Traditional Education Vs. Online Learning of Talmud Torah

I was recently reflecting on the evolution of Torah study in our community.  We used to study Torah in the classroom. The Rebbe would teach and the students would learn.  Alternatively, the students would study with each other as chavrutot and learn from each other.  However, with the digital revolution, we are studying Torah from numerous online sources. As a result, we now have access to and are studying more and more Torah than ever before.  How do we navigate between these two modes of study, the traditional classroom and the online classroom? What are the advantages and disadvantages of each approach?

The online classroom provides access to individuals and texts from across the globe that would have been otherwise inaccessible.  YUTorah.org, for example, has over 200,000 shiurim from which to choose on a variety of topics.  Additionally, the ease with which we can access Torah enables us to study at times that would have otherwise been unfit for study.  We can maximize our commute time, our exercise time and our waiting in line time by listening to shiurim on a whole host of topics. Every free moment can be a moment of Torah study on any topic that we desire! We live such busy lives and many people truly want to attend shiurim but their schedules do not allow them the time to do so.  With the variety of shiurim online, we can tailor-make our schedule to find the right time to listen to shiurim and grow in Torah. In short, the advantage of the online classroom is accessibility.

While the traditional classroom may lack flexibility and accessibility, it provides a key component to our religious growth, and one that cannot be gained from an online source.  That is, connection. In Pirkei Avot (1:6), Yehoshua Ben Perahya states, “Asei lecha Rav,” or “make for yourself a teacher.” Rav Aaron Soloveitchik once explained that there are two different types of teacher-student relationships:  the Rebbe-student relationship and the moreh-student relationship. What is the difference between a moreh and a Rebbe? A moreh is a professor, or a teacher, who transmits information to his students, but a Rebbe does more than that.  A Rebbe also infuses his own personality into his students. Teaching is more than transmitting information. Teaching is also about connecting. Yehoshua Ben Perahya challenges us to create a fellowship with a Rebbe. When we do that, when we interact with a Rebbe face-to-face, then we understand how the Rebbe thinks and acts in general, and this helps shape our own religious worldview.  While some individuals may be satisfied with simply listening to a shiur, and indeed they do increase their knowledge when they do so, I find that they lack a relationship with a Rebbe, resulting in a key ingredient missing from their religious growth.

Incidentally, the same analysis would be true in a secular field.  A student of physics can learn only so much from studying online courses in physics.  However, a face-to-face relationship with a physics teacher can be more beneficial for the student who can interact with the teacher and learn how he thinks about and analyzes the world of physics.  Of course, sometimes one does not find a Rebbe with whom he is comfortable in his geographical vicinity, in which case he may have to resort to finding an online Rebbe. However, in this scenario, he should strive to create a very interactive relationship with this Rebbe so that he could benefit from the “intangibles” as well; understanding the Rebbe’s personality, and having a deeper sense of his values.

I also wonder about the difference between a community of people studying together face-to-face (like in a beit midrash) versus studying together in an online community.  There is something very beautiful about developing a cohort that comes together for a spiritual goal. Beautiful relationships are built around coming together in order to study Torah on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis.  In his comments to Yehoshua Ben Perahya’s second statement in the Mishna to “acquire a friend,” the Rambam famously explains that the highest form of friendship occurs when two people are united by a common goal or vision.  We cannot achieve that goal of shared Torah simply by listening to a shiur online in our own private location.

I wonder, though, what might be the difference between a face-to-face interactive learning session, like a chavruta or a shiur in a beit midrash and an online interactive learning session.  Maybe the difference is the stimulating environment that is created by a large group of people in a room studying the word of God together.  Personally, my greatest memories of feeling spiritually stimulated and connected have almost always involved group spiritual activities, whether davening, learning, or acts of chesed.  I wonder if digital communities of Torah study can achieve such feelings of connection.

With increased technological advances, online Torah education will only increase.  And in truth, this mode of study provides us with numerous benefits, principally accessibility.  At the same time, let us not forget some of the key benefits of traditional learning, such as having a meaningful relationship with a Rebbe, having interactive Talmud Torah experiences, and feeling the spiritual power of a group mitzvah.  Perhaps we need to seek to find creative ways to incorporate these benefits into online learning, if possible, to maximize our avodat Hashem.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.
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