Lomdus vs. Skills: A Response to Rabbi Adler of TABC

Here is a letter of mine recently printed in Issue 5:5 of Kol Hamevaser, the “Jewish Thought Magazine of the Yeshiva University Student Body,” in which I responded to their interview with Rabbi Yosef Adler of TABC (5.2, the Education Issue). In the interview, Rabbi Adler argues for intellectual stimulation over skills in high school Gemara education. I am honored that Hamevaser elected to print my letter, which I am printing here, as well, for the benefit of my own readers.

First, Rabbi Adler’s thoughts, from Hamevaser:

AC: You are a noted advocate of the use of derekh Brisk (the Brisker method of Talmud study) in high school education. How do you respond to the concerns of educators who feel that high school is a time to focus on reading skills and general familiarity with the spectrum of Torah?

RYA: My number one objective in yeshivah high school education is to turn people on to learning. I try to show them that learning can be taken seriously and is enjoyable, and I hope to pique their curiosity to learn. I love to have guys who are budding talmidei hakhamim, but I want most of them to be baalebatim (laymen) who respect learning and I want them to get turned on to learning. My goal is not that every kid should know how to “make a leining” (read a passage of Talmud). I do not think that in the time that is allocated in yeshivah high schools of our orbit – an hour and a half or two hours a day – is sufficient to communicate that. It is, if it is your only objective. If your only objective is skills, then perhaps you could have kids read, and reread, and reread. But I think you will turn off eighty percent of them, because it is a little boring. I am willing to forfeit that for the experience of getting them challenged and letting their minds explore what is happening, let them get involved in the learning process and hopefully turn them on to make Torah-learning an incredibly important value in their life. I think that intellectual stimulation and lomdus and Brisker Torah is the way to go.

My response:

To the Editors:

Your interview with Rabbi Adler for the most part solidified the high esteem in which I hold this master builder of Jewish education. However, I was troubled by his comments on Brisker Lomdus in high schools as the best means of “intellectual stimulation” on account of basic skills being “a little boring.” As a graduate and Musmach of YU now serving as a high school Rebbe at a co-educational, Modern Orthodox school in a mid-size Jewish community, it is my personal opinion that Rabbi Adler, albeit with the best of intentions, has entirely missed the mark in his assessment, and that his and others’ approach to this issue is causing more harm than good.

I am proud to stress basic skills in my Gemara classes before delving into Iyun (but never Brisker Lomdus at their level), and my students are as engaged, stimulated, and excited as their peers elsewhere. What I would propose to Rabbi Adler and others who adapt his stance on this issue is that there are two means of “engagement” which must be taken into consideration. My students’ excitement is deep, if less broad, as it comes from the internal pride of knowing that they are able to actually do something on their own, that they have (or will have soon) the inestimable power of being able to learn any Gemara they choose. They are excited that they saw something a few notches above them, reached high, and took hold of it for themselves. Attaining that excitement is more laborious, true, and it does not immediately cater to the culture of instant gratification to which we and are our students fall prey. But why should Gemara education play a “yes dear” role to the worst social morays of our time? My experience has been that when given an opportunity to rise above the need to feel immediately satisfied by their Torah learning and instead feel the old-fashioned exhilaration of production earned honestly and by accumulated toil, the students respond beautifully. In contrast, whatever excitement is gained by seeing something 100 notches above them, staring at it off in the distance, and nodding solemnly at the beauty of it as it flies by without truly understand what it is that they’re seeing, is the kind of excitement that will leave as quickly as it came.

