In the world of Yeshiva high school education, two educational issues constantly come up. First, how do we make Gemara learning more engaging for the boys. Many argue that intensive traditional Gemara learning is appropriate only for a small number of high school boys. They further argue that some boys, in fact, have been turned off from Gemara because of their high school experience. Second, should girls learn Gemara and if so, how should they learn Gemara? Should they learn it exactly like the boys do or should they primarily focus on learning halacha and maybe learn a few lines of Gemara in any given unit to help them understand the halacha better?
This past year, I taught a medical ethics course to Yeshiva high school senior girls. This was the first time that I taught this course and I was somewhat apprehensive. Why was I apprehensive? Those of us who teach high school seniors and those of us who are parents of high school seniors know that by the time most students reach twelfth grade, they have one foot out the door and are generally not so interested in what teachers are trying to teach them. Should teachers of high school seniors teach courses with as much rigor as they do to their eleventh-grade students, or will seniors simply tune out if teachers push them too hard during their final year in high school? Maybe the way to engage these students is through a less rigorous education, a lot of external incentives like trips and other rewards for achieving certain class goals and more project-based learning which may prove to be more engaging.
I rejected these approaches and I hoped (and prayed) that the Torah that I taught would sell itself. We covered cutting edge topics such as abortion, fertility, genetic engineering, family planning, organ donation, brain death, euthanasia, among other topics. The way we covered the topics was to first study the underlying Gemarot, some of which may point to different directions in terms of how we rule on a particular issue. Then we analyzed key rishonim (medieval halachic authorities), the Shulchan Aruch and the Rema, key acharonim (post-16th century halachic authorities) and then modern poskim. We tried to study each topic without bias. The goal was to study what the halachic sources stated. We tried to understand the rationale of each opinion. When there was a debate on a particular issue, we tried to argue which position seemed more compelling which generated lively, high-level conversations. After each topic that we covered, I provided each student with a fact pattern relating to that topic, similar to what one might find on a law school exam. Each student submitted an analysis of what the ruling would be based on a halachic analysis of each issue relating to the fact pattern. These assignments helped the students concretize their nuanced and complex understanding of each topic.
Additionally, whenever I would post a blog or engage in a Facebook discussion or read an article relating to any of these particular topics, I would send it to the students and this engendered much discussion and a realization that what we were studying was contemporary, relevant and meaningful. At the end of the year, I reviewed all the topics with my students and pointed out the issues within each unit, the reasons to be strict and the reasons to be lenient on each issue and the various rulings with respect to each topic. After providing this quick summary, we spoke about halachic process and halachic decision-making, how in arriving at a halachic decision there are broadly three issues to the consider. First, we consider technical halachic questions, such as when is the beginning of life, what is the definition of a father or mother, and when is the desecration of a corpse permitted. Second, we consider emotional or psychological issues and how that may impact halachic rulings, such as a mother who cannot handle having children and the suffering of a terminally ill patient. Third, we consider non-halachic considerations, such as whether it’s appropriate to genetically engineer a child to have certain characteristics, the value of patient autonomy to make decisions about his or her life, and the value of organ donation after someone dies even though the deceased is technically not obligated in mitzvot at that time. To further illustrate how these three factors come into play in halachic decision-making, we briefly discussed the topic of halachic loopholes, analyzing when they are encouraged, allowed and discouraged by halachic authorities.
I was very pleased with the reaction of my students to this course. One student wrote to me, “I appreciate your class because it gave me a real window into the halachic world and its complexity. Before coming to your class, I had a very hazy understanding of how Halacha actually forms. I knew Tanach, and I felt comfortable with it, but I had never had a class like yours, where I actually experienced Halacha firsthand. It bothered me, as much as I tried not to let it, because I thought any Rabbi could just decide for himself what he thinks should be done. It was frustrating because I wondered why we trust those figures. Either the Torah gives a straight up answer, in which case all Rabbis should really be able to agree, or the Torah doesn’t say something about it, in which case why can’t anyone just decide for themselves? Basically, I didn’t understand the halachic system.“
She wrote that at some point in the course early on, “I think I finally understood the halachic system, its importance, and its nuance. And I remember thinking then that I finally understood why so many people devote their lives to learning these books, and realizing that I, too, wanted this. I wanted to experience this excitement and passion over and over again by reading and understanding and analyzing texts which argue about the fundamentals of our religion and the understanding of God’s commandments.”
I wonder if we could use this model more in teaching both boys and girls in the Yeshiva high school system. There definitely is value for boys to learn Gemara in the traditional sense, learning how to navigate an entire page with the accompanying commentaries. It is a critical skill which serious Gemara students need to master. However, some boys may not find this type of learning engaging, at least in high school when they may not have the patience to work on these skills in this format. For these boys, I would recommend teaching contemporary topics by studying the sources from the Gemara down to contemporary poskim to increase the chances that the study of Torah she’ba’al peh (oral tradition) will come alive for them. In some Yeshiva high schools for girls, there is an aversion to teaching them Gemara similar to how boys are taught, either on philosophical grounds or because they may not be convinced that these classes are all that successful in the Yeshiva high schools for boys. As such, these Yeshiva high schools for girls place a heavy emphasis on rigorous study of Tanach and a mastery of understanding the halachot of any given number of topics. But there is something missing from this type of education, which is a lack of understanding and appreciation of how the halachic system works. Courses similar to the medical ethics course that I taught this past year to seniors can prove to be engaging to both boys and girls and can present our teenagers with a critical element in their education, which is a deep understanding and appreciation of why we do what we do as halachic Jews in a nuanced and complex manner.