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ATID Launches Forum for Deliberation on Critical Issues with Discussion Evening on Talmud Curriculum

On Wednesday, December 1, 1999, ATID sponsored a symposium on “Reforms in the Traditional Talmud Curriculum.” The ATID Fellows and faculty were joined by almost 50 other educators and leaders who had been invited to participate in the discussion.

The discussion revolved around a proposal by Daniel Levy of the Jerusalem Studies Institute (the proposal can be accessed at http://www.biu.ac.il/ICJI/lookstein/resource/docs/levy.doc) which suggested broad-based changes in the traditional teaching of Talmud. Recent studies have demonstrated that high school students, particularly in Israel, find the study of Talmud to be particularly tiresome and difficult. Levy suggested that a large part of this trouble stems from the inherent difficulty of the Talmud and its logical structure, which was not created to be a curriculum for teens. Instead, students should be exposed to a broad range to topics in Torah She-Ba’al Peh, through a variety of sources from different genres and historical periods, rather than the almost exclusive emphasis on Talmud. Curricula should focus on texts with a more linear logical structure, like Rambam’s Mishneh Torah. There should be a great emphasis on the integration of halakhah and the spiritual values and hashkafot which lie behind the halakhah. A comprehensive and scaleable curriculum of this kind could be implemented in schools worldwide, Levy suggested, which would help fascilitate student transfer from school to school.

R. Aharon Adler, currently principle of the boy’s Yeshiva high school, Ner Tamid, in Hashmonaim, suggested that many of the problems could be solved with a less radical curricular transformation than that suggested by Levy. Continuity with the traditional curriculum helps maintain students’ motivation, by providing them with a sense of accomplishment in covering a lot of ground in a traditional fashion. School administrators, however, should realize that different students require different kinds of teaching. The top students, those with the potential for superior competence in Talmud, should continue with the curriculum largely as it is practiced. More modest goals should be set for the middle level students. The students who find Talmud most difficult must be given greater individual attention, and their problems must be recognized and addressed head on. At the same time, at all levels of education teachers and administrators must think carefully about their goals, and teach the sugyot which will help further those goals. In Adler’s high school, teachers identify units of text in the given mesekhta which emphasize critical educational units, like the structure of the derashot of Chazal, the passage from the Gemara to the commentary of the Rishonim, or the key words which serve as sign posts for the question-answer structure of the Gemara. This helps focus the teaching, and helps the students gain maximal competence in the study of Gemara.

R. Shalom Berger, Ram in Midreshet Lindenbaum and moderator of the LookJed e-mail list for Jewish educators at Bar-Ilan, agreed that many of the problems could be solved with less radical changes. He was concerned that the proposal might eliminate the joy of discovery, which comes through unraveling the complex dialectics of a sugya. The best and brightest students must be given the “real thing,” Talmud as it has been taught traditionally. If not, Berger fears, they will realize that they are not learning the same way as advanced yeshiva students, and would feel dissatisfied with the learning opportunities we provide them. When teaching other students, we should avoid closed and pre-prepared curricula. These curricula can stifle creativity in both students and teachers, who feel confined by cut-and-pasted sources in a particular order. Taking into account recent developments in general education, like multiple intelligence, teachers should be empowered to teach and learn in ways that excite them personally. Such enthusiasm is contagious. They should also be urged to find new ways of presenting and preparing material which will spark interest in a diverse student body, Berger suggested.

R. Yair Kahn, Ram in Yeshivat Har Etzion, argued that empirical evidence indicates that Gemara in a traditional fashion can be quite popular. The crisis should be dealt with be rekindling the interest in traditional Gemara, rather than by modifying the curriculum. In fact, among many segments of the modern-Orthodox community there is a resurgence of interest in Gemara. Hence, there is little reason for broad-based changes. Integration of Gemara with philosophy and hashkafah may water-down the autonomous methodology of Talmud study. Indeed, to the extent that there is a crisis, it comes from an insistence, common in some Israeli circles, on finding spiritual values behind each sugya or details of the halakhah. Students who think that they will find spiritual meaning in each sugya will only be disappointed. This disappointment, rather than the Talmud itself, causes frustration. R. Kahn suggested that teachers should chose particular chapters and topics which are likely to spark interest among young students. Yet, these sections should be taught in much the same way they were taught in the past.

R. Chaim Brovender, president of ATID and Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Hamivtar in Efrat, emphasized the importance of the resonance with history that is captured in traditional Talmud study. Brovender, commenting at the close of the discussion which followed the four main presentations, stated that there is something enervating about the claim that cognitive based text study is a religious experience, and this comes to the fore when using a traditional method of study. The proposal argues for changing the goal of study. Instead of training the tradtional lamdan, it tries to create a well-rounded student. This change will lose both the resonance with history, and the religious power of the lamdan model. He suggested using the open-ended Beit Medrash model, which – if done properly – would allow each student to create an individualized curriculum that would match his needs, goals, and skill level. Still, it is the teacher’s obligation to create an atmosphere of honest search and personal growth in this Beit Medrash, and to help place the Talmud study in the proper context of religious and spiritual growth. Finally, R. Brovender called for returning lay people to the classroom. Students, who often look up to successful laymen, have a lot to gain from the personal contact with a successful businessman who takes Torah seriously.

The evening was ATID’s first attempt to provide a forum for deep, serious and new thinking on critical issues facing our community. ATID is dedicated to the idea that we, who are involved, and we who care deeply about Jewish education, need not agree with each other. On the contrary. On a certain plane, it may be preferable that we do not agree with each other on all matters. However, we are committed to the idea that all of us, Jewish educators broadly defined, need to find opportunities to come together to disagree, to exchange ideas, to become open to new ways of examining problems. ATID, in addition to its role as an ongoing training fellowship, will serve as a forum to bring people together to discuss issues and to exchange ideas.

This summary was written by Yoel Finkelman.

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