Friday, June 17, 2005

Shavuos In My Past

As I've written before, I'm not such a big fan of the holidays. And despite my cynical grumblings about Pesach, except for maybe Simchas Torah, I consider Shavuos to be the worst offender of them all. It combines some of the most resented ideas and experiences of my past into one hearty cheesecake-and-torah-filled day.

The most obvious and basic thing that bothers me about Shavuos is that I'm supposed to stay up and learn. These days I'm not at all compelled to follow that minhag, but throughout my Yeshiva years and beyond it was mandatory to participate in that hallowed tradition. As beautiful and inspiring as that custom may sound to others, to me (and to the many kindred spirits who felt similarly) it was pure hell. Despite the public façade that I put on about it, I really couldn't stand learning. In my earlier years, I didn't have the courage to admit this to myself, preferring to pretend that I truly enjoyed it all, and that I just needed to try harder in order to reach that elusive stage where I'd succeed at it and enjoy the learning, but over the years I realized that the truth was that I was miserable at it, had no real interest in it whatsoever, and really would have preferred to never open a gemara again for the rest of my life. Despite this emerging awareness, and notwithstanding that it was plainly obvious to all that I sucked at this learning thing, I steadfastly kept up the proper image. To my peers and rabbeim I was as devoted and enthusiastic about "klerring chakiras" and finding pshat in tosfos as anyone. Well... that's probably a bit of an exaggeration. A more accurate assessment would be to say that it was pretty self-evident that most of the guys who weren't so good at learning weren't really as interested in it as the true lamdanim, and it was probably obvious to all that I fell into that category. But as we all knew, in order to maintain any self-respect in that society, one needed to preserve the image of being interested in learning, and as I was always ready and willing to compensate for my lack of true learning ability, I unfailingly made sure to always keep up at least a reasonable modicum of that superficial image.

Yet, beneath the surface, I was becoming increasingly frustrated with all the "learning" I was forced to endure: The pre-shiur preparation where I had to pretend that I was "making a leining" and had some idea what was going on. The mind-numbingly boring shiurim that I never understood a word of. The afternoon and night sedarim where I had to review the shiur and play the game of pretending to have an inkling of what had transpired in the classroom earlier that day. I got quite good at it actually. It takes some skill to ascertain when one is supposed to nod along with feigned comprehension, or when one is permitted to express some slight confusion about an issue, or when to inject the appropriate buzzword into the discussion, all while not really having a clue as to what the hell is truly going on.

Over the years, I managed to keep this all to myself, dutifully sitting through the long sedarim, showing up to the shiurim, and always making the requisite token effort when it was expected of me. Even during the yeshiva vacations, when yeshiva bochurim are allowed to be less involved in actively learning, I made sure to put in the obligatory daily one-hour seder that was expected of me, greatly appreciating the reduction in my societally-enforced enslavement. Despite the overabundance of divrei torah and davening that I was constantly subjected to during the yomim tovim, it was a welcome reprieve from the endless learning that I normally had to deal with in a typical day.

And even though over the years there was an increasing tendency to get us to earnestly devote ourselves to our learning even during our vacation periods - whether they may have been a regular shabbos weekend, a holiday break, or even a summer vacation - those periods were still generally permitted a certain laxness that wasn't tolerated during the normal yeshiva zman (semester). The Rabbis tried to get us to take it more seriously, but they still had to allow for the fact that it was actually a break, and as such we were allowed to get away with some amount of neglecting our studies.

But Shavuos was different. Shavuos was supposed to be all about learning! And not only was I being denied the chance of obtaining a brief recess from the never-ending learning, learning, learning, on top of that I was being told that I had to be more involved in it then ever! I didn't just have to sit through an extra long seder like on a typical shabbos afternoon where (due to the typically reduced faculty) I might even be able to get away with taking a nap and where even the most ardent lamdanim appreciated getting a few extra zzzz's, but I had to stay up all night, having to pretend more than ever to be interested in this obsession that I had no interest for whatsoever. Learning on Shavuos wasn't supposed to be like learning on any other day. It was supposed to be a whole different experience. We were supposed to be so excited about it, more eager than ever, anxious to surrender ourselves to our holy tomes, trying to recreate the experience of Matan Torah and rededicating ourselves to our precious learning.

