Friday, May 26, 2006

Are some yeshivos using archaic methods?

In 1902 the Jewish Quarterly Review published the following article, which was written by Ludwig Blau* in 1897:

This is only an excerpt. Read the whole article here.

The article seeks to answer the question posed in the bit I excerpted and looks for solutions. Bear in mind that Ludwig Blau was not Orthodox, was not concerned here with the state of yeshivos. Furthermore, it is obvious that this system does produce talmidei chachamim--but most do not become that, not after being exposed to this material for many hours a day for many years. I once posted about someone who went through the system and called himself illiterate.

The question is, why? Why should this be?

The comments in this post on Emes Ve-Emunah speaks of the archaic curriculum in yeshivos (across the spectrum).

In my opinion this is less of a problem in elementary school, believe it or not, where there is more likely to be some program of study. In many high schools and certainly beyond the program amounts to all Gemara all day with little guidance. It is assumed that by a certain age (say, 15 or 16) the student can "make a leining" (leynen is Yiddish, leining is Yeshivish), which means to be able to independtly prepare a piece of Gemara. Given my own experience I can tell you that for many boys--but by no means all--it was pure illusion that they could make a leining. Of course there are those who simply can't, but there are also those who can translate all or some or most of the words but really can't independently understand what they're learning.

There is no systematic way the boys are taught, no systematic way they study, prepare, review etc. I believe that those who thrive in this system do so despite it, not because of it.

The truth is that the reason this is archaic is not simply because it isn't modern, but because it is a carryover from when yeshivos were mostly institutions attended by those who were motivated and able to learn the material. It may well be that its success was mixed, but there is no question that every 15 year old boy learning Talmud in a yeshiva a hundred years ago was probably on average above what today is average. Or else, you wouldn't be in a yeshiva. Today, yeshivos are in general mass institutions, even though there are elite yeshivos. Every 15 year old is expected to be in one, learning with a program that can be best be characterized as no real program, rather then apprenticing with a blacksmith. In that sense the system is archaic: it is still geared toward the assumption that the boys can make a leining, that they have a basic grasp of how the Gemara works, that they can do well despite the haphazardness.

The shame of it is that Blau's article was written in 1897 and there isn't essentially a better system in 2006 (keeping in mind also that Blau was trying to make Talmud "work" in Seminaries, not yeshivos and talmud Torahs, which he probably didn't much care about).

I know there are great exceptions. I know there is more structure in a lot of yeshivos than I protrayed, but even so, they are mostly general: e.g., be'iyun (in depth study) in the morning, be-kiyus (broad study) in the afternoon or evening.

Hopefully the methods of teaching and learning will improve such that the needs of popular, mass institutions are met.

*Encyclopedia Judaica entry:
BLAU, LUDWIG LAJOS (1861–1936), scholar. Blau studied at yeshivot, the Jewish Theological Seminary of Budapest, and the University of Budapest. As a student he was invited to teach at the Seminary where in 1889 he became a full professor. In 1914 Blau became director of the Seminary. For 40 years he was the editor of the Hungarian Jewish scholarly journal, Magyar Zsid\ Szemle. In 1911 he founded the Hebrew review Ha-Zofeh le-Hokhmat Yisrael be-Erez Hagar, which he edited until 1931. Blau was a prolific Jewish scholar who contributed to almost every aspect of Jewish learning. He was a regular contributor to most of the Jewish and non-Jewish scholarly periodicals dedicated to theology and philology. His bibliography includes 887 items and in the Zsid\ Szemle he reviewed 1,383 books. He was among the first to evaluate the talmudic information on the Bible and the masorah (Masoretische Untersuchungen, 1891; Zur Einleitung in die Heilige Schrift, 1894). He also investigated the information contained in traditional literature on ancient Hebrew booklore (Studien zum althebraeischen Buchwesen, 1902). His works subsequently gained added importance in light of interest in old Hebrew scrolls. Blau enriched general folklore by his book Das altjuedische Zauberwesen (1898). Equally his Juedische Ehescheidung und der juedische Scheidebrief (2 vols., 1911–12) broke new ground; with the discovery of divorce documents among the Bar Kokhba finds, this work takes on new relevance. Blau was among the first to make use of Greek papyri for the evaluation of talmudic law (Papyri und Talmud in gegenseitiger Beleuchtung, 1913; Prosbul im Lichte der griechischen Papyri und der Rechtsgeschichte, in Festschrift der Landesrabbinerschule, 1927). He also published the letters of Leone Modena (Leo Modenas Briefe und Schriftstuecke, 2 vols., 1905–06).
[Alexander Scheiber]

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