Virtual Volozhin:
Social vs. Textual Aspects of the Talmud Curriculum in Contemporary One-Year Yeshiva Programs

Yoel Finkelman

This paper will argue that aspects of the Gemara curriculum in menís one-year-program yeshivas reflect the tension between the yeshiva as a place of pure Torah study and the yeshiva as a molder of Orthodox identity and practice. That is to say, the manifest function of the Talmud shiur [class] is to teach the text of the Talmud and its traditional commentaries, and to further the studentís ability to study Talmud independently. At the same time, there is a more latent function of the Gemara curriculum: the social and religious transformation of the students and their resocialization out of a perceived inadequate Modern Orthodoxy into a more ideal, "yeshivish," kind of Orthodoxy (Modern or less so).

Certain apparently odd aspects of the Gemara classes can be explained if the classes are viewed as enterprises in religious resocialization, rather than as attempts to teach students how to learn Gemara independently. Indeed, when during the course of the research I asked rebbeim why they ran their classes in the way they were did, they indicated quite openly that they are more interested in the studentsí broader religious development than in their narrowly defined intellectual growth. Rebbeim frequently choose to sacrifice the text goals for the sake of advancing their socio-religious ones. Despite the fact that most of the students in these yeshivas can not consistently and confidently read, translate, and explain a basic page of Talmudic argumentation, these skills are not emphasized in the classes nearly as much as abstract lomdus. Many classes in these yeshivas expect students to prepare complex sources way beyond their level of personal competence (a long Tosafot, a R. Hayyim, R. Akiva Eiger), or involve the students in abstract lomdus despite their weak text and analytical skills. Teachers explained that they use the lomdus, and summarize the complex sources, as a way of drawing the students into a love of Gemara. The student can be involved in a sevara even though he has limited reading skills; he can enjoy the intellectual challenge without the frustrating "breaking your teeth." Furthermore, the students will feel that they are involved in Torah study at the highest level, the way it is really done, and may be attracted to a sense of authenticity that lomdus can provide. Once the student feels positive about himself and his involvement in class, he will come to view himself as a part of the yeshiva, as part of the chain of tradition, and as part of that community which takes Torah study with absolute seriousness. If a student was forced to begin with the basics, to work through the material himself, he would become frustrated and bored. He would view his learning as remedial Gemara education, rather than full participation in the highest level of Torah study. Consequently, he would view himself as less a part of the yeshiva and the age-old "yeshivish" community.

This odd situation in part developed due to the changing function of the yeshiva within the framework of Orthodox education. Talmud is essentially an elitist enterprise, and the European yeshivas catered to an extremely small minority of the most promising students. Basic Jewish identity and commitment to mitzvah observance was taken for granted by virtually all Jews, and yeshivas were not responsible for socializing Jews into a halakhic atmosphere, at least until about 150 years ago. Yeshiva students were expected to take on the mantle of rabbinical and educational leadership for the next generation. They were not place for laymen, however. Gradually, the yeshivas changed from the institution that educated the intellectual-spiritual elite, to institutions which cater to perhaps a majority of Orthodox youth. Yeshivas gradually become central forces in creating and maintaining a strong and committed Orthodox sense of self. In this new context, it is not realistic to expect every yeshiva student to gain competence, let alone expertise, in Talmud study. Yet, a student who enjoys his "year in Israel," who feels that he is participating in an authentic yeshiva environment, may grow in a positive socio-religious direction, even if he fails to master rudimentary Talmud. That student may become an ideal Orthodox layman, one committed to halakhah, consistent in his attendance of Torah classes, and devoted to the Orthodox community as a whole.

This overall tactic Ė emphasizing the satisfying aspects of Gemara, over the frustrating leg work - is quite a positive one, to my mind. However, I would argue that there may be ways of integrating a greater emphasis on text skills and on remedial work (where necessary) without damaging the larger socio-religious goals, or at least without paying too great a price. Teachers may be able to find ways of inserting a greater degree of basic text skills into a lomdus curriculum without frustrating the students. Furthermore, there is a minority of students who realize that they need the remedial work, and have the intellectual maturity and perseverance to pursue that path. These students may find themselves frustrated by the more standard curriculum, so yeshivas should be sure to provide a skills-based class that will appeal to them.

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