Wednesday, June 22, 2005

On Dealing With the Problem of non-Learners

My previous post generated a number of comments where people chimed in on their views about learning gemara and how yeshivas fail so miserably in that department. But the point of the rant wasn't to get on a soapbox and tell everyone why I think yeshivas suck. I can do that, and one day I probably will, but for now, it was just meant to be about why I didn't like shavuos. Plain and simple. (And actually it was meant to lead into how I had a nice chag this year, but for now it seems that discussion will have to wait.)

One of the commenters who claimed to be a long-time rebbe in a yeshiva wrote about how troubled he was by what I wrote and said he was interested in discussing the matter further. Well, I hate to disappoint him, but I'm not. Maybe ten, fifteen years ago when I was suffering through all that, I could have cared to discuss it with someone who supposedly wanted to improve the situation. Maybe five years ago when I still cared a bit about getting the respect of that society. But now I'm so past it (the post was entitled "Shavuos In My Past"), that I have very little inclination to get into a debate about the matter. And I'm especially not interested in anyone talking to me because they feel they can "help me" in this regard. Although I still see the issues as problems in a society, the afflicted society is no longer one I care to be a part of, and one which I have thankfully managed to extricate myself from (for the most part).

But he does claim to be concerned about the issue. I'm sure there are many more people like him who are supposedly concerned about young people in situations like I described. So, I figured I'd share a few thoughts that were triggered by his comments:

> although much of what you say is true and right on the mark, it is quite easy to point blame, and lash out at every Yeshiva and the entire Yeshiva world

I don't think I spoke about all yeshivas. Or even the whole yeshiva world. I only mentioned my own individual experience. You want to extrapolate, be my guest. And yes, it is quite easy to place blame. The blame falls squarely on those charged with my education. Who would you blame?

> though there are hundreds and hundreds of outstanding, sincere, dedicated and intelligent mechanchim who are also trying their best.

I'm not surprised you think so. Isn't that what everyone who supports the system believes? Look, I never did a survey, so I don't claim that my ideas are 100% valid across the entire spectrum of yeshivish institutions. Everything I say is based on my own experiences and those of the many friends I had who were in similar situations. But explain to me, how it is possible for a person to go through his entire high school, through multiple yeshivas, endless chavrusos, countless tutors, and still not have a single person point out that he doesn't know alef bais? Maybe there are "hundreds of outstanding, sincere, dedicated and intelligent mechanchim", but are they competent? Are they qualified? You say they're out there, but I never came across them throughout my high school years. The truth is, I wonder on what basis you even make that claim. How many gemara rebbe's have degrees in education? How many mechanchim got into chinuch because they had no other options? How many schools have systems that hold their mechanchim accountable in any way for their success or failure with the students? I don't know the general answers to those questions, but in the yeshivas that I was in, I know that the blame for a failing student invariably fell on the students own shoulders.

Furthermore, even if your numbers are accurate ("hundreds of mechanchim"), but which I suspect are based more on a cursory survey of the landscape rather than a proper inquiry, what percentage of the overall mechanech population is that? Hundreds out of how many?

>It's not that we need to shut down the entire system...

Although the idea appeals to me greatly, I never suggested it.

> many Rebbeim are very aware of the problems with the educational, communal and social structure that you describe. I am personally close with a number of Gedolei Yisrael who are also very concerned.

Wow. I'm touched. You're all so wonderful. But I've been there before. When I was in yeshiva, my rabbeim weren't indifferent to my difficulties. They also expressed sympathy for my challenging situation. But they didn't deal with the problem properly! They just told me to try harder. To daven for hatzlacha. To get a tutor. To switch chavrusos. To take notes better. To pay more attention. Your (and the "gedolim's") concern means diddly to me. It's no different than the heartfelt concern my dedicated (yet misguided) rabbeim had for me those years ago. They professed concern, and I believe they really did feel bad, but they were so dedicated to the system, to the concept that "everyone can be a learner" (nay, everyone must be a learner!), that they kept me chained to my hardship rather than offer me the simple and self-evident remedy to my suffering: to tell me that I didn't have to be a learner!

> Unfortunately, the solutions are not very easy to achieve.

That doesn't absolve them of the situation one bit. The community as a whole is contributing to the problem, but the yeshivas and the rabbeim are probably the most culpable offenders for the screwed up situation that the society finds itself in. Like a negligent surgeon who drinks before an operation and then botches the surgery, you claim, "Well, now it's a complicated situation! There's no easy fix!" It's your carelessness that caused the problem in the first place!

But you know something? You're not just the incompetent surgeon. You're also the inattentive hospital that repeatedly allows such a situation to occur. And you're the substandard medical school that has never does anything about the fact that so many of your graduates perform that way. (Ok, you do actually do something: You talk a lot about how "there's a problem", and how "the situation is complicated", and how "so many people are bothered by the problem". You organize lectures to hear "experts in the field" analyze the issue, and you make roundtables at your conventions to discuss it, and you write sycophantic articles about it in your periodicals, but you never actually address the core issue!!!)

