Teaching Talmud in the 21st Century: A Student Voice

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Dan Jutan, Dov Greenwood, and Meir Kerzner


We would like to begin by expressing our profound gratitude for the educational institutions that have brought us to this point. All three of us share a debt of gratitude to Yeshivat Har Etzion, where we studied during our gap year in 5778; and, of course, we’d like to thank our high schools—Frisch, Kohelet, and Atlanta Jewish Academy. This essay owes its existence to the fantastic educators and thought-provoking ideas they have exposed us to over the past six years.

Esteemed educators have recently taken to the pages of the Lehrhaus to discuss the foundations of our educational system, from its ideologies to its methodologies. As Rabbi Jay Goldmintz notes in his recent article, educators, if they are interested in understanding their students’ needs, “are left with the unscientific option of actually asking our students.” We hope that we can provide this voice from our shared, but variegated, experiences—while the memories are still fresh in our minds, but with the hindsight to judge them critically.

Our collective reflections on our high school years lead us to join the conversation begun in the previous Lehrhaus pieces on the topic of Modern Orthodox high school curricula. We do so not to challenge the authority of our generation’s educators; rather we wish to enrich the dialogue pertaining to these issues by sharing the often unheard student voice, with the hope that further voices will follow suit.

In particular, we notice that Modern Orthodox schools see it as their mission to achieve two primary goals. One, as presented by Rabbi David Stein in his recent article, is to use the curriculum as a vehicle through which to clarify Modern Orthodox ideology, and to thereby model the proper balance between traditional Judaism and modernity. Two, as presented by Rabbi Herschel Grossman, is to induce students to view Talmud study as a religiously significant and all-encompassing pursuit, and that they eventually come to love the Talmud in a qualitatively different manner than, say, math or English literature.

We will instead propose that schools should not prioritize these lofty tasks. With regard to the former, the student must strike his or her personal Torah u-Madda balance; the “right” approach cannot be prescribed. As for the latter, investing a disproportionate number of curricular hours into Talmud study has yet to reliably induce such an epiphany in most students. The very fact that articles continue to be penned addressing the modern “Talmud crisis” signal that we must reassess what schools can and cannot accomplish with respect to Talmud study. While we concede that students can learn to extract meaning from the Talmud, we believe that we must abandon the long-held hope, championed by Rabbi Grossman, that a well-designed Talmud experience alone can bring the average student to love Torah.

Toward a Non-Prescriptive Modern Orthodox Ideology

I entered high school barely knowing what Modern Orthodoxy was, let alone identifying with it. Yet what reassured me of Modern Orthodoxy’s legitimacy was not a formal explication of the ideology, but rather my Gemara teacher’s personal example. During those formative years, he helped me see my engagement with Talmud Torah as part of a rigorous, dynamic tradition, one that I could identify with. Meanwhile, a cursory glance at his office bookshelf, combining as it did the classic works of Torah and Western literature, convinced me that here was a scholar committed to seeking out the truth, wherever it may be found. (Meir)

This seemingly effortless transmission of Modern Orthodoxy’s core values—a passion for Torah and a deep familiarity with general wisdom—seems almost too good to be true. As Rabbi David Stein notes, the fate of Modern Orthodoxy seems to hang in the balance: Modern Orthodoxy has, until now, failed to express to its students the “dynamic tension” that lies at its heart.[1] Some students do encounter pedagogues who render them speechless and draw them down the path of Modern Orthodoxy, instilling in them an inherent understanding of this “dynamic tension.” But not all teachers exude such a presence; Modern Orthodoxy must, he asserts, articulately transmit its ideals and values in order to survive. If the teacher cannot act as its mouthpiece, then the curriculum must pick up the slack.

