication of self to religious pursuits experienced in the yeshiva is something that leaves an indelible mark upon a person.

Similar dedication to a more holistic curriculum and setting may be harder to bring about. The key may be in the schedule, logistics, and perhaps most important, in the leadership of the new schools. When the rosh yeshiva exhibits sincere and complete dedication, it sets the tone for the entire yeshiva. This will presumably also be true of the new schools that we envision.

2) One of the appealing facets of the yeshiva is its democratic approach to truth. A rebbe's shiur does not stand if he cannot appropriately address a logical flaw pointed out by even the weakest student. In fact, stumping the rebbe is to what almost every yeshiva student worth his salt aspires. In a proper yeshiva, all are equal before the truth. The soundness of this approach speaks for itself, allowing the natural ambition of the students to motivate them towards achievement.

As we propose to move away from the uniquely cerebral approach of the yeshiva, we must insure that rigorous pursuit of truth not be sacrificed. Even as we put more emphasis on personal expression, we must hold teachers and students accountable for their ideas. If their ideas are not properly rooted, we will be following in the ways of all antinomian sects, a risk which must be taken very seriously.

3) One of the major goals of the yeshiva is to create punctilious loyalty to halacha. While yeshiva dropouts may often reject halacha completely, successful graduates are usually fanatically dedicated to the halacha which they see as directly emanating from the texts that they have studied.

One of my students observed that this often appears as if yeshiva graduates worship halacha instead of G-d. Even as I believe this to be a very insightful observation, historical experience shows that halachic rigor serves as the backbone of Jewish spirituality. In our efforts to correct the situation by putting G-d back in the center of Judaism, we must make sure that we formulate a convincing motivatory scheme to engender strict adherence to halacha among our students.

The uninterrupted tradition of learning has given us a justified self-confidence in giving over a quality experience in the traditional yeshiva. The creativity, rigor and depth involved in traditional study of the Talmud and its commentaries are appealing to the best of minds. There is no equally developed body of literature in other Jewish realms, such as Aggadata, Jewish Thought, and Prayer. Thus, it is only natural that we are happy to stay with something in which we are proficient. While such reticence to expand our horizons is understandable, it is ultimately untenable. In today's field of “mass” Jewish education, the traditional yeshiva curriculum is as archaic as the typewriter. One can create a typewriter that is literally a work of art. Even one who can create such a typewriter and is not yet sure how to build a computer, has no choice but to learn how to do the latter, if he expects any appreciation and use outside of a museum.

In sum, we have no choice but to move past the yeshiva model in setting up schools for the masses. This will require much experimentation in order to create a quality experience. That being the case, we have everything to gain by making use of every successful facet of our learning tradition. Rigor, intensity and stress on normative behavior must be central to new institutions of learning if they are to form the next link in the transmission of Judaism from one generation to the next.