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Rabbi Yeshai Koenigsberg

Klal Perspectives, High School Boys’ Chinuch

To read this issue’s questions, CLICK HERE.

Reconciling Mesorah and Innovation: The Two Dimensions of Chinuch

Central to any examination of boys’ yeshiva high school curriculum is consideration of the dominant role played by Gemara study.  And similar to the very nature and style of Gemara study, the examination will invariably elicit strongly held conflicting views, each with ample evidence and weight of authority.  And just like Gemara study, the ensuing debate is unlikely to conclude with unanimity of views or with a final resolution.  Nevertheless, the debate is worthy and the importance of review and reconsideration compelling.

Inevitably, there will be loyalists to tradition who resist any tampering with current educational practices. They will assert that the traditional approach to teenage Torah education is fundamental to the mesorah, and modifying the current approach not only violates the mesorah, it risks compromising the effectiveness of the education.  Furthermore, as history has shown, once the floodgates of change are opened even a crack, pressure for further change becomes irresistible, often resulting in a Yiddishkeit that is unrecognizable and inauthentic.

Others, however, will argue that modifying current educational practices is clearly warranted. Their focus will be less on how well the upper echelon of teenage students is doing and more on the current system’s record with almost everyone else.  They will argue that the traditional approach to Torah education, and its intense focus on classic Gemara study, remains effective only for the most advanced students, but is severely lacking for all but the academic elite. Moreover, applying the “mesorah” argument is actually misleading and inapplicable since the traditional educational approaches cited as mesorah were implemented during an era when only the elite actually enjoyed continued formal Torah education through teenage years and beyond. The current challenge of implementing a successful high school curriculum cannot be strictly guided by precedent because the broad-based composition of today’s yeshiva student body has no precedent, and thus there really is no applicable mesorah that can be traced back to earlier times.

As in any healthy debate, there is ample legitimacy in each view, and each side is both credible and convincing.   In fact, as will be shown, there is support for each of the above views from two relatively contemporary educational giants.  A careful analysis, however, may yield the ultimately satisfying result that the two views do not actually conflict, but rather complement one another.

The Language of Chinuch: The Slonimer Rebbe and Rav Yerucham Levovitz

As mentioned above, the notion of tampering with mesorah is not taken lightly by the Torah community. Change and innovation may be intended to effect improvement, but they also introduce the risks of the proverbial slippery slope. In no area is there greater resistance to tampering with mesorah than in the field of chinuch. A unique aspect of this concern is highlighted by an exchange recorded in the writings of the Nesivos Shalom – the Slonimer Rebbe, zt”l[2].

A non-religious educator posed the following query: “In our modern educational system, we employ the latest innovations in methodology and use various methods to convey [to the students] ideas and information in concrete ways. How are you[3] able to educate without any of that?” The Rebbe’s reply provides the ultimate mission statement for mechanchim (educators): “All your educational principles and techniques,” explained the Rebbe, “were designed for superficial (“chitzoni”) education (i.e. the physical side of the person and its associated abilities, which merely addresses the external shell of the human personality). But there is an elevated sphere of education, where the educator uses [words and] language not to access the physical [or even intellectual side] of the student but rather to speak to the more profound dimension of the student – his neshama. Accessing the neshama does not require innovative methodology. All it requires is a thorough knowledge of that [special] language – that language being the educational language of yeshivos.” Chinuch,then, is far more profound than mere “education.”  It is about reaching the neshama[4].

No doubt, the methodology of chinuch works through the intellect, but it transcends practical and mundane considerations. The Slonimer Rebbe’s answer highlights an additional dimension of Torah chinuch – igniting the neshama.  This neshama-focused chinuch, with its embrace of the totality of the student, should be the basis of our educational approach.

Lest we fear that speaking the language of the neshama is elusive or unattainable, we are taught that it is rather accessible, after all.  It lies in the astounding power of the very mesorah we possess, which is the means for reaching the neshama.  The how and why of the effectiveness of the mesorah may not be rational and may not be comprehensible, but the long-standing tradition of how yeshivos have been educating for generations provides the language of the neshama. Thus the form, focus, and curriculum of the educational system of previous generations are timeless and invaluable guidelines for chinuch.

