College Education and Talmudic Study: Are They Really Necessary?

“I spent 70,000 dollars a year to send my daughter/son to university and when they finished their degree they could not get a job.” So the lament goes, and although I am an Israeli and I do not anticipate, nor could I afford, spending anywhere near that amount on post-high school education, I still sympathize with my American friends and family who face such dilemmas. A raging debate is going on in America over the value and purpose of a college education. Scores of books, magazine articles, podcasts, blog posts etc. have been devoted to this subject. Why should so many financial resources be devoted to teaching material that most people never use in his/her lifetime? Does my daughter need Greek philosophy in order to work (if she’s lucky) in marketing? How does “Gender Politics in Sixteenth Century Europe” contribute to my son’s chances to find work to pay off his loans? Is “Introduction to the Theory of Literature” necessary for my daughter’s future?

I have been teaching Talmud in a classroom and on-line for over twenty years, and these questions remind me of a perpetual question asked of me by my students: What is the point of learning this material? Does studying laws concerning a woman’s dowry in second century Israel (Ketubot) really contribute to my understanding God? I do not own oxen, sheep or slaves—why should I learn how much I have to pay if they damage another person’s property (Bava Kamma)? And even when it comes to topics that remain relevant to a Jewishly observant lifestyle, prayer, kashrut, Shabbat, holidays, etc. my students still ask the same types of questions. I don’t keep my food warm by burying it in a hole in the ground—why should I care whether this is permitted on Shabbat? It is unlikely that I will slaughter an animal on a festival, so why should I care if I can cover its blood with dirt afterwards (Betzah)?  I do not look up at the moon to determine the calender–I google myzmanim or Hebcal; so why should I learn Rosh Hashanah? How does learning this material help make me to understand my Jewish responsibilities? Does it make me better person? Does it bring me closer to God? This list could go on and on. Indeed, very little of what I have taught over the years has much practical application. So why bother learning it.

These are very good questions, both about liberal arts education and about talmudic education. Surprisingly, but not, in my view, coincidentally, the problems experienced in both the secular and Jewish world seem to have grown over the last fifty years. An endeavor (a college degree or an advanced talmudic education) which used to be reserved for elite (and sometimes wealthy) students, has now spread to become the norm in these two respective societies. Today, an American and Israeli citizen usually needs to attend university in order to be able to work in the type of field they wish to work in, whether or not what they learn in university will contribute at all to their skills. And while there is undeniably some benefit to this—a liberal arts education with no practical purpose can be an amazing experience—it is not necessary or even appropriate as a full time endeavor for all. For most people a year of the intense study of subjects such as classical literature, philosophy, history, sociology etc. would be sufficient to spark a lifetime of engagement with the wisdom of the world. So too, a talmudic education, with no practical purpose in terms of how to live as a Jew is wonderful—but it is not necessary or even appropriate as a full time endeavor for all Jews for their entire lives. Western civilization and Haredi society make the same error when they try to foist onto all material that should really be studied by all for a short time and then on a limited basis for the rest of one’s life, should one be so interested. Both societies are finally beginning to own up to this error—western society is beginning to ask if a four year liberal arts college education is really necessary for entry into the work force, and haredi society is slowly beginning to ask if talmudic study is appropriate as a lifelong endeavor for all men. As costs bloat, neither system can continue in the same direction it is going. Institutional inertia will make these changes occur very slowly, and at times in fits, but they are going to occur.

One more comparison—I believe that both sectors of society make the same mistake when they insist that such learning does have practical value. There is obvious intellectual value in studying such material, but we do not need to insist that one needs to learn literature to be a decent person. One does not need to learn Berakhot in order to be closer to God, or study Bava Metzia in order to be a good person. This is making the same mistake I touched on in a previous blogpost—assuming that everything we do is about achieving. There are words we read, voices we hear and images we see not in order to become something else, in order to transform ourselves, but because we are already something—human beings with minds that are intensely curious about the world and how it worked, works and can work. When we stop asking, “what does this do for us” and instead ask “what is this” we will learn to appreciate wisdom, be it talmudic, philosophical, historical, literary or whatever, for what it is—the exercise of our brains, still the most incredible device on the planet.   

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Joshua Kulp is the Senior Scholar at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem. He has rabbinic ordination from Hadar and a PhD from Bar-Ilan University. He is the author of three books, The Shechter Haggadah, and Reconstructing the Talmud, v. 1 and 2. He lives in Modiin with his wife and four children. When not writing, teaching or studying, he can be found out running, biking or swimming or drinking delicious Hazy IPA's.