Inculcating A Love Of Jewish Text

From Hirhurim:

Jewish schools – in every generation, but especially in an era of openness and choices – have a crucial responsibility concurrent with their job of teaching Jewish literacy and texts. They have to also teach them to value, love and desire to participate in Jewish life (in educational jargon we say that we need to get students to develop in both the cognitive realm and the affective realm).

In his article, Shawn Zelig Aster laments the lack of preparedness that he finds in students entering his class after 12 years of day school education. Of course, many of his students have had another year (or two) of study before they descend on the Yeshiva University campus. What did they do during their year in Israel, which was, in theory, dedicated in its entirety to the study of Jewish texts? My friend and colleague Yoel Finkelman set out to study this very question, and in a research study that he tantalizingly titled "Virtual Volozhin" examined what goes on in those programs. What he found was that many of these institutions put more effort into socializing their students into the value system of the Jewish community than they do actually teaching them to study on their own. (Don’t just take my word for it. You can see Finkelman’s study early version here – DOC and final version in the book Wisdom from All My Teachers). Perhaps I should mention that in my own study on one-year Israel programs (see here), most of the questions that I asked related to issues of belief and practice – which showed marked "improvement" over the year – rather than accomplishments in text study.

MENACHEM MENDEL COMMENTS: My impression from going over my son’s humash homework is that most of it is a waste of time. Instead of teaching the kids how to read Biblical Hebrew and appreciate the Torah, they are often asked questions about trivial matters in the Biblical text which are quite difficult for a sixth grader to be interested in. Sadly, he has already decided that Humash and Navi are boring and a waste of time and I have trouble convincing him otherwise.

TZVEE POSTS: After completing our daily study of all of mishnayos, my two young sons and I then spent considerable time and effort working our way through a 300 + page book on biblical Hebrew – not considered by them boring, not a waste of time. Go figure.

STEVE BRIZEL POSTS: I think that one should remember that Kabbalas HaTorah begins with an almost emotional experience of Gilui Shechinah with almost no intellectual component and integration of what Klal Yisrael heard at Sinai, proceeds downward to the incidents of the Golden Calf and then proceeds to the acceptance of the Luchos Shniyos and then the reaffirmation of Torah as understood by Chazal in their understanding of Megilas Esther in a far greater intellecual acceptance with no public fanfare whatsoever. Halevai, that all of Jewish education and educators understood that Kabbalas HaTorah and Limud HaTorah require both an emotional and intellectual committment, as opposed to merely talking the talk or merely being textually proficient.

When I was in JSS, our second year we learned Perek Klal Gadol with R Riskin. Most of us were not yeshiva or even day school graduates. We wracked our brains over the Gemara, Rashi, Tosfos, Rambam and SA.

I will never forget when R Riskin assigned a fairly large Tosfos in Shabbos (94a s.v. R Shimon) and told us that RYBS had assigned the same Tosfos and that he had spent much of his Yamim Noraim with both his Gemara and the Machzor as he wrestled with the pshat in that Tosfos. Wrestling with that Tosfos was fundamental in obtaining the beginning of an understanding in the basic concepts of Melacha Sheino Tricha LaGufa, etc. It also inspired in many of us the beginnings of a love of learning Torah.

IMO, American MO educators would do well to emulate R Moshe Besdin ZL and his abililty to develope both textually literate and passionately committed Jews, regardless of their hashkafic label.

LA POSTS: I work in a Jewish bookstore in Los Angeles and I see that most customers want to buy the down-to-earth Dummied down Judaism books. NOT the books that would teach them to think on their own or the more intellectual books.

ABIE POSTS: About 55 years ago I applied for admission to Brooklyn TA (YU HS). For placement I was handed a gemara I had never learned and told to come back the following day and explain the sugya.

When my son was starting 8th grade, I spoke to his principal, who was going to "enrich" my son and his best friend and told him of my experience. (The principal has long since moved on to being a leader in Jewish education.) He replied that no high school could give such an exam. He explained that schools now (30 years ago) teach "frumkeit".

BEN BAYIT POSTS: While I agree with the listing of reasons in Berger’s article, I think that the situation has progressed beyond the last line. There is now no longer a lack of need for Hebrew, nor even a fear of Hebrew – it has progressed to disdain. Hebrew has become an unnecessary component of Orthodox Jewry in America. Something to be avoided. Almost treif.
Not knowing Hebrew is still the ultimate excuse for not fulfilling mitzvat yishuv haaretz – can’t work, can’t educate the kids, can’t function in society. I mean why would a high-powered lawyer or doctor or investment banker (now probably un-or underemployed) move to Israel if they can’t get a job b/c they don’t know Hebrew. Nefesh B’Nefesh has made some inroads into this negative attitude against Hebrew by promoting an Aliya model that does not require one to even learn Hebrew. THIS IS BAD!!! It deals with symptoms and not causes. American Orthodoxy is going the way of Alexandrian and Northern Mediteranean Jewry of the first millenium. Becoming analphabetic and functionally illiterate in basic Jewish texts to such a degree that it is inevitable that it won’t be able to survice – septuagint – or artscroll/ktav translations nonwithstanding. Being functionally illiterate ain Hebrew and depending on Zelig Pliskin and Hanoch Teller for spiritual sustenance can only last a generation of two in the U.S. of A.

MIKE POSTS: You guys act as if this were a modern phenomenon. Why did Ramba"m write Mishneh Torah? To provide a straightforward text for halacha to a generation whose leaders lacked the textual skills to derive halacha from the gemara. In short it was supposed to be what "Los Angeles Yid" dismisses as "own-to-earth Dummied down Judaism books."

CONCERNED POSTS: This is a wide spread problem in all segments of the Torah world. All teens today have a very short attention span, maybe due to video games, texting, etc. If a young person doesn’t grasp something immediately he says it is too hard for him and gives up. They certainly would never look anything up in a dictionary. I wonder how many could even find the word in a Hebrew dictionary even if they wanted to.

My youngest daughter is a senior in a very large high school for girls in Brooklyn. Their history class uses a simple Hebrew text about the Spanish Inquisition and life prior to it and after it. She always asks me to translate it for her so she will know the material. Once she had five classmates over and they asked me as a group to read it to them. These were average frum girls. I asked if any one of them could read it and translate it and they all said that it would "take too long".

I told them that all authors use a select number of words over and over again. If they looked up words they didn’t know in chapter one and two and re-read it a few times they would have smooth sailing for the rest of the book. I told them that I do the same thing when I start reading a new book. I had recently started the re-print of "Hatnuat Hamussar" and the first few chapters took me a long time to get through but then it became much easier.

ANON POSTS: In my memory, half the guys in yeshiva were pretending to know texts, whereas they really were knowing the gist of many things; the shakla ve-tarya, a Tosfos; even a simple memra by an Amora. Yes, many of them got the general sense of what is being conveyed, but had no idea of what many words meant or how to pronounce them. It is true, in time many got better and better at it, and it is true that some people who were faking it the way I described in 11th grade eventually developed real skills over time. But the way you advocate, tackling texts, ends up being tackling the basic ideas in the texts and not the text itself, and many guys (and gals!) end up illiterate, or simply uninterested in trying to learn from texts (or learn period) once there is no longer a rebbe and a hanhalah forcing them to do so.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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