The Rambam Was Right (Ideas #4)

I believe that most serious social change starts with adult movements and not with educational reform. The latter will never be given true endorsement unless a large and dedicated segment of the adult population supports its theoretical underpinnings. 

Any large Jewish educational system must have two goals:

1) creating elite cadres of halachic/rabbinic leadership

2) providing the masses with basic knowledge of Judaism in such a fashion that they will be motivated to find their spiritual needs met within normative Judaism.


In the past, these two goals often found themselves in two different arenas. The latter goal was often carried on in the home and little extra input was necessary. In some societies, teachers were hired to fulfill some of the basic educational tasks that are halchically impingent upon the home. Yeshivot, on the other hand, were given the first goal as their responsibility. This was the case in Eastern Europe as it was almost everywhere from time immemorial. The Lithuanian yeshivot, in particular, established their reputation as the seat of first-class rabbinic scholarship. Their students came from the intellectual elite and out from their gates came the leaders of European Jewry. These great yeshivot carried on their successful approach to talmudic studies in the new centers of post-World War II Jewish life. Because of their successes, the general methods and curriculum have been adopted by almost all secondary and post-secondary Jewish schools for men - it is no coincidence that, whether they are hyphenated or not(i.e., yeshiva-high schools), these schools refer to themselves as yeshivot.


For a variety of historical and sociological reasons (subject for another article), these schools have now inherited the second goal as well as the first. Quite simply, the methods and curriculum of the yeshivot were never meant for the masses and, like improperly prescribed medicine, can be dangerous for them. High level talmudic study is necessary for anyone who will be involved in rabbinic functions but is clearly not meant for everyone, no more than is applied physics. Such study requires certain aptitudes as well as personality. However, this should not make those who do not fit the bill second-class citizens - there are other realms of religious excellence besides talmudics. (This point is well-articulated by Tamar Frankel in "The Voice of Sarah".)

What I am proposing is a humble attempt at addressing the obvious problem. It is still in formulation and completely theoretical. What follows is a basic outline for a high school Judaic Studies curriculum.


Just as most technical areas of study (i.e. music, science, etc.) are divided into two educational tracks between application and appreciation, so too should halacha. This is not to say that the talmudic track be reserved for future rabbis only, but for those whose intellects and personalities are fit for it. I estimate that this would exclude approximately 75 percent of students from this track. The talmudic track would be similar to most curricula today with a small bit of the innovative material that I will suggest for the other track, since even potential talmudists have an emotional side that is very involved in beliefs and religious behavior.


Assuming three class periods of Jewish studies per day, the non-talmudic track should have one class devoted to Tanakh, emphasizing literary motifs, personalities and human strivings - for example, a serious study of Tehilim. The second class would be halacha/torah sheba'al peh - a contemporary version of the Mishneh Torah - concise, to the point and clear. The third class (and this is what relates most directly to my previous article) is to be devoted to appreciation of G-d in the world. This should be broken up into conceptual units that reflect the Divine such as: beauty, harmony, truth, kindness, etc. As an example, the unit on kindness would have students involved in a kindness project (i.e., bikur cholim) once a week. It would also have speakers who are involved in kindness or kindness-related professions come to speak on a frequent basis. The more the speaker has internalized what they do, the greater the impact - Rabbanit Kapach is someone that immediately comes to mind. Studies of the mitzvot involved and case studies would fill in the meat of the unit. Case studies should begin with the tanakh and go up to the present day. The unit on beauty would involve field trips to natural sites; a sub-unit on music; nature and travel films; study of related mitzvot (i.e. brachot recited over natural sights, etc.); and Jewish literature that shows an appreciation of natural beauty. This course along with a more literary approach to Tanakh is meant to provide the student with a more immediate awareness of G-d and the excellent suitability of Jewish tradition as a response to that awareness.

An afterword is also required. One of the self-conscious successes of the Neo-Lithuanian model is that it has provided us with a large number of serious Torah scholars and poskim. If everyone is studying Talmud, those who excell will be recognized and thus motivated to continue their studies. My model requires a new motivator for these future leaders - their track may well be less interesting, more academically taxing and not lead to a financially rewarding career. This must be adressed before we embark in bold new directions. My sense is that schools can provide recognition for Talmud students the same way it would for basketball players if Talmud/halacha will be as appreciated by our society as is basketball. As for financial incentives, reducing the Israeli kollel population by 75 percent would free up funds to pay the remaining 25 precect respectable salaries (as well as solve many other Israeli social issues). But that brings us back to adults ...and there's the rub.