Tuesday, March 20, 2007

There's more to life than Gemara?

At YNet Uri Orbach writes as an adult recalling the pure torture that learning Gemara was for him and, he says, many other kids in school (he is writing about Israeli schools).

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.

His complaint is certainly nothing new. I've heard it voiced countless times. I've even voiced variations of it myself. The question is this: is the Gemara meant for everyman (child)? If it is, why is it that so many kids never "get" it? Why are so many kids bored? Why are potentially more interesting topics skipped? Does it make sense to begin instruction without any knowledge of the language (to say nothing of the idiosyncratic syntax)? Complaints and questions of this nature have seemingly been voiced since time immemorial. One can trace distant echoes of this question in the pedagogic reforms advocated by the Maharal in the 16th century (to dethrone the Tosafos from quite the place of prominence) or against authentic Polish pilpul (opposed by the Gra). I once posted what amounts to a first cousin of this lament: Are Some Yeshivos using Archaic Methods?--about an article written by Ludwig Blau one hundred ten years ago.

Orbach would like to see yeshivos for children concentrating on other classic Jewish texts that may better capture the interest of students:

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 then he draws a questionable conclusion

And that’s why the girls are likelier to remain observant.

His experience and plaint is summed up thus

“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.

Why indeed?

“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).

He essentially says that the Talmud properly belongs in advanced yeshivos, to rabbis and judges and to people who voluntarily go to Talmud classes in the synagogue, a point I am ambivalent about, to say the least.

He has overlooked one thing which should not be overlooked. Although he has perhaps shown that the Talmud isn't for everyone, he overlooks the fact of popularization of what had always been a closed text for most Jews, and yet the most important text! Or more importantly, what would be the effect on the common man of rolling back its popularization? He is an observant, Orthodox Jew which means that whether it bores him or not the Talmud will continually be relevant to his life. Does he really wish that the foundational text of halakhic Judaism become even more esoteric than it already is, in an era when more people are accessing it? While שור שנגח את הפרה ("An ox that gored a cow," Massekhet Babba Kamma 5) doesn't fire the interest of too many children who nevertheless must study it without, necessarily, demonstration that the best methods are being employed or that the intellectual justification for it has been made--be careful what you ask for.


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