On the other hand, Torah guidance appears to mandate that the language of chinuch be continually adapted to the particular needs of each generation. In delivering the pre-matan Torah message to Bnei Yisrael, Hashem tells Moshe, “Ko somar l’vais Yaakov v’sageid l’vnei Yisrael” (So shall you say to the house of Jacob and tell to the sons of Israel – Shemos 19:3). In his oft-cited comment, Rashi notes that women (referred to here as Bais Yaakov) and men (Bnei Yisrael) were addressed differently, presumably because of their distinct dispositions.

The great Mirrer Mashgiach, Rav Yerucham Levovitz, taught based on this comment that the choice of language must always be made in consideration of the words and tone that will reach the particular audience. In fact, Rav Yerucham argues that if we could only identify the proper language for our generation, we would be capable of returning all Jews to Torah.[5] Clearly, we are being taught that the language of former generations will not necessarily be appropriate for subsequent eras. When necessary, a new language must be introduced.

Synthesizing the Lessons

On the surface, it appears that the Slonimer Rebbe and Rav Yerucham are at odds, each advocating mutually exclusive approaches.  The Slonimer Rebbe seemingly resists tailoring language to meet the needs of the current generation, while Rav Yerucham mandates such tailoring. In fact, however a closer examination of their respective insights may illuminate how these two approaches may be reconciled.

The Slonimer Rebbe and Rav Yerucham are each actually referring to distinct elements of the broader discipline of “chinuch.”  The context of the pasuk cited by Rav Yerucham, and the related comment of Rashi, obviously refer to the inspiration and influence of Torah. Rav Yerucham is advising how motivation to Torah observance and yiras shomayim is effectively conveyed. For such purposes, the language must be tailored to one’s intended audience. Each generation – in fact each community – may need a different language and a distinct approach. Innovation in this area of chinuch is not only acceptable, it is absolutely required.

By contrast, the Slonimer Rebbe’s discussion with the non-religious educator was addressing the entirely different dimension of chinuch, per se – the form and substance of Torah education.  In this area of chinuch, changes to the fundamental building blocks are inappropriate.  Teaching the content and meaning of Torah knowledge must be pursued only in accordance with the language and methodology of the age-old mesorah.  This mesorah is not merely an educational vehicle, but is also a profound formula that elevates spirituality.  It is a language that engages the intellect, but reaches deeply into the neshama as well.

The distinction between inspiration and academics[6] is fundamental to the examination of the yeshiva high school curriculum. Below is an examination of each of these two aspects of chinuch, along with an outline of the key elements of each.  Though by no means a comprehensive treatment, the points raised below may contribute to the discussion and lead to exploring effective means of implementation and application[7].


As noted above, the cornerstone of yeshiva education is the study of Gemara. The historical centrality of Gemara reflects the supreme educational value that the mesorah has assigned to it. There has been much written about its centrality, but among the many vital qualities of Gemara study are the following:

  • It represents an encounter with chochma Elokis (divine wisdom) and ratzon Hashem (the will of G-d);
  • It facilitates an appreciation of the intricacies of the halachic process;
  • It develops critical thinking and provides the tools of analysis employed by the thought and logic of the halachic system;
  • It engenders a high degree of student engagement;
  • It provides an opportunity for student contribution.

The directive of the Slonimer Rebbe adds a rather novel aspect to the central place of Gemara learning. The implication of this directive is that the traditional emphasis on Gemara reflects the recognition that Gemara learning is not merely an intellectual exercise. Learning the words of Gemara is also learning the language of the neshama. And, as the Slonimer Rebbe has pointed out, the ultimate goal of all our chinuch endeavors is to reach the neshama.

No one familiar with the current high school population, or even with those who have graduated over the past few decades, can deny that there are many intelligent and committed students who fail to thrive. Many observers cite these less-than-stellar graduates as evidence that not all students are “cut out” for Gemara and that alternate Torah subjects should be introduced into the mainstream yeshiva curriculum.

Admittedly, not all students (and perhaps only a minority) are cut out for Gemara – in the manner in which it is being taught. When fashioned properly, Gemara learning can engage virtually every student, stimulate them and become a lifelong pursuit that is both satisfying and exhilarating.