So I faked it more than ever. I threw myself into the preparations just like all the others, scheduling chavrusos throughout the entire night, preparing myself for this momentous occasion, and getting myself so excited that I actually almost believed that this Shavuos I was at long last going to break through the barrier and finally become a proper learner.

But alas, it was not meant to be. Shavuos night learning usually turned into an almost exact replica of a typical learning seder for me. I probably began with a bit of a more enthusiastic start, but it wasn't long before my interest waned, the snack-filled tables beckoned, and I convinced my chavrusa that it was time for a quick break. And then I somehow had to figure out a way to keep my interest (and body) up for the next 3 hours.

While that explains the practical side of what annoys me about Shavuos, a much deeper and more disturbing reaction is rooted in the ideas of what Shavuos is all about. Or rather, how the yom tov was presented during those formative years in yeshiva. Because, like I said, we all knew that Shavuos was about "Matan Torah". And Matan Torah is about learning Torah. And learning Torah is what we, as "bnei torah", were all about! This was a holiday that was meant to be a celebration of everything that we stood for! The lead-up to the chag was continuously filled with shmuezen and shiurim about how this was the most important day for us. About how Shavuos determines our Torah growth for the coming year. About how we were about to rededicate ourselves to God's Holy Torah. About how this was an opportunity to "acquire our portion of Torah" for ourselves. About how this was a chance to finally celebrate what mattered most in the world - LEARNING TORAH!!! And as was usually the case in those days when I eagerly ate up all the seemingly brilliant nuggets of wisdom that my rabbeim fed me, I bought it all, hook, line, and sinker.

But inside my heart, beneath the thin veneer of my enthusiastic demeanor, there was a part of me that knew so well that all this excitement was insincere. I didn't truly feel joyful about learning Torah. I wasn't even good at it. My failure at learning Torah was the cause of so much of my misery; it was why I wasn't respected by my peers, it was an endless source of embarrassment and frustration, and it was the obstacle to so much of what I wanted in my life. And even though I still bought into the idea that I was supposed to do it (and love doing it), I knew that I couldn't stand it at all.

These heretical notions that I tried so valiantly to deny were always present inside of me, but the surrounding culture that I was living in at the time was very effective at getting me to stifle them and very successfully encouraged me to instead pursue the path expected of me by my society.

But despite their success at repressing my general dissatisfaction, there was something so disturbing to me about Shavuos that once I became aware of it, no amount of brainwashing would let me deny it: If Shavuos was all about a celebration of learning Torah, then Shavuos was essentially a celebration of the source of my misery. To deny and stifle my pain was one thing. But to profess gratitude and appreciation for this horrible burden that was the cause of that pain was something that my heart would just not let me accept. No matter how many shmuezen and shiurim I heard on it. This is what Shavuos was really about to me. Ever since I had this realization the mere thought of the holiday of Shavuos would put a scowl on my face.

This is why I can't stand Shavuos. Besides the annoying issue of being denied a rare break and having to continue my general fake Torah excitement, Shavuot brought with it the need to fake it even more, and to top it off with a phony celebration of something incredibly abhorrent to my inner self.

Truth be told, these sentiments expressed above were not fully formed through those years in yeshiva. In the earlier years there were stirrings of some of these feelings combined with a general undercurrent of dissatisfaction and frustration that I didn't know how to give proper expression to. Over time, they grew increasingly strident, becoming more recognizably resentful and bitter, but still probably not able to be given full expression until after I made a certain psychological break from that world.

And that's how I felt for the past few years. As Shavuos came along this year, I had no expectations that I would enjoy it at all. My rough plans for the day were to avoid most of the holiday stuff, trying to turn the day into a simple relaxing shabbat-like experience with no extra significance, and just get by it easily and simply. Turns out I was in for a surprise. Shavuot this year was actually very enjoyable and I had an amazingly wonderful holiday. But I'll save the details of that for my next post.


Anonymous said...