You say that the solutions aren't easy to achieve. Why not? Of course they are! All that's needed is for the schools to stop pushing everyone to be learners! Everyone knows that this is all that needs to be done. However, it is true, that's not an easy thing to achieve. But you know why not? Because the yeshivas have already created a society where everyone thinks that's the only way to be a proper Jew! And they're still doing it! They're still pushing the view that the ideal Jew is the learner. The kollel guy. The rebbe. The rosh yeshiva. The mechaber sefer. Whatever. That a proper Jew is supposed to be learning 24/7. That nothing in life is worth doing except limud torah. That any person that tries to be anything else is throwing his life away. That any departure from being a learner has to be excused and justified and explained with a trillion and one rationalizations. You'll claim that such things aren't explicitly spelled out (they definitely are in some places), but even if not, the message comes through loud and clear and every good yeshiva kid knows that if he wants to do right in that world, to the learners he must go. Anything else is just a very distant second.

So please don't tell me that you and the gedolei yisroel and all the hundreds of dedicated mechanchim are really concerned about the problem. You created it. And you continue to foster it. It's preposterous that you can claim to be troubled by it, when you persist in promoting it incessantly! And until this underlying outlook is changed, the problem is never going to really go away.

Sorry if the tone is a bit angry. I don't deny that I'm upset. But it's not the past that bothers me. My past is behind me. It's the hypocritical pronouncements of people who claim to be concerned about a problem and who really are the very cause of that problem that upsets me so much. All they really care about is putting a band-aid on the symptoms, not truly addressing the fundamental issues.

Actually I think I should apologize to the commenter. I don't know him. It was his writing that led me to believe that he falls into the camp of those who I feel are responsible for these problems. But I don't really know anything about him to believe as such. If his manner of chinuch truly is devoid of those reprehensible ideas and approaches, I sincerely apologize.


elf said...

In these past two posts, you've actually been discussing two problems:

1. The failure of yeshivot to teach you how to learn, and

2. The insistance in yeshivish society that everyone must learn.

You claim that even if you had been taught properly, you wouldn't have been a "good learner." But wouldn't you have suffered a lot less, and learned a lot more (in the normal English sense of "learning") if you'd been instructed properly in the fundamentals of Gemarah? And wouldn't the yeshivah system be abdicating its responsibility if it let students think they just weren't meant to be learners, when in actually, they simply hadn't been had decent teachers?

The Hedyot said...

> In these past two posts, you've actually been discussing two problems:
1. The failure of yeshivot to teach you how to learn, and
2. The insistance in yeshivish society that everyone must learn.

In the previous post, I actually was only focusing on the second issue of the insistence on everyone being learners. The first issue was only raised as other people chimed in. In this post I also focus on problem 2, but since it's a response to a comment, I do mention the first thing too. I prefer the discussion stay focused on issue 2. Obviously issue 2 is compunded by issue 1, but my main concern is with issue 2.

> You claim that even if you had been taught properly, you wouldn't have been a "good learner."

I never said that. In fact, see this comment where someone asks me that and I specifically answer otherwise.

> But wouldn't you have suffered a lot less, and learned a lot more if you'd been instructed properly

See the above mentioned comment where I say exactly that.

> wouldn't the yeshivah system be abdicating its responsibility

If you think that's what their responsiblity is, I suppose so. But I don't think that is the correct responsibility of a torah educator. If you, or they, or anyone thinks it is, that's the problem! Like I said in the post, that's the underlying premise that's really at fault here.

> in actually, they simply hadn't been had decent teachers?

True. And this is what compounds the problem. They have false goals. And they aren't even capable or qualified of achieving those goals!

Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

The yeshivish yeshiva system is modeled on what amounted to Talmudic universities for a tiny percentage of the population. There was no historical precedent for widespread Jewish education for 14 to 18 year olds, the yeshiva high school amd the high schools are merely prep schools for the Talmudic univeristy that everyone is expected to go to, where they will spend dozens of hours a week learning with a chavrusa with a couple of hours of shiur thrown in. R. Dessler explicitly writes that the Eastern European yeshiva was designed to produce gedolim, the one in a thousand as he called it. Not much has changed. Maybe if our youth started becoming Communists someone would notice the problem.

Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

But seriously, if you're asking yeshivas where the highest value is to learn Torah to stop teaching that this is the highest value then you are asking in vain.

The Hedyot said...

> if you're asking yeshivas where the highest value is to learn Torah to stop teaching that this is the highest value then you are asking in vain.

