Encouraging Successful Gemara Learning for Boys of Religious Zionist and Modern Orthodox Backgrounds in Israeli State Religious High Schools

Moshe Abelesz

This paper examines the reasons why there is a crisis in Talmud study in national state religious high schools for boys and attempts to develop ideas as to how many of the problems can be dealt with effectively.

The author divides the project into five chapters. Within the first four chapters he discusses the different types of problems that exist within the high school educational sphere of Talmud study. At times, solutions are posited after the problems have been raised, however, the author waits until chapter five to bring case studies and examples of success in Talmud education, before proposing the establishment of a new type of elitist school, specifically designed for modern orthodox students who want to excel in Talmud, as wells as a new curriculum for regular state religious schools.

In many instances, the author draws upon his own personal experiences as a teacher in a British high school and compares them to his experiences in Israeli high schools. However, in the course of this study, the author visited numerous other Israeli high schools, interviewed numerous principals, teachers and students.

He highlights numerous problems, but begins by examining the general problems that riddle the Israeli educational sphere. It is clear that Talmud is not the only subject in crisis; in fact, the educational system of every western country seems to be in a serious predicament. The author nevertheless argues that the problems of the Israeli system, causes Talmud to suffer disproportionately more than other subjects because it is a soft target, an easy subject for students to attack.

Therefore, he posits that if there were to be a general improvement in the educational system; the status of Talmud would improve disproportionately.

The author notes that the overall atmosphere of the school affects the institution’s ability to motivate its pupils to Talmud study. Those schools that have a very positive, serious and professional system seem to be more successful in transmitting a serious attitude to Gemara, than those that do not.

Therefore, at the outset of this project, he examines the general school problems of the state religious high school and the difficulties a teacher has coping with it. He then analyses the specific problems contained within the teaching of Talmud to modern orthodox school children followed by suggestions that schools could adopt in order to make Talmud more appealing.

The author raises the following general problems of the school system that he believes lead to the lack of professionalism within the teaching profession:

  1. Pay per hour for teachers
  2. Poor salaries for teachers
  3. Poor organisation of schools
  4. Lack of structure within Israeli schools and the freedom they give their students.
  5. The lack of a clear school ethos

The author argues that in order to effect a major improvement in their students’ attitudes towards Talmud study, schools need to soundly invest in improving the professionalism of the teaching profession. This includes recognising that teaching is not merely being in the classroom, acknowledging that if they are to recruit capable and loyal teachers they need to pay respectable salaries, conceding that the schools themselves need to be run effectively, with clear unambiguous policies that ensure that both staff and pupils internalize the aims that they are striving towards.

Once he made these points, the author examined the subject specific problems that cause children frustration when studying Talmud.

These include:

  1. The language of the text
  2. The layout of the page and its lack of punctuation.
  3. The brief nature of the “stam” Gemara.
  4. The logical or illogical structure of the Mishna.
  5. The tangents the “stam” Gemara incessantly takes.
  6. The large amounts of background information the teacher needs to give his students before each sugya.

The author therefore, argues that it is incumbent upon the teacher to break the Gemara down into smaller units of work when he is introducing the subject to his students. Once this has been done the teacher should then show the children how this small unit fits into the greater mass of work. This method will allow children to familiarise themselves with the style of the Talmud, enabling them to cope with the full unpunctuated page in the future. The author claims that although these problems are difficult hurdles to overcome, with a clearly thought out programme and syllabus, they are not insurmountable.

The author, however, notes that there is no need to change the actual Talmud text to a non-Vilna edition. This is because he believes that the main problems in teaching Talmud are spiritual not technical. Therefore, if schools can help ease the spiritual problems their students face, then the technical problems will be an easier hurdle to overcome

The author then discusses the additional problems that are related to the teaching of Talmud. These problems are external to the page of Talmud, but can be just as difficult for the teacher to cope with. They include:

  1. Poor motivation due to the feeling that Gemara is pointless.
  2. The hair splitting and strange discussions can make the sugyot sound ridiculous.
  3. The amount of time spent studying Talmud takes away from other subjects and their leisure.
  4. The small volume of Talmud the children cover each year can be frustrating.
  5. Lack of external motivation:
    1. Universities do not require a bagrut (matriculation exam) in Talmud.
    2. Parents are generally more interested in their children’s’ secular studies.
  6. Talmud teachers may be unfamiliar with the text they are teaching.
  7. The democratisation of education - Perhaps Talmud is an elitist subject that is not meant to be studied by everybody.

In order to solve these problems, the author made two case studies of schools that teach Talmud successfully. Their success seems to be because they have:

  1. Clear and well structured goals.
  2. A well constructed system that encouraged the children to be self-disciplined.
  3. Excellent teachers who receive in-house training and meet frequently to reassess progress.
  4. A positive and trusting relationship between teachers and students.
  5. These schools were small and had strict entrance requirements.
  6. Innovative features.

The author concludes that in order for schools to be successful in teaching Talmud, must be very clear about their goals and expectations and be capable of transmitting their values to their students.

The author also suggests that in order to raise the overall standards of schools, governors ntroduce a new fund that would allow successful professionals from industries outside of education, to take a break from their profession and spend two or three years teaching in schools.

The author argues that there would be many advantages to this innovation. Firstly, capable teachers, who originally turned their back on education, can be recruited. Secondly these professionals can bring their business expertise and skills in management and innovation into the school community. Thirdly, being personally involved in schools will make businesses more aware of the problems school face. This may encourage them to invest in schools.

Whilst the author has discussed the difficulties of studying Talmud, he nevertheless stresses his confidence in the future that state religious schools will learn from their mistakes and begin to teach Talmud effectively.

Download Article (MSWord 190K) Back to Journals 00 Bio

Copyright © 2000-2010 ATID. All rights reserved.