Rethinking Education

Education—everyone is in favor of providing a good Jewish education to their children and all parents attempt to send their kids to a school that they believe will fill that need. In some communities, there are a plethora of choices as to which school a child may be sent. In some communities, there is a paucity of schools and there are no choices. In some situations, there ARE indeed choices, but, due to various communal pressures, a child is sent to a school that may not be the ideal for that student.

It goes without saying that when choosing a school for your child (of ANY age), the choice should be based on what is best for the child’s education and not how it will “play” in the community. If you are deciding which school your son or daughter will attend based on what OTHERS think you “should” be doing, then you have already laid the groundwork for (potential) disaster. I cannot even count the amount of times I have taught children (both in a classroom and privately) whose parents sent them to this school or that only because they “had to.” The student was miserable, and it showed on many levels. In cases where this decision was challenged and addressed and then a change made, it served the child well in so many arenas.

Having said all of the above, I want to address a different issue that permeates almost every single school educating our children from K-12.

That issue is: PRIORITIES.

There are MANY worthwhile things that children learn in school, both in Limudei Kodesh and in Limudei Chol. For the purposes of this post, I wish to focus only on Limudei Kodesh.

Let me start with two main points: Teaching children of ALL ages TaNaCh is of critical importance and the educating of children in this area is sorely lacking. Students leave school with a very basic and, often, poor, level of knowledge of TaNaCh. (Clarification: The approach in the USA and the approach in Israel are similar but, in some cases, very different. For example, most of TaNaCh learning in High School is geared towards passing a Bagrut. My comments here are broad-based and not meant to address any one school, any one system or any one country)

Take the average child growing up in an average Jewish school. If we are speaking of a boy, then the chances are very high that by 5th grade or (at the latest) 6th grade, he will begin to learn Gemara. In broad terms, this child will be taught the language of Aramaic (the language of the Gemara) by way of a “new word list” to familiarize the student with the lexicon of Gemara. In RARE cases, students will be given some background as to what Gemara/Talmud is and, in even rarer cases, they will be taught WHY Gemara is part of the curriculum and being learned.

And then, the “fun” begins. Some students take to Gemara like a fish to water while (as is true for other subjects) struggle to get beyond the basics. A tense environment begins to grow…on the one hand: the student who has come to “despise” learning Gemara vs. the knowledge that (if he remains in a Jewish school environment) he has MANY years ahead of him in learning institutions, where Gemara is the NUMBER ONE priority. It becomes a vicious cycle of tension, frustration and, in some cases, turns off the student to not only Gemara but to Torah itself.

While there are many who do indeed see this problem and issue, there is a more basic one that is “out there” that needs addressing. Before addressing it, I want to make one thing clear: Gemara, when learned correctly, can indeed give a student (of EVERY age and both for males and females) a VERY well-rounded Jewish education! The Psukim throughout TaNach that are quoted; the evolution of Halacha; the history; science; medicine, etc., all can contribute to a very broad base of Torah knowledge. However, having said that, it is NOT that common for Gemara to be taught/learned the “right” way. The “right” way includes using the words of the Gemara as a SPRINGBOARD to Torah and not as an end unto itself! This means that when Psukim are quoted, the Perek and Pasuk are learned with the commentaries. When other references to other Gemara is made, that Gemara is learned, as well. It means making the Gemara relevant in one’s life!

BUT….since more often than not, this is NOT done, there is one major “casualty”…the Torah itself!

There are countless individuals who learn Gemara around the globe, who (sadly) have NEVER read through all of TaNach. The knowledge of Neviim and Ketuvim  by MANY is as minimal as their knowledge of Quantum Mechanics at a doctoral level.

We educate students and stress Gemara so much that the Torah itself takes a back seat (G-d forbid!) to the Talmud. Many students see Navi or Parashat Shavua as merely another subject to get through in school, without it resonating within them, in the least. Many educators broadcast a message that while TaNaCh is important, TALMUD is where their focus needs to be.

It is time to change that approach!

It is time to begin literally at the beginning, at Breisheet, and teach our kids TANACH from the beginning to the end and it needs to be made relevant! We need to place LESS emphasis on Gemara in our school curricula (UNLESS it will be taught by fully synthesizing TaNaCh into the learning!) and more on the Word of Hashem: The Torah itself. How sad that many adults have little knowledge of much of Neviim and Ketuvim and, at the same time, distaste for Gemara: It is a loss on TWO fronts!

Another point: Just because a child is a male, does not mean he will be fully suited to learn Gemara. In addition, just because a child is born a female does not mean she is NOT suited to learn Gemara. Gemara should be available to all. It should indeed BE in the curriculum of all Jewish schools after a certain point of education (as long as it is in keeping with the Hashkafa of that institution). There is no question to the value or impact Gemara can have on one’s Jewish life.

BUT…this cannot come at the expense of Torah, Neviim and Ketuvim!

About the Author
After living in Chicago for 50 years, the last 10 of which Zev Shandalov served as a shul Rav and teacher in local Orthodox schools, his family made Aliya to Maale Adumim in July 2009. Shandalov currently works as a teacher, mostly interacting with individual students.