Very nice post! I have been a silent fan of your blog for quite some time.
As I did not grow up Frum I have to ask what may be stupid questions. I am somewhat confused regarding your difficulties with learning given that your high level of expression and insight reflect intelligence, intellectual curiosity and sensitivity.
1. Given your apparent (I don’t know you well) abilities why were you unsuccessful at learning?
2. Was it your complete disinterest or the analytical difficulty of studying Gemorah or both?
3. If Gemmorah is so difficult for even someone bright such as you how smart does one have to be to really be successful.
4. Also is it possible that if you really plugged away you would eventually “be good at it”?

If you could provide answers (even if brief) I would be most appreciative

The Hedyot said...

Thank you for your kind words. I figured I might need to provide some background, but as it was, the post was already too long.

> why were you unsuccessful at learning?

The key to properly understand the issue is that in the yeshiva world gemara learning is not like other disciplines.

Learning gemara properly requires a whole host of skills that are presumed in most students at a certain age (usually 14-15), but are rarely developed properly in most students that go through yeshivas. For example, a basic understanding of the structure of logical arguments, a rudimentary grasp of Aramaic, an ability to catch keywords and phrases in the gemara which are indicators of logical constructs, etc. I never had the initial proper training (or if I did, I never actually picked it up) and by the time I came to high school, where the bulk of the students day is spent on gemara, it was taken for granted that I had these skills. They never went back and retrained me in these skills and so I just ended up thinking I was either bad it, stupid, or just not trying hard enough. Of course, the response to my failure was simply to encourage me to try harder, apply myself more, and stop being lazy. I obviously only became more frustrated and resentful of it all. Additionally, it's important to realize that learning gemara is not just like learning any other subject. It the end all and be all of what yeshivas focus on. So doing poorly in that subject has a much greater impact on a student than just doing poorly in math or science.

> Was it your complete disinterest or the analytical difficulty of studying Gemorah or both?

Over most of my high school “career”, I wasn’t the most diligent or successful student, and I used to blame myself for that. However, in 11th grade I had a few great teachers that really inspired and motivated me to succeed and I discovered I wasn’t stupid or lazy after all, just that I had been surrounded by really poor educators.

> how smart does one have to be to really be successful.

To do it right and with any reasonable depth, one really does need to “have a good head”. Studying gemara is comparable to studying Law. Only the best and brightest usually pursue such a career because it really is intellectually challenging. Same for gemara. Of course, the way frum society is set up, everyone is supposed to be doing it, which sets the stage for a lot of the problems of that world.

> is it possible that if you really plugged away you would eventually “be good at it”?

Absolutely not. I would probably have figured out enough to get by sufficiently but I never would have really gotten good at it. If I had kept at it, it's possible that I might have gradually picked up more and more of the skills intuitively, kind of like learning a language by just picking up what you hear, but I never would have figured out how to do it properly. What did happen eventually is that after high school I finally did have a rebbe that realized that I was missing basic and rudimentary skills and he helped me develop them which opened the door to being able to learn (and even at times enjoy) gemara properly.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your answers. I can definitely empathize and sympathize regarding your experience of being “surrounded by really poor educators.” Although I never went to a Yeshiva I have learned some gemmorah and can appreciate how difficult it is without the host of rudimentary skills you mentioned. I hope it is okay to ask a few more questions

1. If you “had the initial proper training” do you think that your attitude would have been positive or at the least not negative?

2. When you reflect back on the moments that you “enjoyed” Gemmorah did you experience any spiritual connection to G,d and Torah or was the gratification no different then solving an interesting math problem? In another words -can the discipline facilitate connection to G,d or development of character? If not for you did it for others (disregard those who would have this connection or refined character irrespective of the discipline).

Again thanks your last response

Ben Sorer Moreh said...

DH: Learning gemara properly requires a whole host of skills that are presumed in most students at a certain age (usually 14-15), but are rarely developed properly in most students that go through yeshivas. For example, a basic understanding of the structure of logical arguments, a rudimentary grasp of Aramaic, an ability to catch keywords and phrases in the gemara which are indicators of logical constructs, etc. Ad caan leshono

I disagree, DH. What's needed to succeed in "learning" Gemarah (in elementary and high school) is the ability to learn to play a complex game. Your ability to reason doesn't mean diddley. The Rabayyim expect you to absorb and regurgitate the text and arguments the way they feed it to you. Case in point. "Tosefot" always precedes its rhetorical questions with "veim tomar" (and if you'll say...) You were F*(&(ed in my school if you translated that phrase any other way than "fregt toisfos" (asks the tosefot.) "Learning" Gemarah is precisely about adopting the speech and body language needed to fake it through. That's why some people fail at it, and I'm guessing that this includes you and me. We saw through this. Add to that the way the Gemarah-masters create a situation where it's the only "learning" that matters, and no matter what other talents you might have, God help you if you don't master Gemarah. In fact, they'll beat any self-esteem you have left out of you, to the point that you'll struggle with other learning, as well. Sorry to rant, Shabbat shalom. Ben.

