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Adam Gross

Mediocre or excellent yeshivas? It seems somewhat beside the point

Two recent TOI blogs set out arguments for and against ‘yeshivas-for-all’, a classic argument between depth and breadth.

Benjamin Porat stands for depth – yeshivas should be centers of excellence, only for the best, in order to avert ‘a decline in the level of [Torah] scholarship’.

R Elchanan Poupko counters with breadth: mediocre yeshivas are important so that ‘every young Jew has access to a quality Jewish education’.

However, both arguments appear to fall short.

On the one hand, R Poupko seems to contradict himself – what kind of ‘quality Jewish education’ is it if, as he says, graduates from even the highest quality yeshivas cannot manage a page of gemara while others even struggle to read through birkat hamazon?

Porat’s view may make more sense on first reading, if one can stomach the whiff of elitism that goes with it. However, it flies in the face of a general tendency worldwide toward ‘lifelong learning’ in any professional or technical capacity. This has always been the emphasis in the Jewish community with respect to Torah learning, and we should not fall behind. Whereas Porat advocates against ‘mass admission  to the beit hamidrash’, it is not clear what alternative he offers except work. Where then is the Torah?

The deeper point seems to be about educational content, not merely admission practices. A regime of mediocre yeshivas needs better content so their graduates can say birkat hamazon properly. A regime of excellent elitist yeshivas needs accompanying institutions so everyone else still has access to good quality Torah content and learning.

What is the content that is required?

For me, the underlying issue is about how broad or narrow the yeshiva education should be, and specifically the artificiality of the split between ‘kodesh’ and ‘chol’ learning.

There is no doubt that text-based learning from chumash, gemara, halachah, etc, is kodesh learning. However, the Orthodox community has failed itself by allowing other subjects to be classified as ‘chol’.

A false dichotomy has been created between either having to teach ‘secular subjects’ on the one hand, or not teaching them at all.

To break this dichotomy, the answer is to teach these subjects, not as secular but rather as ‘kodesh’.

What does this mean?

It is important that the Orthodox community take ownership of the ‘chol’ subjects and reframe them to be taught for the sake of Torah, in line with the idea of ‘Torah lishmah’ – Torah taught for its own sake, not for the sake of achieving non-Torah objectives.

How can these subjects be taught Torah lishmah?

Firstly by recognising that every mitzvah covers four distinct commandments – to  to learn, to teach, to guard and to do (Sotah 37a).

Secondly by recognising that to ‘do’ a mitzvah, it usually requires not only a familiarity with the relevant halachas traced back to their sources via responsa, talmud and chumash. It also requires knowledge of the relevant mechanics through which these halachas can be applied in practice.

These mechanics may be known to us under the banners of ‘language’, ‘mathematics’, ‘natural science, ‘engineering’, and ‘business’, but knowledge of these mechanics are often just as necessary in order to perform the mitzvah.

As I have written before, just to take three examples:

Who can understand the hermeneutic principles used to analyse Torah without advanced linguistics?

Who can truly perform the myriad complex Torah laws of agriculture without knowledge of natural science?

Who can rebuild the Beit HaMikdash, may it happen soon, without applied mathematics and engineering?

We may also point to the practice of our gedolim – for example, HaGaon Harav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, who completely mastered the science of electricity before writing Meorei Eish, still the seminal text setting out the halachot of electricity. The position of the Vilna Gaon is also well known – without the seven wisdoms, Torah is incomplete.

The point here is not ‘Torah u’madda’, i.e. building two different perspectives on Hashem’s creation; synergising one’s lifestyle across two different domains, the one spiritual, the other material; or engendering a meaningful contribution to the national economy or to one’s own household (although all of these may well be worthy byproducts).

Rather, the point is to leverage the so-called ‘chol’ subjects to advance our very understanding of Torah and practice of Mitzvot to the point that these ‘chol’ subjects then themselves become ‘Torah’, and thus ‘kodesh’.

It means transforming the curriculums by which these ‘secular’ subjects are taught, so they are taught towards Torah objectives and Mitzvah outcomes, and then integrating the teaching of these subjects side-by-side, even in the same shiurim, with the applicable ‘kodesh’ learning.

Indeed, this is a logical progression that started with the ‘mussar’  revolution.

Overall, it means the talmid builds an in-depth knowledge of the halachot, not only fully integrated with the ethic with which they should be performed (based on the study of mussar), but also fully integrated with the relevant detailed practical knowledge of the mechanics as to how they can be applied.

About the Author
Adam Gross, an Oxford-educated strategist, has over 20 years' experience solving complex problems in the international arena for United Nations agencies, international financial institutions, private sector, NGOs and social enterprises across Europe, Africa and Asia. Adam made aliyah with his family in 2019 to live in northern Israel.
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