Rabbi Ahron Lopiansky
Klal Perspectives, High School Boys’ Chinuch
To read this issue’s questions, CLICK HERE.
Educating the Education Consumer
When addressing the subject of challenges and possible improvements to the American chinuch system, the first challenge is to identify who should be the appropriate audience. Each constituency will readily suggest another to be in need of instruction. Mechanchim tend to find fault in the bochurim, and their poor attitudes, aspirations and performance. Parents readily place the weight of responsibility on the mechanchim, citing the need for improved educational skills, greater individualized sensitivity and an increased time commitment. Bochurim, of course, find both their parents and their rebbeim at fault, rarely connecting any personal shortcomings with personal responsibility. Who, then, should be addressed?
No doubt, every group within the chinuch family has room for improvements. But if fundamental, systemic improvements are to be considered, the most appropriate starting point would be the constituency with the greatest control of the system. In our capitalistic society, it is the consumer who is king, and the field of chinuch is no exception.
It is the parents who evaluate high school options for their sons and who create the demand for certain types of institutions. The yeshivos and their mechanchim must vie for bochurim, knowing they will not survive if they do not meet with parents’ expectations. Thus, they fashion much of their educational style and substance to attract the greatest number, and the most impressive group, of students. Parents are thus the true consumers of high school chinuch. Consequently, by their choices and articulated objectives, it is the parents who are in the strongest position to initiate and influence a process of improvement.
Imposing this responsibility on parents, however, is not a simple matter. In order for this to be effective, parents must recognize, acknowledge and embrace this role and its powerful influence, identify their goals and ascertain what changes would advance the system to such ends. And perhaps the greatest challenge to parents would be the manner by which each would be able to identify which yeshivos and rebbeim are actually implementing the changes that would influence their choice of schools.
How many parents believe that they have the skill or background to reliably ascertain the true nature of a yeshiva’s culture and evaluate its implementation of curricula and emphasis? For one thing, parents are ill-equipped, in both familiarity and time availability, to conduct school inspections – particularly when their choices are from among multiple yeshivos. And finally, social pressures cannot be ignored. Parents, naturally and understandably, are inclined to send their children to the yeshiva whose student body most closely reflects their community’s aspirations for its children, and will be hard pressed to “buck the system,” potentially marking their son as “different.”
The goal certainly should not be for the ‘P.T.A.’ of greater American Orthodoxy to change the system overnight. But if parents become sensitized to important problems and begin to ask the same questions when exploring yeshivos, yeshivos will begin to take notice, and real and positive change will inevitably be triggered. In fact, there are many yeshivos that already wish they could implement sorely needed changes, but are afraid of scaring off potential parents. At a minimum, such institutions would be empowered to implement the changes they already know to be appropriate.
The proper exercise of parental influence requires both a keener appreciation of the proper method of choosing a yeshiva, and clearer understanding of the criteria by which the selection should be made.
There is No “Best School,” Only What is Best for My Child
Each healthy parent enjoys a wonderful sense of attachment to, and pride in, his or her children. This magical connection is the source of the spectacular commitment of parent to child, and the resulting willingness to give limitlessly of one’s self, sacrificing almost anything to meet a child’s needs and best interests. But this same special connection imposes on parents a profound degree of subjectivity when observing their children.
Parents tend to see their children first as unusually cute, and then unusually talented and then unusually intelligent. To make matters worse, some parents view their own self-worth as dependent on the academic ranking and achievements of their children, only increasing the pressure to push them into a framework that is all-too-often not suitable for them. In any case, they will offer the typical rationales to overcome his record: “He does well when he’s around shtarke bochurim” (stronger boys), “I know that he is bright and will rise to the challenge,” “He has, alas, been influenced by the wrong friends,” “If only someone had pushed me when I was his age, I would have become a great rosh yeshiva.”
Imagine someone walking into a clothing store and trying on a size 38 suit that he finds too tight. He then tries on a size 40, but it’s still too snug so he moves up to a 42, which seems just right. Being quite the lamdan, he observes that as he increases the suit sizes, the fit improves each time. Inevitably, he concludes, a size 44 or 46 will be even more fitting, not to mention a 48 or a 50!