Anonymous said...

Same anoymous who asked the original question

>>>>>>>"Learning" Gemarah is precisely about adopting the speech and body language needed to fake it through. That's why some people fail at it, and I'm guessing that this includes you and me. We saw through this.

What does this mean?

Meyer said...

I,too, am a reader of your blog. For the life of me I can't understand why you chose to succomb to the imagined pressures of the frum world. Don't you think that it's time to march to the beat of your own drum! What can possibly be the downside? I am going to shul in a while. I'll be there on time for the kiddush which will be in a tent today for some bar-mitzvah. I will chug the single malt and sample the cholent, kugel and salads than go home, have sex with my wife, fall asleep and than go for a swim. Now that is not a good shabbos. That is a great shaabos.Does anybody want to join my congregation?

The Hedyot said...

> If you “had the initial proper training” do you think that your attitude would have been positive or at the least not negative?

I imagine that my antipathy would have been significantly reduced if I had the necessary groundwork for gemara. Whether it would have been positive is too hard to say, since I think that depends on many other factors (e.g. quality of the teachers, interest in the subject, my success at learning gemara, etc.)

> When you reflect back on the moments that you “enjoyed” Gemmorah did you experience any spiritual connection to G,d...

I don’t believe so. The most I can recall is that I felt a sense of satisfaction and gratification at finally succeeding at this most important of endeavors. Actually, I’m pretty sure that on those rare occurrences that I had such a feeling, my rabbeim tried to convince me that that was a spiritual feeling, the "geshmack" of talmud torah, blah, blah. Acquiring a grasp of a challenging talmudic topic after much struggle can be quite exhilarating, but I don’t see it as substantially different from the feeling one has when experiencing other intellectual epiphanies or breakthroughs in comprehension. Any additional personal delight was probably my own sensation of finally "becoming one of them", rather than an authentic spiritual fulfillment.

Additionally, while I can recall points in my "learning career" that I seemed to have brief intervals of comprehension in gemara learning, what I realized years later was that I was not really understanding anything in it's proper manner. What instead was happening was that I was being able to grasp one discrete aspect of an overall discussion and was able to follow the logic of that part as it's own autonomous unit. Meaning, I might have understood at one point how a specific answer addresses a question. But I didn’t realize that by doing so, it had ramifications on an earlier difficulty and that the answer only was able to be proposed by a certain proponent who’s other views were consistent with the mishna’s statements, and by accepting this answer, we had to reconcile other difficulties that were now being raised by a clash with rashi’s explanation. It’s not that I didn’t understand how these other issues worked. I wasn’t even aware that there were other issues. I didn’t have an inkling that there was a precise intellectual edifice that was being carefully maintained. To my mind, the whole process was more akin to a juggler trying to keep as many balls in the air as possible. It was a just a big whirl of colors and ideas and I was lucky if I could ever follow any single ball (any discrete point of the discussion) for any length of time.

> In another words -can the discipline facilitate connection to G,d or development of character?

I never witnessed any evidence to indicate a link between character development and studying gemara. The only thing that might be suggested is that people who were very into learning, tended to see themselves as being on very high spiritual levels, and would often impose on themselves strict demands in religious activities. For instance, having very rigorous study schedules, or adopting the latest halachic chumra. But these sorts of traits were almost exclusively in the realm of “bein adam lamakom” (areas of character not having to do with interpersonal relationships). I knew of way too many “top learners” who were inconsiderate and/or dishonest jerks for me to conclude that torah learning has anything to do with genuine character development. (This is not to say that all learners are selfish brutes. Many of them are fine, honest, sincere, wonderful people. But I feel that the person’s character is entirely independent of their scholarship achievements.)

The Hedyot said...