Lomdus & Basic Skills

The conventional approach to learning Gemara includes an emphasis on the study of lomdus – advanced analysis. For many students, however, lomdus is alienating rather than engaging, introducing confusion rather than clarity. If conveyed on an individualized basis, however, in accordance with the intellectual inclination and aptitudes of the particular students, lomdus can be appropriate and deeply rewarding for all students of at least ordinary academic ability.

The frustration experienced by many students regarding Gemara study, and with lomdus in particular, generally results from the student failing to begin a sugya (topic) by properly dissecting the steps of the Gemara. Dissecting the steps of the Gemara enables the student to understand each sequential step, and the logical progression of the Gemara’s thought process.[8]

Perhaps reflecting priorities conveyed by the rebbe, or perhaps by virtue of attitudes encouraged by peers and older students, the typical talmid often feels the need to get through the Gemara as quickly as possible in order to launch into Tosefos and other meforshim (commentaries) – which is viewed as the “real” learning. Talmidim are rarely taught that patience is one of the key ingredients to successful Gemara learning, and they are certainly not trained to exercise it. Students who lack clarity in following the basics of the Gemara will inevitably experience frustration.

The need for clarity in the learning of the Gemara itself holds true for the learning of Rashi, Tosefos, and other meforshim, as well. When lomdus is introduced, the problem becomes even more acute. The depth and subtlety of many lomdishe concepts demand that the concepts be thought through carefully. Each step must be segmented and digested, and the sequence of ideas must become self-evident. In practice, however, there is a tendency for students to grab on to catch phrases without sufficiently grasping the phrases’ true intent.

This tendency can be exacerbated by rebbeim who may be too eager to move past the basics to the “meat” of the sugya, or who are drawn into the excitement of an analysis that may be beyond the level of too much of the class.[9]  Students are thus typically denied sufficient training in the fundamentals and basics of lomdus, and are advanced to elevated levels of study without the benefits of the prerequisites.[10] It is no wonder that only the brightest students are able to find this limud (type of learning) engaging and satisfying.

Unfortunately, many students face an even more basic challenge – they have not been sufficiently trained in the fundamentals of reading and understanding the text of the Gemara, or of Rashi or Tosafos, etc. Reading and vocabulary skills are an absolute precondition for any success in Gemara and often do not receive the attention they deserve. Furthermore, it is only by attaining these basic skills that students will ultimately achieve independence in learning, which is critical to significant continued growth.

Tragically, however, the chinuch system imposes little restraint on advancing students through academic stages of Gemara study without ensuring that each student has mastered the elements actually necessary for such advancement. It is not unusual for students to enter post-high school bais medrash without the ability to read a simple blatt Gemara. While this failure may be attributed to the student’s lack of enthusiasm, or the supposition that the student is intellectually deficient, a typical culprit for this tragedy is the failure of the yeshiva high school system to adequately assess his progress and accurately report on such findings.

There is a resistance to holding students back for fear of stigmatizing the student, or imposing on the student frustration or a sense of inadequacy.  Moreover, there is a fear that indicating to a talmid that he is not a strong student may alienate him.  In fact, however, inappropriately advancing a student imposes far deeper frustration and a more profound and dangerous sense of inadequacy, as the student harbors his private recognition that he has little idea of what is going on in the shiur or on the pages of the Gemara, before which he sits for hours a day.

Parents, too, must play a more active role in ensuring the thoughtful and appropriate academic progression of their sons. Too often, parents push their sons along with little interest in a true assessment of their sons’ academic status or capability.  Parents may fail to inquire of the rebbe or menahel as to their sons’ progress, or actually ignore the subtle (and sometimes explicit) messages being conveyed.

Attention Span & Instant Gratification

Another contemporary challenge that stymies the ability of many talmidim to flourish in the conventional learning model is the ubiquitous shortening of the attention span. Hours spent before a digital screen, together with many other influences, serve to normalize the expectation of intense optical stimulation, and the norm of moving rapidly from one thought to another. Students become simply incapable of focusing, without specific training, for any extended period of time.