There is something troubling about this insistence that schools act as “the vehicles for inculcating our communal values and ideological worldview… articulating ways in which [the values in our world and in our tradition] can be balanced,” without which “our schools will cease to be relevant.” In a similar vein, we are troubled by Rabbi Herschel Grossman’s insistence that the proper environment for learning Torah is one in which “the Rebbe must be a voice of authority. Democratic principles are wonderful tools for a lively and engaging classroom experience, but they can never capture the true flavor of Torah mi-Sinai.” While these ideals lead the two authors to radically different conclusions, they share a basic premise: a proper Jewish education cannot simply convey information and values—it must transmit a holistic worldview. It follows, then, that a student must emerge from high school steeped in a particular ideology, armed with a framework to assimilate the ideas they encounter into their personal identities—in a particular way.

The problem with this approach is that it constricts the range of acceptable approaches to Judaism. Fundamentally, the balance of Torah and modernity in a person’s life is shaped by emotion and experience, not just intellect; a person can be taught values, but cannot be taught how to value something. Great educators demonstrate their own balance by example, and sometimes influence their students to follow in their paths, but transforming a way of life into an ideology damages the educational system as well as the student. Too often, both in the Modern Orthodox educational system and our personal lives, we view Judaism as a chemical mixture that will implode if too much of one ingredient is added; in the face of such fear, we feel compelled to instill an overarching ideology, a “one-size-fits-all” solution, as it were. But in reality, only the student can discover this balance. The motto of Modern Orthodoxy is “Torah u-Madda”—not “64% Torah, 32% Madda, and 4% for you to figure out on your own.”

Living as a Jew in the modern world requires careful thought and a recognition of tensions and priorities. The solution, however, cannot be to idealize a certain balance that students often do not  buy into. And while educators might respond that this will lead to students being unable to define Modern Orthodoxy, our experience is that this vagueness, and the room for self-expression it provides, is precisely the beauty of Modern Orthodoxy. We acknowledge from the outset that there exists a variety of equally valid ways to experience the world as a Torah-committed Jew. The question then becomes how we may best lay a sturdy foundation that prepares high school students to confront this plurality of perspectives as they begin their lives.

Embracing a Broader Curriculum

There is a certain irony to seeing all of my friends put so much effort into preparing for their behinot. Double-period Talmud has, after all, become a phrase imbued with disappointment and groans; students breathe a sigh of relief when one of those periods is replaced with school-wide programming. Yet, while we dread the five hours of Talmud study a week, we prepare intensely in order to ensure that, next year, we will be able to study it for five hours a day. We don’t know why we want this—it is a contradiction that drives right to our cores. We have some sort of intuition that, after our gap year, something will change. Something: either us, or the Talmud itself.  (Dov)

Why do students emerge from yeshivah and midrashah suddenly able to appreciate the Jewish canon? This is the key question. The very heart of Orthodox Judaism lies in our reverence for our sacred texts, from which we draw our wisdom, values, and guidance. Rabbi Goldmintz begins his essay by asking how we can impart to students how studying Talmud and Tanakh is “different from studying for any other subject.” Similarly, in his 2017 Lehrhaus essay, Rabbi David Stein is troubled by a day school principal who pessimistically remarks, “we know our students aren’t going to care about learning gemara here.”

We must first acknowledge that this issue—that students do not find the Talmud, as a text, to be something worthy of reverence and love —is different from the issue of students finding meaning in a particular sugyah. We must distinguish between two pedagogical goals: on the one hand, enabling a student to find meaning in a text and, on the other hand, helping the student to imbue the text itself with meaning. Put differently, “How can I help my students find meaning in this sugyah?” and “How can I get my students to love Gemara?” are distinct questions with distinct answers. With regard to the former, there have been different answers proposed in this forum; but with regard to the latter, it may be that this is an issue that cannot be dealt with at the high school level. Indeed, focusing on this issue may come at the expense of a richer Judaic studies curriculum.