In chinuch terms, each child is a different “size” – academically, emotionally, culturally and socially – and should not be pushed past that place. When selecting a yeshiva, a parent should not be not choosing between a “better” or “weaker” school, but rather trying to identify the yeshiva that is best for their particular child. A “stronger” yeshiva may sound more impressive, and reflect elevated academic goals, but that might not necessarily be right even for an apparently intelligent boy. “Stronger” yeshivos typically have tighter discipline and greater competitiveness. While helpful for some, these dimensions of a yeshiva may be devastating for others, regardless of how intelligent they may be. Parents must look beyond the standard measures to determine how good a fit each yeshiva would be for the unique needs of their son.
My brother-in-law, Hagaon Harav Binyomin Carlebach, once heard from R’ Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, zt”l, that the mishna stating “תהי זנב לאריות ואל תהי ראש לשועלים” – that one should rather be a tail of a lion than a head of a fox – does not apply to chinuch. In fact, while still attending school, the child who struggles at the bottom of a strong class will tend to achieve far less than the student who views himself as successful, even when in a much weaker class.
I was once privileged to hear this principle reiterated by R’ Yosef Sholom Elyashiv, zt”l. About seventeen years ago, I was in Eretz Yisroel with a group of high school boys who were considering yeshivos in Eretz Yisroel, and I took them to greet R’ Elyashiv. The Gabbai introduced us as, “a group of bochurim from America looking at yeshivos in Eretz Yisroel who want a brocha that they should get into the best yeshivos.” Rav Elyashiv nodded to the Gabbai but turned to the bochurim and said, “IY”H, you should get into the yeshivos that are best for you.”
A second error parents make is viewing chinuch as a single frame photo rather than as a lengthy movie. Comparing two yeshivos by considering their respective ninth-grade classes will provide an incomplete and therefore distorted view of what to expect. A yeshiva high school must be evaluated based on how the student body is transformed over the full four-year period. How do the graduates look, behave and learn? It would be even more accurate (especially if the high school talmidim typically go on to the mosod’s yeshiva gedolah) to see what they look like ten years down the road. Frequently, short-term, accelerated success is achieved at the expense of a more effective, natural and organic process.
The Current View of Gemara Study, and How to Assess a Yeshiva’s Appropriateness
One of the greatest obstacles to a child’s successful chinuch experience is a mistaken understanding of the academic goals to be pursued. There is a garbled and misrepresented version of alleged ‘daas Torah’ that presents a picture of ideal Torah study for high school talmidim that would be funny if it were not so common. In a rather satirical summation of the attitude, the view can be summarized as follows:
We all really know that only studying Birkas Shmuel constitutes authentic Talmud Torah. The more Birkas Shmuel one learns, and the less time he spends on the Gemara itself, the greater talmid chochom one will be, וכל המרבה הרי זה משובח. In fact, it is well known that R’ Yisroel Salanter taught that learning in any manner other than b’iyun is actually bitul Torah, and therefore Birchas Hatorah should preferably be said over a Birkas Shmuel. B’dieved, a Kovetz Shiurim of R’ Elchonon Wasserman will suffice.
While people may be bemused by this extreme portrayal, sadly, it is not as far off as it should be.
What, then, should authentic Talmud Torah look like? While specifics are beyond the scope of this article, there are three principles that deserve priority, which we can call the three C’s – Clarity, Cumulative knowledge, and Creative analysis:
Clarity – If the bochurim in the shiur have not mastered the שקלא וטריא (give and take) of the Gemara, they are failing, even if they can work their way through a ‘shtikel Torah’ (analysis of a point). The student may introduce the greatest innovation or chiddush, or repeat a thorough presentation of conceptual theses, but these accomplishments do not compensate for the inability to recount the basic give and take of the flow of the Gemara. Before all else, a bochur must be able to read the Gemara thoroughly, his inflection and pronunciation reflecting complete comfort with the material. He should then be able to articulate the central point of the sugya (topic), including how it is reflected in the basic give and take. This applies both to the study of Gemara as well as to Tosfos.
Unfortunately, parents are often allured by the attractiveness of lomdus (advanced analysis), and fail to give full weight to these far more basic cornerstones of learning. Consequently, many yeshivos are full of very bright bochurim who can impressively feign lomdus but who hardly understand the basics of the Gemara, with devastating consequences to their future learning. Even a parent who is not very advanced in his own learning should be able to keep this in mind in the development of his son’s learning and in choosing a yeshiva that supports this critical value, upon which all future success in learning is based.
