Sunday, August 5, 2012

Beware of the Overhaul: A Response to Rabbi Dov Lipman

I have recently become acquainted with the writings of Rabbi Dov Lipman, an American-born educator living in Beit Shemesh. Rabbi Lipman is basically an American charedi who is attempting to bring some moderation to the overall charedi mindset in Israel. To his credit, he is the rare American who has moved to Israel and actually gotten himself involved in the political scene.

However, his most recent column, "Overhauling Orthodox Education to Make Better Jews" has several fundamental problems that I would like to address.

1) Rabbi Lipman's basic thesis is that Yeshiva day school and high school education has failed, insofar as we are producing students with minimal Jewish knowledge, low levels of religious motivation, and a total lack of middot. He begin his article with a story of a boy in between years one and two at a post-high school hesder Yeshiva who rudely and offensively overcharged a Rabbi for the simple act of giving him a ride, claiming that the high charge was because he also had to spend time driving home after the errand.

I would have hoped that, as a respected and respectable writer, Rabbi Lipman could do better than take one individual and use him as a symbol for all that is wrong with an entire system. While he briefly admits that this young man was an exception, that admission seems to be made just so he can say that he made it, and his essay continues on the assumption that this child represents a new low that aloof Orthodox education has reached. Is it normal for journalists and politicians to routinely use scant anecdotal evidence to bolster larger and more substantive agendas? Of course. Do I expect more and better from Rabbi Lipman? Yes I do.

2) It is unclear to me who exactly Rabbi Lipman is addressing. As his sample student is an attendee of a hesder Yeshiva, I would assume that he is speaking to the American Modern Orthodox community. Also, as the reforms that he calls for stress a decrease in Gemara learning in favor of Tanach and other subjects, I would assume that he is not addressing the charedi community, where such an idea would never fly.

OK, perhaps it is not so unclear. But assuming that Rabbi Lipman is addressing the American Modern Orthodox community, which he is connected to through his involvement in various post-high school institutions, I wonder why he thinks that he is coming forward with new ideas. Has he ever read a Lookjed digest, where most if not all of his reforms have been discussed and debated over the past decade and a half? Has he spoken substantively with American educators about the challenges that they face in encouraging religious enthusiasm in 21st century America? And does he realize that many Orthodox schools already have a more varied curriculum than the one that he seems to imagine them to have? True, American students tend not to have the familiarity with as many verses of Tanach as their Israeli counterparts, but they often have far stronger critical thinking and analytical skills (the differences between American and Israeli education will have to be a separate post).

And Rabbi Lipman is by no means the most significant person to make this appeal. A decade ago, Mori V'Rabi HaRav Aharon Lichtenstein made a call to shift the curriculum away from Gemara and towards more learning of Mishna and Rambam. That article led to a vigorous and healthy bate with his student, Rav Yehuda Brandes (since translated and published in English), but the fact is that no major change in the curriculum came about as a result. Rav Herschel Schechter at YU has been quoted as saying that instead of trying to teach our girls Gemara like we do the boys, we should try to teach the boys Tanach and Halacha as we do the girls. Not that anyone is listening to that statement, either.

If Rabbi Lipman wants to succeed where others have not on this front, he should take the step of seeing post-high school education as what it really is - a continuation of high school, not the place where American high school students' religiosity is "saved". He should see his classes as part of year 13 of a curriculum and work with those who came before him to figure out what the students should be doing at each stage of their education.

3) Rabbi Lipman's article plays into the discontent that people often feel about their children's education, at a time when too many people are willing to see the negative and overlook the positive. In so many ways, American yeshiva day schools are succeeding like never before. Witness the growth of the number of students who attend Yeshivot in Israel or summer learning programs or mishmar programs. On the secular side, our students' achievements match up more than favorably with their counterparts from some of the best schools in the country. And chessed abounds, whether it is the growing trend of a chessed project as part of the bar and bat mitzvah celebrations, school-run chessed programs, or those that are community based.