I agree with your points. I was referring to the way that learning gemara is meant to be studied properly. Since in yeshiva I never really got the hang of learning gemara, even the distorted type that you describe, I can’t really vouch for your portrayal with a high degree of certainty. But as I pointed out in the above comment, very few students know how to do it properly. If so, then how come there aren’t so many more gemara failures like myself in yeshivas? Well, actually there are, but no one wants to admit it. But for the rest what I think happens is that in most institutions learning gemara becomes something more along the lines of the way you described it. A game of copy the rebbe, learn the proper things to say, and play along faithfully. The student probably has a vague inkling of what’s going on in the sugya, but overwhelmingly must utilize these techniques to get by.

When I did end up finally understanding the true nature of how to properly approach a gemara, I realized that very few of my fellow students could have possibly had the proper skills, and I understood that many of them must have also been as ill-equipped as I was, but somehow they managed to stumble their way through the system better than I did, probably by doing exactly the things that you described.

I wish I could take credit for having the brains to see through the phoniness that they foisted on us, but I honestly can’t. I always thought that what they were doing was the authentic act of shteiging in torah, and I – due to my lack of discipline, ignorance, or low regard for lofty pursuits like talmud torah – just wasn’t deserving of having my prayers of “v'sein chelkeinu b'sorasecha” answered. After all, the gemara tells us, “yagata v’lo matazsa, al ta’amin.” (“If someone claims to have toiled, and not found success, don’t believe him” – implying that he must not have really worked at it.) Therefore my failure must have been no one else’s fault, but my own. Of course, the schools were only more than happy to keep me thinking like that.

Anonymous said...


Thank for for your lengthy answers. Your responses helped me considerably in understanding this aspect of the Frum experience. Best of luck and look forward to future blogs

Original anonymous

Anonymous said...

Hey, great post, really liked it. The truth of the matter is that I never really took my Rabbeim seriously and that my basic technique was sleep (in shiur, not shvuos) rather than feign interest. But your unapologetic ripping apart the world of learning was beautiful and much deserved. The insanities that those nebechs involve themselves in is truly sickening. And no amount of baal-tshuva-making apologetics can undo that.

Provided nobody gets hurt (physically, financially or emotionally) when I hear ofa yeshiva going up in flames I'm gonna have myself a L'chaim. The philosophy believed and practiced there is truly evil.


Dayli said...

Great post...
As a secular Jew - it is interesting for me to gain some insight into the world of a Yeshiva boy (man?) - even (or mayb especially) if it is through the eyes of an "Ex".
In reading your post, I initially felt sorry for you, for having to "fake it" in order to belong.
Then I realized, we have more in common than one would imagine.
As a woman, I sometimes feel I have to "fake" wanting to have a family and children more than advancing my career.
As a professional, as a university student, as a daughter - in every aspect of life I may be forced, at one time or another to fake it.
It may not be apparent, but I can certainly relate.

farbisener said...

it is amazing how articulate and clear you are about your own workings and processes. In addition, your assessment and documantation regarding the Yeshiva psychosocial structure is uncannily accurate.
I am interested in knowing a little more about your "personal" life. For example, how long have you been out of Yeshiva. Which Yeshiva did ou attend? and what do you do now for a living (and how can I sign up, seeing as you have so much time to write lengthy posts on your blog).
I am working on a doctoral dissertation on the topic of Yeshiva student psychosocial development, and although I know that all your observations and assessments are accurate, I was wondering if you have any ideas how I might study these phenomenon to address them in a scientifically appropriate manner. Please post any suggestions that you may have.
Thanks for the wonderful posts.

a member of Farbiseners (yahoogroups)

The Hedyot said...

Leaving the yeshiva world was a very gradual process that began around 10 years. It evolved from just leaving "learning" full time to leaving yeshiva alltogether to physically moving away from the yeshivish community to allowing myself to be involved in formerly forbidden activities (according to the yeshivish world) to permitting myself a more liberal approach to Judaism.

I was in a number of yeshivas, all of which would be considered some version of yeshivish.

The best way to really get a proper understanding of the yeshiva world would be to become a part of them and play the part as fully as possible. As an outsider I don't think you'd be made privy to the true nature of the dynamics of that world.

Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

Ben Sorer Moreh,

You are right that in yeshivas they teach a method of learning Gemara that, it turns out, is not the only way to learn Gemara. You are right that by and large they are teaching you to mimic the thought patterns of others that came before you even if they are unnatural to you. You may be expected to think that a rather weak question or a lame answer is really a logical masterpiece.

But all that aside, there are many different ways to learn Gemara. It is unfortunate that in most yeshivas that fact is essentially unknown, if not deliberately hidden.

Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

"I was wondering if you have any ideas how I might study these phenomenon to address them in a scientifically appropriate manner."

You might try to contact William B. Helmreich, the sociologist who wrote "The world of the yeshiva: an intimate portrait of Orthodox Jewry" for advice.

PPD mama said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
The Hedyot said...

Eating treif? Why not just say, "stealing is forbidden according to everyone, not just Orthodox"?

Why you assume that I was eating treif is beyond me. I said "things that were forbidden according to the yeshivish world", and that's what I meant.

hmmm said...

Wow, wow and wow! I'm not a regular reader of your blog, but I can certainly appreciate the yeshivos I went to now - definitely low pressure, and leil shavuos we were left to do the right thing for us on our own. (Our minhog is to say tikun leil shavuos anyway.) All I can say is that I'm glad you can finally enjoy Shavuos! You an also go back to your RY and remind them that Shavuos is also about the harvest and being fifty days from pesach etc. In fact, in the Bais Hamikdash times the day of Matan Torah and the day of Shavuos would not necessarily coincide.

anon's questions are good. I'll take a crack at them as well.

1. The need for tools and skills were mentioned already. Additionally, there are many ways to learn Gemara, something which many of these teachers may not even know! YU has a historical approach (in addition to others) taught, there is pilpul (very sharp and insightful questions and answers, back and forth style), there is charifus or amkus (coming up with deeper and deeper analysis of the reasonings in the gemara, there is a universal approach (trying to tie together as many subjects in the entire talmud as possible)... Need I go on? Anyone can understand the plain meaning of the Gemara, the school does need to adopt a system and give the tools for it. Most schools don't even realize they have a system, or worse, different teachers use different systems without teaching the actual system!
Further, Gemara is a lot about building one idea on top of another - some very bright people are just not good at that, and are better when one idea is presented at a time, such as in the study of Jewish law (for the most par), tanach etc. Daas may have done great in those areas, but no respectable Yeshivah will allow a student to veer away from the only "true" learning - Gemara!

2. The difficulty without training can develop disinterest. I'm disinterested in politics because I do not understand the need for the machinations involved.

3. Measuring success in gemara is difficult. One ability is to rapidly understand the plain meaning. Another is total recall of anything ever studied. Another is to be able to resolve almost any difficulty, sheer brilliance. Truth be told, there are so many printed commentaries available today that almost every answer has been given and almost every issue touched on at least. So if you have the brains or the patience to pick your way through them that should be enough.

4. Plugging away with out the skills doesn't work.

The only solution to the above, if the yeshivah doesn't care enough to teach the basics, is to find one person who will mentor you. Which means of course admitting to authority that you're not doing so well. In the more elitist yeshivas, this is not a good idea.

PPD mama said...

OMG, so sorry! Was confusing you with hassidic heretic. How shatter-brained of me. I beg your forgiveness.

Anonymous said...

I am curious if you think this system would have been of help to students like you:

(this is a serious question)

To the other questioner: Gemara is a specialized area, sometimes really bright people who go on to be successful in other academic areas don't take to it naturally.

Anonymous said...

>>I am curious if you think this system would have been of help to students like you:


>>(this is a serious question)

IMHO, absolutely, as would a patient, diligent approach to teaching. Unfortunately, when I was a kid, my rabeyyim disdained study aids & translations. To repeat, I believe that to many, teaching was a power game and woe to the kid who didn't learn how to play it the rebbi's way.

>>To the other questioner: Gemara is a specialized area, sometimes really bright people who go on to be successful in other academic areas don't take to it naturally.

And in some circles, like the one I grew up in, it didn't matter that you had strengths in other areas. This was the only one that mattered and if you didn't get it, that shortcoming would be used to drag down your self-esteem about everything else.

Ben Sorer Moreh

Anonymous said...