Imbuing a text with meaning—forming a deep, personal relationship with the text[2]—is, in a certain sense, a return to an uncomfortably non-rationalistic understanding of the power of our sacred texts. It is to suggest that Tanakh may not be the greatest compendium of literature ever composed, that there exist intellectual challenges more stimulating than the Talmud, that Maimonides was not the ultimate philosopher. “Woe to that man who says that the Torah comes to teach mere stories and plain words, for if so, even in our day we could write a Torah of plain words—that are even more beautiful than those of the Torah!”[3]

Students cannot be awakened to the uniqueness of these texts—cannot understand why these should be cherished and revered above all others—without a transformative experience,[4] one that not only invariably changes the individual, but also his or her relationship to sifrei kodesh. This is something that high schools are simply unsuited to do—and it is not something to strive for, as it is not their purpose. It is rather the purpose of midrashot and yeshivot (the transformative gap year) to grant students the ability to imbue texts with meaning.[5]

Giving up on resolving this issue in high school does not stem from any cynicism, but from hope. Of course Talmud study in high school is of the utmost importance, as is study of Tanakh and other sacred texts. But we must realize that the role of the high school Talmud educator is akin to the role of the Tanakh educator: to allow students to find meaning in and be excited by their studies so that, if the students cannot yet love the Talmud, they can at least love Talmud class. In such a case, there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to teaching Talmud; educators can best distill the messages that they themselves have discovered in the text.

If this is the purpose of the high school Talmud curriculum, then it follows that Talmud class deserves the same emphasis as other Judaic studies classes, not more. Dedicating to Talmud double the number of curricular hours that we dedicate to other classes is the pursuit of a futile endeavor at best, and raises the ire of students at worst.[6] Cutting down the amount of time dedicated to Talmud class could foster greater student enjoyment and excitement, at the level that can be expected of a high schooler—a student who has not yet gone through the transformative experience of a gap year program, but can nevertheless enjoy a class if it is taught in a way that respects her or his individuality and values.

Additionally, it is worth noting the multiplicity of goals that recent Lehrhaus writers expect to achieve through Talmud study: the sugyah can act as a vehicle for transmitting “accompanying underlying values… contemporary values… an underlying appreciation of the marriage relationship… [and] ongoing underlying spiritual concerns as well” (Goldmintz); overall, study should “attach [students] to this unbroken chain from Sinai” (Grossman); and class should help students determine “how the Talmud informs their sense of Jewish citizenship” (Tikvah Wiener).

These important goals might best be actualized not by using the Talmud as a vehicle, but by directly addressing these subjects in their own topically-focused classes. We can say from experience that we emerged from high school with little understanding of Mahashava, Hashkafa, and an understanding of Torah she-Ba’al Peh—even though these subjects were touched upon in Talmud, Humash, and Nakh classes. Newly freed curricular hours could go towards classes that discuss these subjects directly, using the range of Jewish texts from over 3000 years of history. Further, the students could be given a choice as to which areas they invest their focus in, encouraging meaning-making by allowing students to follow their passions. (We have personally been impacted by initiatives that allowed us to explore our interests, like the Tikvah integrated Jewish philosophy and American literature course at Kohelet; as well as to pursue our passions in the context of Torah, in the form of a student-initiated devar Torah video project at Atlanta Jewish Academy.[7])

While one might claim that our proposal to reduce the curricular hours devoted to Talmud would prove detrimental for Talmud-oriented students, we would hope that schools would continue to provide resources for students who are already passionate about Talmud, either by virtue of entering high school with extensive prior exposure or, better yet, through being engaged by their Talmud classes. For example, these opportunities might take the form of after-school learning programming, incentivized participation in national Talmud competitions like the Yeshiva University high school Bekiut Program, or perhaps even more advanced Talmud tracks that would emphasize independent hevrutah learning and encourage students to produce their own Talmud-centered projects. These Talmud enrichment opportunities would carry the additional benefit of better preparing students to excel in their gap-year learning programs and beyond.

