Monday, February 14, 2011

Boys and Gemara - Not So Simple

Rav Herschel Schechter, in addition to being a real Talmid Chacham and a warm and witty individual, also has a knack for making good observations in pithy and memorable ways. A friend of mine once related that Rav Schechter had noted that while there seems to be a push on to give girls the same education that we give to boys, we should really be trying to do the opposite - to give boys the same education that we give to girls. Think about it - girls leave high school (in those programs where they do not learn Gemara, or learn it minimally) having been through much of Tanach and having taken a variety of courses of real, practical Halacha. By contrast, their male counterparts have spent pretty much all of their time learning Gemara, which may have benefitted some of them in a concrete way, but has left many of them confused about Gemara and still ignorant about Tanach and Halacha.

There are so many directions to go with this topic that I am not sure which one to choose first. The question of what is being gained by boys learning Gemara to such an extent has bothered me since I entered education, and it ultimately was the driving force behind my doctoral research (which you can access here if you want). I suppose that the initial question is whether or not schools (and here I am focused mainly on high schools and, to a lesser degree, Yeshivot in Israel) can offer an educationally sound rationale for making Gemara the main subject that is studied as measured in number of hours dedicated to it.

The symposium that I referred to from the Lookjed forum a few posts ago offered a vast range of reasons why it is generally important to learn Gemara. My concern here is more focused: Can a high school principal present a firm rationale explaining why it is crucial for all of the boys in his school, who operate on many different levels of intellectual ability, perhaps come from a variety of religious backgrounds, and who perhaps are going to a variety of different types of higher educational environments - why it is important for every single one of those boys to be taught Gemara to the point that it reduces all other limudei kodesh to secondary status.

Let us assume that studying Gemara is important for one reason or another. I do not deny that and, as a Gemara teacher myself, I can think of a good number of reasons. And let us assume that Gemara cannot easily be taught in short blocks of time, that the analytic nature of Gemara, different from all other subjects, requires time in which the students can carefully work their way through the ins and outs of the Talmudic arguments. To the extent that this is true, I would certainly agree that Gemara should get more time than other subjects - how else will students come to appreciate all of the beauty inherent in this most unique of texts?

However, let's say that 10th grade has just concluded. The students about to enter their junior year have been learning Gemara for an average of 5 years in school, including at least 2 in the intensive high school environment. The top students are beginning to show the ability to learn on their own. The next tier of students, while they still need work on their textual skills, are certainly capable of participating in the discussions about the sugya. But what about the students further down the ladder? What about those kids who have decided that Gemara is just not for them - either they are not good at it, are not interested in it, or some combination of the two or some other reason? Certainly they have had enough exposure to make at least a semi-informed opinion. And yet do we offer them the option of switching into a less-Gemara intensive track? Furthermore, if we want them to go to Yeshiva in Israel, just about every option available to them offers a program that is Gemara-intensive, even more so than their high school programs were! Are we serving these children well? Are we right in hoping that eventually everything will just "click"?

I am going to leave this post off here and allow for comments before I continue. Stay tuned.


Tech Rav said...

I remember Rav Schachter was once asked during a gathering for Baal Habatim in my community if there should be more opportunities for women to learn Gemara on a high level in Kollel. His response? "I think there are too many men learning in Kollel today." Classic Rav Schachter.

Anonymous said...

My 13 year old boy studying in the Herzog school in Bnei Brak is exposed to intense Gemara learning and quite frankly hates it. I have often thought along the same lines as he would dearly love to be able to cope but his failure to grasp the subject is making him feel a failure and as Gemara lessons take up most of the day he gets quite depressed. Why can't they at least split the boys up into classes according to ability?