Cumulative knowledge – The most basic component of being a talmid chochom is not analytical ability but knowledge of Torah. Moreover, the sense that as one learns more and more, he knows more and more is a great stimulus for passionate learning. If a yeshiva’s curriculum does not include a fixed amount of dapim (pages) (depending on the mesechta), accompanied by written tests that allow the student to gauge his own advancement, the bochur will not develop an ongoing desire to learn.
In many yeshivos, the study of bekiyus (i.e., covering ground) has disintegrated into either a “lite” seder, accompanied by little or no chazora (review), or, in some cases the opposite, with little ground covered and even chaburos for in-depth research. Similarly, there is often no testing or accountability regarding the material covered, and no emphasis on accumulating real knowledge. The student in a proper yeshiva should accumulate much Torah knowledge throughout his years in the beis medrash.
Creativity and analysis – While mastering the basics of the Gemara and the accumulation of Torah knowledge is the foundation of all learning, lomdus is its heart and soul. Tragically, however, the very concept of lomdus has been corrupted. True lomdus is the ability to learn a sugya, identify its core principles, ask the questions that emerge from the material, and use these questions as the tool to correctly define the relevant terms. Using these terms, the student will be able to use lomdus to outline the various categories of the halacha and understand the implications of the various alternative approaches.
The pedagogical crimes committed in the name of lomdus include (i) neglecting the preliminary mastery of the basics; (ii) diverting to topics barely relevant to the sugya (sometimes just to avoid the appearance of advancing too quickly); (iii) imposing advanced seforim, such as Birkas Shmuel and Shaarei Yoshor, that are inevitably too sophisticated for younger boys; (iv) adopting terminology that is alien to the students, thereby frustrating their ability to express their thoughts meaningfully; and (v) piling on numerous opinions and alternative approaches, turning the sugya from an educational experience into an “anything goes” arena.
My Rebbi, Harav Nochum Partzovitz, zt”l, was the Rosh Yeshiva in the Mir. Rav Nochum, as he was affectionately called, was viewed by many as the preeminent lamdan of his generation, and his shiur was widely considered “the” opportunity to become a true lamdan. Talmidim journeyed from all corners of the world (in the days when travel was still difficult) to learn from him.
Rav Nochum’s shiur reflected the true nature of lomdus (as does that of his son-in-law and successor, ylcht”va, Hagaon R’ Asher Arieli). In each shiur, he stuck to the main points of the sugya with total mastery of pshat, which he employed frequently (and expecting his talmidim to do the same). He did not dazzle us with many alternative approaches to each sugya, but rather focused his shiur on developing what he felt to be the preferred approach to the sugya. For Rav Nochum, lomdus was not the goal of learning; it was rather the tool for understanding the sugya.
When a distant relative of mine once opened a Yeshiva, he asked Rav Nochum if he could present his shiur klali (a shiur delivered to the entire Beis Medrash by the Rosh HaYeshiva) to him each week for prior approval. Rav Nochum graciously consented. My cousin was learning Baba Metzia, and the first week he presented his shiur on the chazaka of two people simultaneously holding onto an object. Rav Nochum listened and nodded assent.
My cousin returned the second week and presented a shiur on the topic of “the ne’emanus (trustworthiness) of a merchant,” a rather incidental topic that arises on the next page. Rav Nochum stopped him and said, “Just as it is a rebbe’s job to draw his students’ attention to the important issues in the sugya, it is also his job to keep their attention where it belongs. The topic you picked this week would serve as a distraction from the primary considerations that are relevant here, and would not be appropriate material for a shiur.”
True lomdus must be taught by a masterful lamdan who is capable of introducing concepts that will be understood by the class, expressed in language they can appreciate. The rebbe must be able to convey an analysis of the issue at hand and introduce solutions that address the heart of the issues, rather than an arbitrary side point, however interesting it may seem.
R’ Yoshe Ber Soloveitchik zt”l, Rosh Hayeshiva of Yeshiva University, was an extraordinary lamdan and talmid chochom, yet was able to keep baalei batim riveted for hours with a lomdishe shiur. He did so by selecting topics with which his audience was familiar, and by presenting an extraordinary formulation of lomdishe concepts in layman’s language. A rebbe who is a true lamdan and a true pedagogue will have both the inclination and the ability to translate lomdus into a language that can be thoroughly appreciated by his talmidim.