This inability has nothing to do with intelligence.  In fact, the overwhelming majority of students possess sufficient intelligence to succeed in Gemara study, but many falter due to an inability to maintain concentration. Length of shiurim and sedarim should be scheduled with this in mind (Rav Naftali Trop reportedly gave shiur for 30 minutes). In addition, the presentation and mode of instruction should be geared to increasing students’ ability to maintain concentration and improve their attention spans.

A final factor to be considered is the need to combat students’ dependence on instant gratification. Technology trains us to expect immediate results. Talmidim need to be instilled with the quality of patience and the understanding that learning Gemara is a process. It takes time to become even minimally comfortable with Gemara learning, let alone to master it.  When expectations are realistic and the successes of each step along the way are appreciated, talmidim can grow to value the longer path toward the goal.

To some, these points may sound innovative. Actually, the contrary is true. These points are merely a call for a return to the basics. It is a call to move away from the trend of prematurely presenting the Gemara and meforshim in an inappropriately advanced form. It is an urging that we not skip important steps and stages too often overlooked. In the competitive drive to cater to the top – or to act as if one is at the top – too many students are losing their motivation and connection with Gemara learning.

Inspiration and Motivation

As noted above, individualized presentation is fundamental to imparting inspiration and motivation. Unlike the teaching of Gemara, in which the text is the focus and the vehicle of transmission, there are not necessarily set texts, methods or vehicles for introducing a talmid to the wonder and beauty of Yiddishkeit, to the experiences of ahavas Hashem and yiras Hashem (love and fear of G-d) and to developing an eagerness to seek the messages of Torah. Educators in each era and in each community must tailor their efforts to their student body according to the values and ideals of the mesorah.

What follows are some strategies that many mechanchim have found to be highly effective in motivating their talmidim. At their core, these strategies have a basis in our mesorah. The current reality, though, demands a new emphasis and creative applications of these age-old principles.

š Language of Love

In most instances, a student’s motivation for learning derives either from an appreciation of the material or from an appreciation of the teacher (or both).[11] Being that student motivation for learning based solely on an appreciation of Gemara has declined significantly from previous generations, there must be a move to generate motivation based on appreciation and admiration of the rebbe. As is taught in Mishlei,[12] however, emotions are by nature reciprocal. Only when the talmid senses that he is appreciated by the rebbe will he in turn come to appreciate the rebbe.

Therefore, it is absolutely vital that students feel that their rebbe genuinely cares for them.[13],[14] A close relationship with a rebbe can serve as the ideal bridge to a close relationship with Gemara, even for students for whom Gemara is otherwise unappealing. When a student feels that he is someone who matters to his rebbe, he will naturally be far more motivated to learn and to succeed. When his rebbe takes joy in his progress at his own level, he will take joy as well, and will strive for more. We must keep in mind, however, that teenagers are extremely sharp, particularly in identifying a lack of authenticity. It is not enough for a talmid to perceive that the rebbe cares – the rebbe must actually care!

Additionally, the rebbe’s concerns should not be limited to the specific educational goals at hand but must include even (and perhaps especially) the physical needs and comforts of the talmid, as well as his other areas of interest and concern.  The talmid must sense that the rebbe cares about him as a person and not just as a student.  Especially important in this regard is the rebbe’s capacity to listen. When a talmid feels that he is really being listened to – and understood for who he is – he will feel appreciated. There must be a personal, not merely professional, relationship.

By its nature, the experience of formal learning in a classroom environment creates a distance between rebbe and talmid that is often not conducive to developing a meaningful rapport. Therefore, opportunities to learn with talmidim individually or in small groups are particularly valuable.  In addition, non-learning interactions in a safe setting are extremely important. Activities such as a melave malka and a Shabbos oneg (and certainly a Shabbos retreat) are powerful and valuable opportunities and should be scheduled on a regular basis. Outings with talmidim, whether of educational or recreational nature, should also be scheduled. Events such as these should be held as early as possible in the year in order to begin establishing the rebbe-talmid connection early on. If necessary, consideration should be given to including such activities during regular school hours.