Dear Hedyot,

I was very moved by the painful description of your Yeshiva years. I have been a rebbe for more than twenty years (and I like to believe that I was very effective) and I want to assure you that many, 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. However, 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, though there are hundreds and hundreds of outstanding, sincere, dedicated and intelligent mechanchim who are also trying their best.

It's not that we need to shut down the entire system, it's merely that we need to create diferent types of institutions and settings for those students who do not fit well within the current structure. Unfortunately, the solutions are not very easy to achieve, but
I would be very pleased to discuss these matters further, with you or any other truly interestd parties, if you provide a way for me to contact you privately.

The Hedyot said...

> I am curious if you think this system would have been of help to students like you:

It probably would have helped alot. But it's kind of a silly question, because it presumes that my teachers (rabbis) would have stopped to see that I was lacking basic skills and have felt a need to address the problem, and if they had they possibly would've utilized this aid to help me progress. But that presumption is itself the issue! They were negligent as educators! If they would have ever stopped to realize what was needed, there probably wouldn't have been any need for such an aid in the first place! (Although it probably would have helped nonetheless).

I didn't need any special education in this area. Just plain and simple basic education!

The Hedyot said...

PPD Mama: Mochel lach

anonymous said...

ok hedyot, at least they are waking up now, as these sorts of methods seem to be becoming more popular. so maybe they will benefit people in future.

farbisener freud said...

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?"

Anonymous said...

I went through a few quite yeshivish yeshivas and seen the system as you describe it.

But don't think a degree in education in nirvana. After I left the Yeshiva world I went to college full time and I can tell you that the 'education major' is the most useless. Together with the communications and psychology majors it also attracts all the dummies. Getting a major in teaching is a waste of time. Far better to know one’s subject well.

Being a good mechanech requries IMHO 5 things.

1. brains - gotta have them. You need to understand whatever sugya you are teaching deeply and you have to be able to comprehend all the questions asked to you. Also Can you present the sugya in a mannor that is as simple as possible without losing any lomdus? Many rebaim are terrible at that.

2. Empathy with the bochur. You have to remember what it was like for you the first time. What were the most difficult nekudos? Figuring out where to put a comer is sometimes hard. Sometimes remembering some sugyas can be very hard. It is necessary to tailer one's shiur with that in mind. Also remember that going a minute overtime is not going to endear you to the bochrim.

3. Some charisma. If the bochrim are falling asleep you probably are boring and should NOT be teaching.

4. Being able to easily know when the bocrim do not chap and have some system for finding out. Can you gage a blank look? I once had a rebbe who when he suspected that no-one was understanding what was going on, would ask one of the brightest bochrim if he understood and might quiz him on the spot. Since he would only do that to the few brightest bochrim they wouldn’t feel embarrassed. And if they didn’t understand then he could infer that no-one did.

5. Some personal relationship with them. Will you go and find out what is going on with the laggard? If bochrim feel a personal kesher a lot more gets accomplished. Also the rebbe goes from someone who gives a shuir to what a talmid chochom is really supposed to be - someone to inspire others to yiras shamoyim. (Sorry to sound so yeshivish here but the point is poignant and true.)

As to how to get good mechanachim. Its a problem. If you stay in learning then it means you have to do be a rebbe at some stage. But what if one is just not good at being a rebbe……..

Worse the competition to be a bais medrish rebbe can be very great. One’s connections, how much of a masmid someone is, and politics are the order of the day as opposed to how good a rebbe someone would be. It’s always such a coincidence that the new Rosh yeshiva married the daughter of the old one. Sometimes she marries well. But sometime humble dovid with no yichus whatsoever is far superior.

Also yeshvas don’t fire rebbeim for being lousy. There was a certain rebbe who was a rebbe at a yeshiva that I attended who everyone disliked. As soon as I arrived I entered his shiur, I realised why. He was boring and severely lacking. He was the worst rebbe I have ever had. Everyone one knew it. He was famous for being bad. People joked about it for years and years.

But the yeshivah refused to get rid of him. Yes it would have been 'difficult'. But there were many many other potential rebbaim around. How many bochrim were turned off from learning by the yeshiva's arrogance? How much more could hundreds of bochrim have achieved if only they would have had a mediocre rebbe, let alone a good one. I knew many bochrim who stopped going to shiur as a consequence of him. They never returned even when they were officially in another shiur due to their negative experience.