While there are certainly other areas of Torah that must be addressed as part of a yeshiva curriculum, the success of a chinuch system lies in the subject that is at the heart of a yeshiva curriculum: Gemara. If we succeed in doing this right, we will have progressed immeasurably.
Choosing Appropriate Mechanchim for our Children
Once a parent understands that the goal is to find the type of yeshiva that is the best fit for their child, the next step is to identify the criteria by which to identify appropriate individual mechanchim. This inquiry properly begins with two fundamental questions:
Are the rebbeim of the yeshiva individuals whom we would like our children to emulate? After all, a natural response of a healthy child to proper chinuch is the inclination, whether consciously or not, to emulate the mechanech.
What is the fundamental role in which the rebbeim see themselves? Do they view themselves as mechanchim or as roshei yeshiva? B”H, the hanhalos (administrations) of today’s yeshivos are filled with wonderful talmidei chachomim. A natural inclination of a talmid chochom is to wish to share with others his chiddushim and scholarly insights. Quite frequently,he views being a mechanech as an extension of his learning. In fact, many significant talmidei chachomim elect to enter the field of chinuch with the expectation that this choice will allow them “to stay in learning.” While the sharing of one’s brilliance and insight may be appropriate when presenting a chabura amongst peers, or when one is a great renowned Rosh Yeshiva whose shiurim are presented to the most senior of budding talmidei chachomim. But this is far from true and appropriate for almost any other rebbe.
When entering a classroom, the rebbe must focus solely on the needs of his talmidim, not the content that he has so lovingly prepared. The Torah must be taught to fit the children’s needs, not the opposite. He must ensure that the shiur is appropriate, in every regard, to the age and academic level of the talmidim. Rather than allocating the bulk of preparation time to the amassing of substantive material, the time should be spent on thinking through the appropriate structure and presentation of the material. In fact, significant pedagogical skills do not appear automatically, nor are they the natural outgrowth of the talmid chochom’s persona.
When a friend of mine was opening his Yeshiva many years ago, R’ Wolbe, zt”l, the famous Mashgiach and noted educator, advised him: “You must stand every day in front of a mirror, and repeat, ‘I have been created solely for the sake of my talmidim.’”
Who is a Mashpia on the Student?
Finally, and no less important than the learning per se, is exploring who the mashpiim on the talmidim will be.
In past eras, it might have been thought that just sitting and learning shtark is sufficient to mold person’s character. R’ Yisroel Salanter, z’tl, founder of the Mussar movement, strongly disagreed. Although his talmidim varied greatly in their application of his principles, their common axiom was that the deliberate shaping of a person’s middos and hashkafos is essential to his development as a Ben Torah. While everyone today gives lip service to this axiom, many yeshivos continue to consider mussar and a Mashgiach Ruchani as simply a means of getting everyone into the beis medrash on time.
Simply listening to a small selection of shmussen within a yeshiva will quickly illustrate to a parent whether the yeshiva is simply seeking to reinforce beis medrash discipline, or whether there is a deliberate effort to build bochurim. A thoughtful parent can quickly discern whether the yeshiva’s messages will be relevant to a talmid who eventually enters the world of commerce and whether there is a message regarding basic building blocks of a Ben Torah – thoughts regarding ‘הצנע לכת’ (a modest life) integrity, responsibility, empathy and much more. Is the yeshiva conveying thoughtful insights into the most basic, as well as the more subtle, concepts that provide talmidim with the understanding and insights needed to face life’s inevitable challenges? Is there inspiration? The sought after hashpaah need not be provided within a yeshiva by the formal ‘mashgiach.’ It may come from the rosh yeshiva, from one or more of the rebbeim, or even from someone else in the beis medrash. The main requirement is that such a personality exists. After all, much of what a talmid will become will be the result of that hashpaah.
Yeshivos, like all institutions, seek to fill their rooms and garner supporters. Those who decide whether the rooms will be filled possess the key to instigating the implementation of necessary changes. In the area of chinuch, parents play that critical role. By selecting schools for children based on the fundamentals of effective teaching, inspirational guidance and student-focused mechanchim, parents can dramatically alter the character and nature of contemporary yeshivos. This is an opportunity that should not be squandered.