There may have been an era when most talmidim were motivated solely by the importance of learning. For those select students – and there may be some still today – the personal relationship with the rebbe was not critical in triggering and maintaining motivation and interest. For most students today, regardless of their intelligence and commitment, that is simply no longer the case. They need a rebbe who will reach out to them with the “Language of Love.”

š Language of Success

Success breeds success. When a student enjoys the rewarding sense of “I can do it,” he is strongly motivated to repeat the experience.  For students who are not sufficiently inspired by the challenge of mastering Gemara, an alternative is to motivate them by wisely leveraging the excitement and satisfaction of success. Of course, the first step is for the student to experience success upon which to build, which generally requires that he gain enough mastery over certain material that his own input into discussions about it is encouraged and respected.

As noted earlier, a chinuch style that advances students before they are ready tends to accomplish quite the opposite. Not only do such students find themselves feeling lost, they are left out of substantive conversations about the material, tasting failure instead of success. In preparing their material, rebbeim must ensure that they provide all their talmidim – in one context or another – meaningful opportunities to achieve success[15], and then celebrate that success in a balanced and empowering manner. Celebrating even small steps is important, and can flip the switch of a student’s self-esteem. In fact, low self-esteem is one of the leading causes of disaffection with serious Gemara learning.

š Language of Love + Language of Success = Language of Encouragement

One of the most valuable gifts a rebbe can give to a talmid is encouragement. Giving positive feedback and expressing belief in the talmid is a powerful motivator. Encouragement is enhanced when it is rooted in love and in success. When the encouragement comes from someone the talmid knows sincerely cares about him, he will respond that much more. And when the rebbe’s care is coupled with facilitating the student’s successes and acknowledging his accomplishments, his response will be even greater.

There have been extraordinary mechanchim in recent memory who have truly excelled in the language of love, the language of success and the value of encouragement. Their legacy continues to serve as a beacon of guidance and inspiration for all mechanchim.[16]


The evolution from an educational system limited to only the privileged few to the current inclusion of students of all degrees of academic ability and social background is certainly a welcome phenomenon. This broad accessibility, however, imposes the sacred responsibility of insuring the maximum success of every talmid at each stage of his yeshiva education. This, in turn, presents the challenge of finding ways of transmitting our mesorah in an effective and meaningful way to all of our talmidim, while at the same time remaining loyal to the forms and curricula promulgated and held in high regard by that very mesorah. By synthesizing the lessons of The Slonimer Rebbe and Rav Yerucham Levovitz described above, by emphasizing basic skills and proficiency in the Gemara as a necessary foundation for advanced levels of analysis, and by adopting the language of love, success and encouragement, we can help ensure that our mesorah will effectively be passed on to all Klal Yisroel’s children.


Rabbi Yeshai Koenigsberg has been teaching for nearly 25 years in American post-high school yeshivos in Eretz Yisrael. Formerly a Rebbe at Yeshivat Ohr Yerushalayim, he currently serves as Mashgiach Ruchani at Yeshivat Yishrei Lev, Telz-Stone, Israel.

[2] Nesivei Chinuch p. 16 (Hebrew edition)

[3] It is unclear if the reference is to the community of Slonim, Chassidim in general, Charedim in general, or the collective Orthodox community.

[4] Interestingly, when referring to our responsibility as parents and mechanchim to our children and students we often speak of the neshamos entrusted to us.

[5] Cited in Shiurei Chumash – Rav Shlomo Wolbe

[6] The Slonimer Rebbe was certainly referring to much more than academics. Included in his comment is the comprehensive goal of Torah instruction and the effect that Torah knowledge has on the person, i.e., the shaping of character and development of a Torah personality. The term academics is used here for the purposes of the discussion at hand – the curriculum of yeshiva high schools.

[7] Obviously a major hurdle facing us today is that of technology – an issue that demands treatment in and of itself. One aspect of technology as well as the related issue of attention span will be touched on briefly below.

[8] This entails focusing on each and every step of the Gemara sugya and clearly identifying each step as a question, answer, proof, etc. (It is useful tool in this regard to train talmidim to recognize the identity of each step in the sugya based on the terminology commonly used for that step. It is surprising how many are unaware of this basic need.)

