Monday, August 6, 2012

A follow-up to Beware the Overhaul

My post yesterday, commenting on Rabbi Dov Lipman's recent comments in the Jewish Press, generated a number of comments and discussions on this blog and in other forums. One strain of comments suggested that I essentially agree with some of the reforms that Rabbi Lipman proposed, but I was merely put off by his manner of presenting them.

Upon reflection, I think that while there may be a kernel of truth to that idea, the fact is that Rabbi Lipman and I disagree on a very fundamental concept. True, we both seem to feel that the standard Yeshiva curriculum needs to become more varied. Personally, I believe that at a certain point, perhaps by 11th grade, we should allow students the option of having a non-Gemara intensive track for those who, after 5 or 6 years, do not find Gemara to be all that appealing. In fact, this notion lay behind my doctoral research, which looked at high school seniors' motivation to learn Gemara. However, I come to these ideas from an educational and curricular perspective, while Rabbi Lipman seems to feel that a shift in the curriculum will produce better Jews.

What is not clear to me is why Rabbi Lipman does not think that Gemara is up to the task of creating menschen. The Gemara itself offers one opinion that a person who wants to be a "chassid" (pious individual) should study the Order of Nezikin, which focuses on laws of damages. How does the study of complicated civil law make one pious? The most common explanation that I have heard is that these laws are, at their root, all about how we treat one another. I am currently learning the beginning of Bava Batra with one of my children, and an overriding concept in the early chapters is about hezek re'iyah - damage that's done by being able to see into another's property. The law thus inculcates the idea that another person's privacy is so sancosanct as to make it illegal to violate it even in a small manner. Numerous other examples abound throughout Nezikin, and the rest of the Gemara as well.

By the same token, the eternal messages that Rabbi Lipman writes about that are contained in Tanach can be muted if taught improperly. Biblical critics study the same text that we focus on in Yeshiva, but they look for things other than spiritual and moral enlightenment in that text. Even within our own schools, an intense focus on technical minutiae or too much time spent on skills to the total elimination of understanding the message can drain the Torah of its ability to illuminate the proper path that we should be following in life.

And so, the solution to Rabbi Lipman's crisis is not to change what we teach but how we teach it. If our students do not understand why we are learning what we are learning, if they cannot connect the text to their broader lives, if they are not impacted in a deep sense by a great lesson, then we as teachers have to see what more we can be doing. Obviously, enlightenment will not happen every day for every student, but the cumulative effect should aim at something more than mere ability to learn (not that that is a bad goal, either). I am always gratified when I meet a former student who many years later still remembers a Rashi or a piece of Gemara that I taught him. But when I meet a former student who tells me that there is a way in which he lives his life that he learned from me, then I feel that I have done what my job is supposed to be.

1 comment:

A.B. said...

Amen brother. Btw, I am learning Mishpatim with my daughter, who finds it "surprisingly interesting" (her words), all on account of those Seder Nezikin type cases the Torah addressees, which address in a serious and mature way (as in without 'cute' stories) practical examples of how people need to learn to deal with how to live with one another.
Avi Billet