Question: Which of the following students best represents the legacy of Volozhin? Orly, who does not know the meaning of most of tefillah; Josh, who loves learning Tanach, but has difficulty grasping interpretive approaches that include multiple steps, or Eli, who “Hates Gemara?”
If you answered “none of the above,” then you are correct, have hit upon an important issue in Chinuch today: the excessive focus on Gemara.
Chazal tell us in Vayikra Rabbah that, “The way of the world is for 1000 to enter for mikra. From these, only 100 go forth and succeed to be worthy of Mishnah. Of these 100, only 10 go forth for Gemara, and of those 10 who enter Gemara, only one goes forth for hora’ah.” According to the math, for every 1000 that begin a life of Torah study, 1 per cent go on to “Gemara.” The implications here are that Gemara is definitely not academically appropriate for most of our students.
To be fair, this does not accurately represent today’s circumstances. Nowadays, we have a completed Talmud, and the resources to meet many more students, especially those on the fringe of success in Gemara. However, the thrust of Chazal’s statement still rings true.
The message of this Midrash contrasts sharply with our current practice. We take it for granted that Gemara is part of our children’s education. Often, in high school, the amount of Gemara will double or triple. How can this be, if it is appropriate for so few? (Granted that this often differs for women’s studies and for other populations, but this phenomenon is large enough to be taken seriously.)
A quick look at our culture today could answer this question. We emphasize Gemara in education, because our society often treats Gemara as the most authentic form of learning. From the Year in Israel to Yeshiva University to Daf Yomi to the Rabbi’s Shiur at shul, Gemara dominates the learning landscape. So we emphasize Gemara because it is ideal, and therefore we want to prepare our students for the most ideal form of learning. Sounds good, right?
Although there is an element of truth to this assertion, it ignores a large sociological component. Yeshiva-style Gemara learning was an innovation of Rav Chaim of Volozhin in establishing the Volozhin Yeshiva at the turn of the 19th century. This yeshiva attracted only the elite students and aimed to produce Torah giants. The Volozhin Yeshiva spawned many other yeshivot, until Europe became populated with numerous centers of elite Talmud study. However, if intense Gemara learning was only for the elite, how did it get the way it is today?
When Jewish day schools began to open in the United States, they were mostly headed by immigrants from Europe, both before and after the Shoah. These leaders were usually part of the Lithuanian Yeshiva movement. Therefore, they simply followed the previous educational model that focused on Talmud study, albeit bringing it to the masses. Our schools are continuing that legacy, despite the fact that consistent Gemara study is mostly ideal for the best and brightest.
As a result, a significant number of students are left feeling alienated from all Torah study. Their accusations against Gemara are not inaccurate. Learning Talmud is tedious, the source material is arcane, and the back and forth is abstract, confusing, and sometimes irrational. For those who take to Gemara, these are meaningful challenges to overcome, but for many these challenges are more like roadblocks. Not every student has the capacity to succeed, especially when these difficulties are combined with lack of appreciation for the value of Gemara learning.
Even more unfortunate is what these students are missing out on. Many students lack the knowledge to daven properly and would love to learn how. Others have trouble with basic reading and translating of pesukim. Some would thrive if given a chance to learn large portions of Tanach, while others could become masters at analyzing Chumash. To be a little more radical, we could add more Jewish history, more Jewish philosophy, and maybe create Jewish leadership training courses for those who would benefit. Instead, however, we utilize a system that has little flexibility in terms of content and has the potential to make Talmud Torah uninspiring.
It would benefit us to read Rav Eliyahu Dessler’s words describing the Lithuanian approach:
The Lithuanian Roshei Yeshiva set as their main objective to educate Gedolei Torah...They were well aware of the price they had to pay for this because they knew that many yeshiva students were not able to deal with this extreme lifestyle and would [and in fact did] leave religious observance...I heard that justification of the Roshei Yeshiva to pay such a heavy price to produce Gedolei Torah was Vayikra Rabbah 2:1, ‘One thousand students enter to study mikra ...and only one emerges to hora’ah. (The irony of using this Midrash to promote such a practice is striking.)
I think we’d all agree that our goal is not to produce Gedolim. I think we’d also agree that we aren’t willing to sacrifice the Torah education of many for the sake of the few. I am not advocating getting rid of Gemara, but rather limiting the major focus to those who can and want to thrive through Talmud study. We do not live in 19th century Europe. We should start giving our children a Torah education they will appreciate. Isn’t that really what counts?
Yair Daar teaches Gemara and Tanach, and serves as a curriculum coordinator at SAR High School in Riverdale, New York. He is currently a doctoral candidate at Yeshiva University’s Azrieli Graduate School. Yair lives in Bergenfield with his wife and three daughters.
By Yair Daar