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Elchanan Poupko
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The case for mediocre yeshivas

The many Orthodox Jews of today who know the Torah's texts, traditions, and the need to pass them on outweigh the few brilliant scholars of the past
Illustrative: Lead actors Omer Perelman-Striks, Ori Laizerouvitch, Israel Attias, and Daniel Gad, from The New Black (originally 'Shababnikim'), a show about the extracurricular adventures of yeshiva students. (Ohad Romano / ChaiFlicks)

I was astonished to read Benjamin Porat’s article titled “When all Haredi boys default to yeshiva study, what we lose is excellence.” Putting the issue of Israel’s army service, national security, and the tough–and legitimate–questions the Israeli public is grappling with aside, there is no question that yeshiva for all is a preferred model to the yeshivas we had in Europe. While the Lithuanian model of yeshivot did produce some of the most outstanding Torah scholars our people have seen, there is no question that the system that benefits the Jewish community most is that which gives everyone a solid yeshiva education. 

Porat argued that:

“Since the founding of the Volozhin yeshiva, the “mother of the yeshivas,” in the early 19th century, the Lithuanian institutions were structured so that only an elite few could allow themselves to spend many years in the halls of Torah study. The majority, who lacked the appropriate skills, spent only a short time in the best midrash (study hall), after which they went out to work and supported their families. This model ensured intellectual excellence at the summit of the yeshiva pyramid so that it would cultivate original and innovative scholars.”

This point is most definitely true. My great-grandfather, Rabbi Eliezer Poupko, studied in the Volozhin, Slabodka, and Telz Yeshivas. The number of students in these yeshivot was minuscule in proportion to the Jewish population in pre-WWII Europe. Furthermore, almost each and every graduate of these yeshivot went on to leave a profound mark of scholarship and leadership on the Jewish people. I grew up on the stories of the selfless and heroic dedication Lithuanian Jews made for the sake of Torah study and the breathtakingly high standards of Torah scholarship and intellectualism these yeshivot both demanded and produced. 

And yet, it would be a crime to look away from the rest of the picture. With no correlation to the existence of yeshivot, there was widespread illiteracy, antagonism to religion, rebellion against traditional Judaism, and many Jews who did not know enough about their faith to be proud of it. Of course, the great Torah giants that came out of the Lithuanian yeshivot went on to achieve great scholarship to rebuild Torah after the Holocaust decimated almost all of European Jewish communities, but that does not set the golden standard for ordinary times. 

The Torah giants from pre-war Europe went on to build on the model of the pre-war yeshivot with spectacular success. From Rabbi Yosef Kahaneman of Ponevezh, Rabbi Yaakov Ruderman in Ner Israel of Baltimore, Rabbi Aaron Kotler building the Kletzk Yeshiva in Lakewood, the Mir Yeshiva in Israel and Brooklyn, Rabbi Henoch Leibowitz building the Slobodka and Chofetz Chaim yeshivas, and so on, many great Torah scholars built the yeshivas we know today. They built them for everyone because the Holocaust decimated our people, and traditional Judaism would need every child and person it can get to be educated in the path of the Torah. 

The success was breathtaking. 

Speaking to Henry Koschitzky, one of the great philanthropists of the Jewish world, who was born in Poland in 1935, I asked him what it is that gave him some comfort, having seen both the destruction and some of the rebuilding the Jewish people have seen over the past two generations. Without blinking, he said it was the success of Torah education in our generation. Illiteracy is not to be found among our people. There are Torah classes literally by the thousand, the numbers of yeshiva and day school students are breathtaking, there is hardly a Jewish home without a respectable Torah library and collection of books, and the real and legitimate fear that Torah scholarship would be wiped out and disappear after the Holocaust was no longer a major concern.

I could not imagine what it meant to him to have seen in his lifetime so much Torah scholarship and so many Torah scholars annihilated by the evil of Nazism and to then live on to see the re-emergence of Torah scholarship. 

We should be forever thankful for this. 

Yet as the author rightfully expresses, this does come at a price. 

The fact that someone studied in yeshiva, even if for several years, is no longer an indication of how much they might know. I remember speaking to someone who studied in both what is considered to be America’s highest-ranking and Israel’s highest-ranking institutions that are regarded by the American Orthodox community as the pinnacle of advanced talmudic scholarship. I asked the young man who had already spent many years studying in yeshivot if he had ever read the entire Chumash with Rashi’s commentary — a pretty basic piece of Judaic knowledge, and he said, of course not. I asked him how many of his friends have not studied something so basic either, and he shared that it was not uncommon. 