Of course, if your child comes home with a bad grade or has a rough day, you as a parent are often more inclined to see the issues as systemic, and it is towards this mindset that Rabbi Lipman's article appeals. In short, it is not helpful. If he felt that the off-the-derech situation was due to a malaise within the Yeshiva system, or that the growth of white collar Jewish crime was a direct outgrowth of things learned in our system, or that we were producing a generation of ignoramuses, then perhaps there would be something to talk about. But one rude kid does not a failed system make. There are many reasons to support altering the curriculum - in all streams of Orthodoxy- but Rabbi Lipman does not convincingly make the case in this article.


Rabbi Joe said...

I see no evidence that Lipman is criticizing modern Orthodoxy per se. His main argument is that Gemara is stressed in Orthodox education to the virtual exclusion of ethics, philosophy, language and Tanakh, and the anecdote serves merely to capture the reader's interest. Clearly, the rude hesder student demonstrates nothing about his Hebrew skills or familiarity with Tanakh. I would agree, and I would build upon this point: yeshivot gedolot do an even worse job of this, generally speaking, be they haredi or dati. An overhaul is definitely needed.

Dovid Kerner said...

Speaking of middot tovot, rabbis should not be referred to by just their last names.

Aaron Ross said...

Dovid - you are correct, and it has been corrected. Was more out of laziness than disrespect.

Anonymous said...

As someone who knows Rabbi Lipman's "friend" and the context of the stories he refers to, I am disappointed that he is willing to reach such broad sweeping conclusions without discussing the incidents with those involved. Perhaps there was a reason the "hesder student" was insistent on receiving the money he felt was due to him. Did Rabbi Lipman attempt to contact the student before publicly accusing him of a "horrifying act" and using him as the paradigm of a failed system?
It seems that Rabbi Lipman is interested in making judgements and reaching conclusions without considering that he, unaware of the broader context, may be misreading the situation. Coming from someone interested in encouraging tolerance and unity, this is quite disappointing. Educating people to appreciate multiple perspective and attempt to understand someone before judging seems more important to me than any curricular change.

Anonymous said...

Was is not RAL's view that yeshivot should aim to continue emphasizing Gemara in the Brisker fashion, but that for those students for whom this does not result in a positive uplift in dvekut to haShem (or in fact, if this intellectual approach turns them off) they should instead embark on that alternative Mishna/Rambam curriculum?

Menachem Lipkin said...

You make some interesting counterpoints to Rabbi Lipman's article. I will send him a link to your blog in case he wants to respond.

I think your point #3 might be a little naive. The "growth of the number of students who attend Yeshivot in Israel or summer learning programs or mishmar programs." in no way testifies to the success of Yeshiva education per se. Since it has pretty much become the default that boys and girls spend a year in Israel after high school, it really speaks only to a social change.

Further, I know a Rav who is the Rosh Yeshiva of one of the most popular boys MO Yeshivas in Israel. In broad terms he describes the situation of Yeshiva education in the US as a "holding pen" until they can get the boys to Israel to "straighten out". That actually makes the opposite point of what you're saying.

Aaron Ross said...

Menachem - I thought about the idea that a year in Israel has become the default for many students. I decided to include it anyway because (1) not every student in yeshiva high school goes to Israel and (2) the fact that it has become the default itself says something about how successful we are. We can write endless posts and comments about the current nature of the year in israel, but the fact is that these students go to Israel for the ostensible purpose of learning Torah.

Menachem Lipkin said...

I wasn't really speaking to the "nature of the year in Israel" as you're correct that is an enormous topic in and of itself.

How does the fact that a year in Israel is now a default speak to the success of education?

Aaron Ross said...

Again, Menachem, to what do you credit the fact that a year in Israel has become the default? It is certainly part of the overall picture of Jewish education in America. At this point, it may be happening because of an unstoppable momentum, but go back 25 years or so, when it was not assumed that most yeshiva high school students would go to Israel, and I will bet that the schools had a sizable role in encouraging its growth. I know that my high school used to bill itself as a "5 year program", with the last year being shana alef (although, ironically, less than half of my particular class went to Israel).
Again, the fact that you are so able to take it for granted speaks to the overall success of making it such an obvious move for so many.