I understand that it's in vain. But what I want is that they should admit that they care more about perpetuating the system than about the well being of their constituents. They can't have it both ways. If, as they claim, they truly cared about the damage being done to their students (and society), they have to admit that a sea change is neccessary in their educational system. And if they don't want to do that, then they should stop lying to their students about caring about what's best for them and just come out and say that they're interested in producing gedolim and anyone who gets burned in the process, too bad on them.

Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

I agree.

The problem is that I think that many individual rabbeim don't see it that way at all, perhaps most of them. They really have never taken an honest look at the system that is designed for elites so for them their is nothing to admit. They may well be saddened by the many boys that slip through the cracks, unaware exactly why. I'm sure rabbeim blame it on things like class size, which is also a culprit.

It's like corporations and how they can be "evil". Individuals who make up the corporation may not realize that their participation perpetuates the evil, or at least amoral, actions of the company.

farbisener freud said...

I posted a comment for this article but it ended up in "Shavuos in my Past"

Anonymous said...

ok, here it is...

You're right on the mark! Most mechanchim are in the chinuch racket because when they FINALLY left kollel they had no other marketable skills. None of them have college degrees in education for two reasons:
1. College is the devil.
2. A more ontological argument would be that they spend their time in the yeshiva system because they are afraid of failure in college and the outside world, in general. This, in turn, perpetuates and catapults the system to new heights.
I know I'm right about this, when I heard a "veteran mechanech" speaking to a group of mesivta-age boys say: (this is paraphrased)"You really gotta learn now, you don't want to have to go to school later, do you?"

DiffAnon said...

Wow, I can't believe I've been missing your blog all this time. Thanks for pointing the way, uhm...Fred.

I just wanted to say that this is really the first time I have seen someone discuss what they see as shortcomings in the Charedi system/community in a reasonable fashion. (In a blog, I mean.) No hyperbole, and a point-by-point discussion of your views. Your arguments and statements are all the more powerful because of it.

I am just fascinated by getting a peak into this world, but it seems so hard to get honest evaluations from people, good or bad. Either they sound like PR campaigns, or subversive propoganda.

Thank you!

Ben Sorer Moreh said...

Wow, DH, you're seriously hurting and angry. Can't blame you, I'm there too. It's not the first time that I've seen an educator inviting a disaffected member of the community to "talk and try to make things better." I'd say there's a tipping point beyond which such people lose credibility. Perhaps that point was sometime our childhood. If that guy was sincere, I feel for him.

I have to say that part of the problem with the "elite" model is that some/many parents don't want to face that their kids are not. (to paraphrase Garrison Keillor, "all the kids are above average") Looking back, it's clear to me that some kids were on the "amcha" track and were left to coast in class, those of us (probably identified by parents as "meyuchasim" - elites) were challenged.

Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

A couple of weeks ago someone wrote a letter to Dr. Yael Respler (Jewish Press columnist) basically saying how upset she was that her daughter was evaluated for school and given an IQ test and the result showed that her daughter is average.

JoeCool said...

That's right Fred. We should all strive for a society where all the women are strong, all men are good looking, and all the children are above average. :-)

farbisener said...

Daas hedyot, you are an upright and resonible person. You are articulate and intelligent. The things that you write, and the manner in which you analyze an issue are uncannily the very sentiments and thoughts that I have I have had for years. In G-d's world, this is called "Truth".
You were decent enough to give the Mechanech the acknowledgement that he may be different. That he may not be like the rubo k'kulo of yeshivas and rabbeim.
But that's not my point. My insight is that the rebbe didn't respond. he didn't post. he didn't follow up. And that is typical of the system. When you articulate dislike, in a clear and intellectual manner, they throw you a life perserver, hoping to shlepp you back on board. But at the slightest resistance, when you express that you are serious, that your concern runs deeper than a mere band-aid remedy, that your issue is a phihical one, that you call for change and resilution, when they see that...they run. And they label you. No doubt that our Ernste Mechanech now labels you as a closed minded nebechul who is overcome with taaveh and is blinded by his yetzer harah. No doubt he groups your site together with the Avengelical Jewish Ministries and Missionary System of Christ (fictitious name) or the Reform Movement of America. I have no dubt that he will use you and your site as an example to his "talmidim" on what happens to a bachur once he leaves the yeshiva and enters the olam hata'avah. No doubt he is discrediting you as a warped thinker, as one who is "blinded by negios". AND HE IS NOT?? he wont even respond. he wont enter into discussion. You not only outlined a problem, you suggested an ectremely viable solution. As a matter of fact, you are not the first to think of this solution. There was a man named Israel Baal Shem Tov. He felt the same way as you, and he implemented your solution. And they didn't like him too.

The Hedyot said...

farbisener (and others):

Hearing that others out there agree with my perspective and have come to similar conclusions gives me a lot of much-needed encouragement. It's really gratifying. I'm also wondering where the anonymous rebbe disappeared to, but I don't think it's fair to start hurling unfounded accusations. I'm as eager as you are to expose their lies but cogent arguments and reasoned debate make a far better weapon aginst the corrupt and damaging sytem than resorting to mudslinging and ad hominem attacks.