This is not only because of the yeshivot’s focus on talmudic scholarship at the expense of Tanach, Halacha, or other aspects of Judaic knowledge. Often when asking those who have spent several years in the finest of yeshivot, one encounters a breathtaking lack of basic knowledge, or as they would say back in Lithuania, apparatus.

A friend of mine who lives in a town that is home to what some consider to be America’s highest ranking yeshiva — a yeshiva you go to only after studying in two other yeshivas — said it best: “You know, there are guys in our yeshiva who cannot read through a blatt Gemara (page of Talmud).” 

Another very knowledgeable friend complained that even those who end up in more rabbinical positions rarely give halachic answers in clear terms and often give answers clouded with ambiguity, such as “maybe,” “better not to,” and so on.

I have seen with my own eyes people who studied in yeshiva for several years having a hard time reading through Birkat Hamazon (Grace after Meals), which can make you wonder what Judaic primary sources they are fluent with. The fact is that with increased yeshiva attendance we see lower levels of outstanding excellence in talmudic study is indeed very accurate. 

And yet, there is a beauty to all of this. 

While there is no guarantee that a young man who spent several years in a yeshiva knows how to read through a page of Talmud, there is a guarantee that every person who grows up in the Orthodox community today is literate, very familiar with the vastness of Jewish literature, fully aware of the vastness and depth of our Torah, and with the rightful expectation that their rabbis have a high level of Torah scholarship.

A Torah education that is for all, for a least a few years, leaves our youth inspired, committed, and familiar with who they are and what they stand for. The number of Orthodox Jews who make time for Torah learning each and every day, despite their overwhelming schedule, is an admirable miracle. The number of yeshiva and seminary graduates who are familiar with the basic issues of halacha know how to look up a halachic question that comes their way and do not need to rely on a rabbi to help them fill them basic Jewish obligations can only make us proud. 

This can all be summed up in a conversation my grandfather had with Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner, the dean of the Chaim Berlin Yeshiva, at one of the dinners benefitting Rabbi Hutner’s yeshiva in the 1970s. Recalling the times when there were hardly any day schools or yesvhivot in America, my grandfather turned to Rabbi Hutner and said, with satisfaction (which of course, sounds better in the original Yiddish): “Once upon a time, America used to be a spiritual desert — a midbar sh’mama — and now look at this!”

Rav Hutner responded with sadness: “Today, it is a spiritual desert because once upon a time we had many great Torah scholars.” Rabbi Hutner was referring to the many hundreds of European-trained Torah scholars who lived in the US and took rabbinic positions in small towns across America. These great Torah scholars often had positions in very small communities and remained very obscure, while they had a profound knowledge of Talmud and were all brilliant Torah scholars. 

It is very fair to say that the state of Torah education in North America today is far more preferable to what it was in the 1930s-1950s, despite the pain of us lacking the great Torah scholars we had back then.

Sure, I can easily point out dozens of rabbis in North America who knew the Talmud like the back of their hands in the 1950s, and I would be hard-pressed to find half a dozen of a similar caliber in today’s North America, but we are still much better positioned than we were back then.

The fact that each and every young Jew in our communities is exposed to the beauty of Torah, is literate in large portions of our sacred texts and traditions, makes a commitment to Torah study that lasts a lifetime, and is passionate about passing those commitments on to their own children are all things we must be willing to see as preferable to the dazzling brilliance and Torah scholarship legendary Lithuanian yeshivot produced.

Indeed making sure every young Jew has access to a quality Jewish education should be our highest priority. This is not to weigh into the complex and necessary conversations taking place in Israel right now regarding balancing Torah study with Israel’s vital security and social needs, but it is true regarding other communities around the world. Most importantly, may we be blessed with the words of the Talmud: “Rabbi Elazar said in the name of Rabbi Haninah: Torah scholars increase peace in the world. As it says, ‘All of Your children are students of God; great is the peace of Your children’ (Isaiah 54:13)”.

About the Author
Rabbi Elchanan Poupko is a New England based eleventh-generation rabbi, teacher, and author. He has written Sacred Days on the Jewish Holidays, Poupko on the Parsha, and hundreds of articles published in five languages. He is the president of EITAN--The American Israeli Jewish Network.
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