Sometimes I wonder. Don’t yeshivas know that its 1000 times easier to turn 1000 people off learning that 1 person on to learning…….

In addition since we cant afford to pay rebbaim very much, only a limited number of people will want to become mechanchim. Also there is no mechanism for long term staying in learning without becoming a mechanach. And that gets one into the sticky issue of emunah, bitachon and hishtadlos.

And yes I walk the walk. In my spare time I teach. Its not my profession but I do it on the side.

There also is a problem of the whole ben torah propoganda. Not everyone is able to be that type of person. We tell all frum male yidden that when they are 17 or 18 they are now a ben torah and need to act accordingly. This is highly unrealistic. The elite (the roochniyus bit) cannot be everyone. Most people cannot live the life of the tzadik, chosid, ben torah ect. (Interstingly this ben torah word is quite new.)

Back in the times of the rishonim or even 200 years ago you would only a very few would live that full time larning life style. Now I am not suggesting we go backwords. Clearly the chinuch we have nowadays is vastly superior to what existed 200, 400 or 800 years ago for the masses. But I think have some people going to full time yeshiva for a much shorter duration is appropriate.

Only 10 to 20 percent of bochrim would learn for 4 or 5 years in bais medresh. Perhaps only 5 per cent would learn in kollel. Not that I am anti kollel. For the few appropriate for it for a long time - they should stay and learn.

There would be many other degradations and programs. Some bochrim would learn less gemorah in high school and learn more halocho. Some would only learn full time in bais medresh for a year or two.

It would run the full gammot. I am sure this system would displease all. The modernisha would turn their noses up at a system that allows people to learn for 20 years in kollel and not even need to teach. The yeshisha olum would disaprove of some 19 year old not being in beis medresh. And some being in college.

And then other people would not wan to follow the appropriate path for them for fear of stigma...and shiduschim ect.


rivka said...

I always thought a ben/bat torah was someone who cared about torah in their life, not just someone who learns all day. but maybe that was just my MO education

Shmuel said...

Growing up in my yeshiva, I also had no clue whatsoever what was going on in Talmud. As a law professor of civil procedure said to me after he graded my exam in first year, "Total confusion." The more things change...
But realizing I knew nothing was a start. And it dawned on me that I knew nothing when I was a college student and sat down to learn with a friend on, of all nights, Shevuos. When it became painfully obvious that I had no idea how to read it, after all those years of yeshiva, he just packed his bags to go home. To my house. What an insult.
I vowed that would never happen again. After college I enrolled in an outstanding yeshiva in Israel which has a reputation for teaching Talmud in an intellectually honest, methodical manner. Trust me, when you've been instructed by a master and introduced to the 200 key words and phrases which introduce: attack and informational questions, 4 types of statements, and answers, you're never lost again. After that, it's all up to your own ability to work hard and think a bit. I spent 3 beautiful years there. I got the basic skills, and more, which many yeshiva guys never get.
But I also realized that I wasn't cut out for full-time Torah study. Every sugya was painful, difficult to follow, so I left.
But before I left I also picked up near expert fluency in Biblical (and Modern) Hebrew which I appreciate to this day. It helps me enormously in all Torah texts and keeps me on the same page as the meforshim---no kidding.
So, I agree with the Hedyot: some yeshivas have no clue how to teach these basic skills. They figure guys will get them by osmosis. Some do, some don't. For something as important as Talmud, which a yeshiva revolves around, that's a bad system of education.
I also had my share of men who should have been taken out to the green grass of the pasture long before I met them and never were, because "how can you do that to them after all those years of chinuch?" Well, let 'em sell shoes or groceries; they'd harm fewer neshamas like that.
I teach on the side to beginners and I'm exciting, funny, know my grammar, can explain things know, all the stuff I had in elementary and high school.
With so many young men dropping out of yeshiva and Orthodoxy, you'd think the powers that be would wake up and change something.
Contact me via

offthederech said...

I must say, I'm loving your archives!
But, tell me, was there anything worse than davening neitz shavuos morning, and having to crowd around some poor neb and answer his brochos heartily!