Jameel @ The Muqata said...

Hedyot: What bothered me most in Yeshiva high school (as opposed to post high school yeshiva) was 3 things:

1. "Balabatim" are total idiots. What can possibly be worse than asking a "balabatish" question? Talk about biting the hand that feeds you. If they wouldn't get money from the balabatim, where would their money come from? Yeah, I know...from the sky.

2. Whats Olam Haba? Sitting and learning all day. I'll never forget a high school rebbe who said that Olam Haba is learning all day. If you like learning, then its Heaven. If you don't like learning, then its Hell.

3. If you actually tried learning Gemara in a structured format, like in the (Chas v'Chalila) Steinzalts were an apikores gamur. Its better to get all the aramaic pronunciation wrong, and misunderstand the flow of the gemara, then chas vichalila use the Shteinzalts...with the non-Vilna look of the daf. (formatted by the Holy Lithuanian Goyim typesetters).

There are good yeshivot I found after high school in Israel which weren't as bad. I actually liked Mir and Chevron better then any yeshiva in the US.

The Hedyot said...


So true! It always bothered me that ba’al habatim were so condescended to! Not just in the categorizing of lower-level learning, but in the general attitude of disregard that was displayed towards them. Not only it is gallingly ungrateful, but I always felt (and had it confirmed on multiple occasions) that it caused people to have less respect for their fathers and other family members.

The olam haba idea is one of the classics! They used that repeatedly. It’s one more example of what made me hate learning so much. Not only was it causing me misery in this world, but they were telling me that I would be suffering for all eternity because of it!

Point 3 is also so true. Although I never dared to use a Steinzaltz back then, I received similar reactions when doing anything as terrible as using a Kehati mishnayos or a Jastrow dictionary to help with the gemara. God forbid we should do anything to ease the burden!

Thanks for reminding me of those maddening things they did to us. The more I’m aware of, the better chance I stand of uprooting it.

Anonymous said...

Oylam habah uz a gutta zach, lernen Toyrah is der besse zach!

Sound familiar anyone?

Jameel @ The Muqata said...

The Hedyot: I hope you uproot the bad feelings you had...but not the essense. To tell you the truth, I learn Gemara with my son, and I'm amazed by how easy it is with the Artscroll gemara. Instead of breaking my teeth for hours on trying to "make a lainin" on a topic in Sanhedrin, the hebrew translation is really amazing. I now use it with my son (with a Shteinzaltz), and I actually enjoy learning for a change. If only I had that back in high school, I probably would have loved learning!

About the Jastrow; my rebbe in 10th grade used to drop it on the floor on purpose and pick it up without kissing it, to make a point that there's nothing holy about it. I couldn't STAND it when he did that.

Anyway - just because there were many misguided mechanchim who have no clue how to teach, its not to late to start finding learning.
Try an artcroll gemara, and I think you may find it intellectually stimulating...despite it not being "yeshivish."

Anyway - just wanted to say I enjoy your blog. Regards from the muqata!


rabbi neil fleischmann said...

Wow. I have become part of the imperfect system you critique, at least in certain ways. I have been a Gemorah Rebbe for many years. There are many questions and imperfections, but I try my best. Now and then I get some positive feedback from students, like the one below, and it encourages me to go on. I hope this is not contrued as bragging, I feel that it's far from that. I want you to know that there are those who try and who care.
G-d Bless
Rabbi Neil Fleischmann
Dear Rabbi Fleischmann,
I would also love to thank you for everything. Whether it was in your Talmud class or sitting in the hallway I was truly touched by your eye opening philosophies on life and your sincere interest in your students. After going though 14 years of "yeshiva style institutions" your methods and ideas are a breath of fresh air, and I must admit that the conversations that we shared were one of the deciding factors that led me to finally decide that I should give this whole Judaism thing a second chance- after all there are some good rabbis out there and I want to give myself a chance to discover it for myself without the irrelevant distractions and out of the suffocating environment of an American yeshiva. Thank you again.
your student,

elf said...

Here is an article that "ke'evei beten" linked to in a comment on another blog. It mentions many of the issues that you and your commenters raise, and I think it does a good job of describing the problems with Gemara education in MO secondary schools (which is the only Gemara education I've personally experienced). Curious what you think of the proposed solution.

Anonymous said...

maybe it's because i went to Ohr Somayach (you'll probbaly reel off some rubbish about them telling me what's least offensive to my 'young' ears), but i was told time and time again that not everyone has to be a learner!

Anonymous said...

listen, we all have problems with the yeshiva system, hell, i was rejected from it, but it seems like you may have some other issues as well.