I fear that the learning in our classrooms may begin to adapt itself to our generation’s unfortunate tendency towards the apocryphal, with learning as an inherent value replaced by learning as entertainment, as something to stare and gawk at, as the ultimate unreachable goal by which to measure oneself without any real compunction to believe that we can “get there.” If “appreciation” of learning is central, Rabbi Adler would be right. If learning itself is a value, then even today, after all these millennia, and maybe more so than ever, learning takes actual work. This is not surprising, because learning is the emblematic derivative of our desire to come closer to Hashem during our time on earth. It is axiomatic that any relationship devoid of work has no staying power. To Rabbi Adler’s proposal that we ingest our students with a burst of momentary excitement in a bid to generate a life-long love of learning, I can only say that that will work as well as any relationship entered into with a similar level of commitment. By comparison, suppose a well-intentioned basketball coach “excited” his team by showing them videos of plays by professional athletes that they could not possibly complete at their own level, leaving them to wonder whether their own functional abilities were of any use. Brisker Lomdus, like those videos, may provide a very limited burst of excitement, but the real staying power will only be achieved through hard work and skills. Absent these, the players will neither enjoy nor understand basketball, and their long-term prospects for playing will be rather slim – all despite the excitement they initially felt on watching those videos.

On the issue of there not being enough time for both skills and Lomdus in “an hour and a half to two hours a day,” I find that claim suspect. I think some people just don’t want to make the effort, or don’t know how to, or don’t believe they can if they tried, or consider it beneath themselves to try. You may cover fewer Sugyot in a year (although I doubt it, because on the balance you’ll cover more ground anyway with their increased skills), but if each Sugya is learned first with an eye to basic skills and then analyzed in depth, all bases would be covered. This is what I do in my classroom, and the excitement on my students’ faces speaks for itself. They bask in the glow of what they can actually accomplish on their own, as well they should. For all intents and purposes, my students are building for themselves a complete set of Shas without ever entering a bookstore, and they cannot be prouder. Any real Brisker would laugh at a child who can’t hold a Gemara straight using the vaunted “Brisker Derech” the same way we chuckle seeing a small child wearing his father’s coat.

As far as the mid-range results of Rabbi Adler’s strategy, I do not have to surmise because I saw them. Having spent two years teaching at a mid-level post-high school yeshiva in Israel prior to accepting my current position four years ago, coping daily with the results that Brisker Lomdus had wrought on these day school graduates, I can only say that the outcome was not pretty. Not only were their basic skills lacking to the point that they couldn’t read and translate anything (not surprisingly, given Rabbi Adler’s own assertions), but their analytical skills were missing as well – any attempt to make them Brisker Lamdanim had fallen flat. Perhaps even more alarming, they could barely articulate anything more cogent as to why they were in Israel than that their friends had come as well. They weren’t in Israel to continue learning Brisker Lomdus, a term they probably had never even heard. And they certainly weren’t there to learn basic skills, although many realized before too long that there is nothing boring at all about being able to learn Gemara on their own and that making up for lost time was probably the best way to spend their year. Seeing those kids day after day, years after their proper developmental window for acquiring basic skills was essentially closed, was what really pushed me to come back to America and do things differently in a school setting. I am proud that I have been able to do that, and I hope to continue to do so for many years to come.

I will say only this in conclusion to Rabbi Adler and others who agree with him: Don’t feel bad for Gemara. Don’t be scared to present it for what it is. Don’t apologize for its intricacy, difficulty, profundity or depth. Don’t let excessive condiments dull the Gemara’s own delicious taste. Today more than ever, our students are starving for the opportunity to feel real, hard-earned accomplishment, and while they may lack the vocabulary to ask you articulately for it and may not thank you for it right away, they would be more than gratified in due time if you would help them find it.

Signed with every ounce of respect for this modern-day giant of Jewish education, a man whom I truly admire and even emulate for the pivotal role he has played in teaching Torah and dedicating his life to his students and to his craft,

This entry was posted in Communal Matters, Jewish Education (meta). Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Lomdus vs. Skills: A Response to Rabbi Adler of TABC

  1. RJM says:

    Excellent post. I am happy to have discovered your blog. As a former student of a High School that stressed analytical thinking above skill development (I graduated 20 years ago) I was one of the only kids who took it upon himself to master reading the gemara independently. If I had not acquired that ability at the young age I did, I am sure I would have gone the way of many of my fellow students and left the path of learning completely…My Rosh Yeshiva in High School understood this, although some of the teachers were not as appreciative of this point. In the end, the proof is in the pudding, as they say.

  2. rebleib1 says:

    Thank You – I’m honored to have you as a Follower and even more glad that someone in your life took the time to encourage you to gain skills in learning. Thank you for your comment and much Hatzlacha to you!

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