In addition, all the key assumptions being made at any given point of the sugya should be identified clearly. If and when one or more of those assumptions is challenged, reversed, or modified in the course of the sugya, it should be clearly noted. Besides being beneficial in and of itself, this often facilitates further in-depth analysis once meforshim and lomdus are introduced.

[9] In other words, not all lomdus is appropriate at all stages of a talmid’s learning. Just because a particular lomdishe analysis is the “classic” one on the sugya does not necessarily mean it should be presented.

[10] As above in Gemara learning, all assumptions should be clearly identified. So for example, if two different dimensions are being identified (“two dinim”), each being a member of a separate category or an expression of a different concept, those two categories or concepts should be clearly identified. They should not just be assumed to exist. Sometimes, their existence is intuitive. But often, students may not otherwise appreciate the underpinnings of the analysis.

[11] See Medrash Shmuel on Avos 5:12 (Arbaa midos b’talmidim)

[12] 27:19 כמים הפנים לפנים כן לב האדם לאדם

[13] See Rambam Hilchos Talmud Torah 5, 12 כשם שהתלמידים חייבין בכבוד הרב, כך הרב צריך לכבד את תלמידיו ולקרבן… וצריך אדם להיזהר בתלמידיו, ולאוהבן

[14] Much of what is presented here has been expressed by many contemporary gedolei Yisrael. One striking example can be found in the writings of the Ponevezher Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Michel Yehuda Lefkowitz, zt”l:

קונטרוס ‘דבר זה רבינו הגדול אמרו- והגדת לבנך’ ניסן תשעב

מתוך פרק ט:

– אחד מן העיקרים הנדרשים לתפקיד זה של העמדת תלמידים היא אהבה עמוקה שמפתח הרב כלפי תלמידיו.

– אצל מו”ר הגאון רב איסר זלמן מלצר זצ”ל ראיתי את היחס המיוחד לכל תלמיד באהבה ובמאור פנים יוצא מגדר הרגיל, וכל אחד היה חש בזאת.

מתוך פרק י

– הנה אנו כשנראה תלמיד שלימודו קשה עליו, הרי נאמר שכפי הנראה אין לו הכשרונות הנדרשים ללימודים וכדומה. אך הנה אמרו חז”ל (תענית ח.) ריש לקיש אמר אם ראית תלמיד שלימודו קשה עליו כברזל, בשביל משנתו שאינה סדורה עליו, רבא אמר בשביל רבו שאינו מסביר לו פנים. חז”ל אומרים לנו שהסיבה איננה בגלל מיעוט כשרונות אלא הכל בשביל משנתו שאינה סדורה לו…ונראה שאף רבא לא נחלק על ריש לקיש אלא עליה קאי לפרש מהו שורש וסיבת הדבר שמשנתו אינה סדורה עליו- לפי שרבו אינו מסביר לו פנים, כל הסברות שמשמיע הרב באזניו אינן נקלטות ואין הדברים מסודרים אצלו.

– כאשר הרב מסביר פניו לתלמידיו הרי מקרב בזה את התלמיד ללבו, ונעשה הוא והתלמיד לאחד, בקירוב הלבבות שיש ביניהם, ועל ידי כך שמיעת התלמיד את דברי הרב נעשית בריכוז ובהקשבה שלימה. מכח ההתחברות שנדבק התלמיד ברבו, קולט ללבו יותר את דברי הרב.

– הסברת פנים זו אינה מעשה הנעשה על ידי החלטה שבזמן זה צריך להסביר פנים, אלא מתוך אהבה עמוקה שמפתח הרב כלפי תלמידו הרי בא לקירוב שמאליו מסביר לו פנים.

– כל אחד צריך להשקיע עמל ועבודה רבה להכשיר עצמו למידת ‘בסבר פנים יפות’ שיוכל להורות לתלמידיו כהלכה, וללא הכנה ועבודה מיוחדת לכך אי אפשר להצליח בזה.

[15] Obviously this requires that the learning environment – during both the learning seder and the actual shiur – be interactive.

[16] There are a number of excellent biographies available of master mechanchim that provide invaluable insights and methods. Two that come to mind are the biographies of Rav Shlomo Freifeld, zt”l, and Rav Eliezer Geldzhaler, zt”l.

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