A Pedagogy of Meaning

While thinkers like Rabbi David Stein propose that Modern Orthodox education serves to clarify its ideological platform, we believe that Modern Orthodox schools must prioritize students’ needs. Rabbi Stein wants to “instill and inspire Modern Orthodox identities”; he wants to produce committed Modern Orthodox Jews that reflect, clarify, and bolster the Modern Orthodox platform (Stein). We simply propose that, in principle, schools should focus on inspiring passion and commitment rather than instilling polished Modern Orthodox values. Nor will a cookie-cutter approach work. A student needs to be approached on a personal level; she needs to feel that her personal search for meaning matters.

Teaching should involve a teacher-student relationship, and the student should be the center of the teaching, not the subject matter[8]. As Jay Goldmitz aptly points out: “We must ask ourselves… What is it that our students need and want at this particular point in time and place?”

“If Modern Orthodox day school education does not sufficiently foster deeply integrated Modern Orthodox identities among its students,” claims Stein, “then our schools will cease to be relevant, especially in a world of rising tuition costs.” A school that suits the needs of its students never ceases to be relevant. While Stein insists that we construct a sharp, specific definition for Modern Orthodoxy, one characterized by “dynamic tension,” we suggest that it is precisely its capacity to harmoniously welcome a variety of hashkafic approaches that make our schools so relevant. We should not demand that educators adhere to a narrow philosophy. What our schools need is educators who can anticipate the needs of the next generation—those that can select, with erudition and care, from a broad set of Modern Orthodox approaches to appeal to each student.

Modern Orthodoxy is not a formulaically prescribed, unendingly tense balance of ideas, but rather a plurality of approaches to the issue of Judaism and modernity that together constitute an ideological spectrum. Rather than unilaterally favoring one such balance for our students, we should focus on what thinkers like Hirsch, Soloveitchik, Lamm, Berkovitz, and Lichtenstein all had in common: the value of Torah u-Madda. From there, we should seek to inspire students to see themselves in the text, embrace their role in the Jewish story that continues to be written, and see themselves as its writers. The story takes on meaning when we are taught to give it meaning, each in our personal way. 

[1] Although this worry may be overstated; see Rabbi Zvi Grumet’s study of Yeshiva High School graduates, in which 61% responded that they continue to identify as Modern Orthodox, and 84% of respondents overall identified themselves as Orthodox.

[2]  Martin Buber, in I and Thou, asserts that we can relate to texts and art not as “it”s but as “Thou”s—the same way we relate to other human beings—by discovering in them an access point to the “eternal Thou,” God. This the type of relationship with our Sacred Texts that lovers of Talmud Torah find themselves in, which is so difficult to communicate to students in the classroom setting.

[3] Zohar, Beha’alotkha 152a.

[4] For more information on the particular type of “transformative experience” we are writing about, see Transformative Experience by L.A. Paul, page 16.

[5] For an interesting description of this experience, see Keter Shem Tov, 161-162.

[6]  Modern Orthodoxy has always occupied the uncomfortable position of needing to justify itself, to convince the rest of the Orthodox world—and itself—that it truly is possible to accept modernity without sacrificing any Orthodoxy; it is guilt, not aspiration, that compels us to shape our curriculum in this way.

[7] The following is one of our most successful dvar Torah videos: 

[8] Thanks to experienced headmaster Rabbi Lee Buckman for sharing these points with us, as well as the point that students should be given choice and that Torah education should encourage meaning-making through making connections. Thanks also to his influence on my (Dan’s) Torah education as headmaster of Greenfield Hebrew Academy and his mentorship beyond.

Dan Jutan, Dov Greenwood, and Meir Kerzner met on their gap year at Yeshivat Har Etzion. They then returned to the United States to study at Georgia Tech, Yale, and Columbia, respectively. They are passionate about all facets of the American Jewish community, and strive to serve fellow college-aged Jews and to give back to their communities.