Response to Jewish Education Issue
Your interview with Rabbi Adler (5:2) for the most part solidified the high esteem in which I hold this master builder of Jewish education. However, I was troubled by his comments on Brisker lomdus in high schools as the best means of “intellectual stimulation” on account of basic skills being “a little boring.” As a graduate and musmakh of YU now serving as a high school rebbe at a co-educational Modern Orthodox school in a mid-size Jewish community, it is my personal opinion that Rabbi Adler, albeit with the best of intentions, has entirely missed the mark in his assessment, and that his and others’ approach to this issue is causing more harm than good.
I am proud to stress basic skills in my Gemara classes before delving into iyyun (in-depth analysis) – but never Brisker lomdus, at their level – and my students are as engaged, stimulated, and excited as their peers elsewhere. What I would propose to Rabbi Adler and others who adapt his stance on this issue is that there are two means of “engagement” that must be taken into consideration. My students’ excitement is deep, if less broad, as it comes from the internal pride of knowing that they are able to actually do something on their own, that they have (or will have soon) the inestimable power of being able to learn any Gemara they choose. They are excited that they saw something a few notches above them, reached high, and took hold of it for themselves. Attaining that excitement is more laborious, more true, and it does not immediately cater to the culture of instant gratification to which we and our students fall prey. Why should Gemara education play a “yes dear” role to the worst social mores of our time? My experience has been that, when given an opportunity to rise above the need to feel immediately satisfied by their Torah learning and instead feel the old-fashioned exhilaration of production earned honestly and by accumulated toil, the students respond beautifully. In contrast, whatever excitement is gained by seeing something a hundred notches above them, staring at it off in the distance, and nodding solemnly at the beauty of it, as it flies by without truly understanding what it is that they’re seeing, is the kind of excitement that will leave as quickly as it came.
I fear that the learning in our classrooms may begin to adapt itself to our generation’s unfortunate tendency toward the apocryphal, with learning as an inherent value replaced by learning as entertainment, as something to stare and gawk at, as the ultimate unreachable goal by which to measure oneself without any real compunction to believe that we can “get there.” If “appreciation” of learning is central, Rabbi Adler would be right. If learning itself is a value, however, then even today, after all these millennia, and maybe more so than ever, learning takes actual work. This is not surprising, because learning is the emblematic derivative of our desire to come closer to Hashem during our time on earth. It is axiomatic that any relationship devoid of work has no staying power. To Rabbi Adler’s proposal that we inculcate our students with a burst of momentary excitement in a bid to generate a life-long love of learning, I can only say that that will work as well as any relationship entered into with a similar level of commitment. In comparison, suppose a well-intentioned basketball coach “excited” his team by showing them videos of plays by professional athletes that they could not possibly complete at their own skill level, leaving them to wonder whether their own functional abilities were of any use. Brisker lomdus, like those videos, may provide a very limited burst of excitement, but the real staying power will only be achieved through hard work and skills. Absent these, the players will neither enjoy nor understand basketball, and their long-term prospects for playing will be rather slim – all despite the excitement they initially felt upon watching those videos.
On the issue of insufficient time for both skills and lomdus in “an hour and a half to two hours a day,” I find that claim suspect. I think some people just don’t want to make the effort, or don’t know how to, or don’t believe they can if they tried, or consider it beneath themselves to try. You may cover fewer sugyot in a year (although I doubt it, because on balance you’ll cover more ground anyway with their increased skills), but if each sugya is learned first with an eye to basic skills and then analyzed in depth, all bases will be covered. This is what I do in my classroom, and the excitement on my students’ faces speaks for itself. The students bask in the glow of what they can actually accomplish on their own, as well they should. For all intents and purposes, my students are building for themselves a complete set of Shas without ever entering a bookstore, and they cannot be prouder. Any real Brisker would laugh at a child, who can’t hold a Gemara straight, using the vaunted “Brisker Derekh” the same way we chuckle seeing a small child wearing his father’s coat.
As far as the mid-range results of Rabbi Adler’s strategy, I do not have to surmise because I saw them. Having spent two years teaching at a mid-level post-high school yeshivah in Israel prior to accepting my current position four years ago, coping daily with the results that Brisker lomdus had wrought on these day school graduates, I can only say that the outcome was not pretty. Not only were their basic skills lacking to the point that they couldn’t read and translate anything (not surprisingly, given Rabbi Adler’s own assertions), but their analytical skills were missing as well – any attempt to make them Brisker lamdanim had fallen flat. Perhaps even more alarming, they could barely articulate anything more cogent as to why they were in Israel than that their friends had come as well. They weren’t in Israel to continue learning Brisker lomdus, a term they probably had never even heard. And they certainly weren’t there to learn basic skills, although many realized before too long that there is nothing boring at all about being able to learn Gemara on their own, and that making up for lost time was probably the best way to spend their year. Seeing those kids day after day, years after their proper developmental window for acquiring basic skills was essentially closed, was what really pushed me to come back to America and do things differently in a school setting. I am proud that I have been able to do that, and I hope to continue to do so for many years to come.
I will say only this, in conclusion, to Rabbi Adler and others who agree with him: Don’t feel bad for Gemara. Don’t be scared to present it for what it is. Don’t apologize for its intricacy, difficulty, profundity, or depth. Don’t let excessive condiments dull the Gemara’s own delicious taste. Today more than ever, our students are starving for the opportunity to feel real, hard-earned accomplishment, and while they may lack the vocabulary to ask you articulately for it and may not thank you for it right away, they would be more than gratified in due time if you would help them find it.
Signed with every ounce of respect for this modern-day giant of Jewish education, a man whom I truly admire and even emulate for the pivotal role he has played in teaching Torah and dedicating his life to his students and to his craft,
Editor’s Note: Rabbi Leib Zalesch is a member of the teaching faculty of the Denver Academy of Torah and Yeshivat Sha’arei DAT High School.