Tradition, one the more thoughtful periodicals of Orthodox dialogue, has been published by the Rabbinical Council of America for well over 50 years. To be sure, the articles on occasion raise eyebrows for both its contents and its authorship. But it still is generally considered one of the most prestigious publications of its type.
The current edition, Fall 2021, contains and interesting “correspondence” between two high school Gemara teachers in the Modern Orthodox system.
One is a rabbi who teaches in Yeshivat Frisch (The Frisch School) in New Jersey, and the other is a “rabbanit,” the Director of Judaic Studies in the SAR Academy in Riverdale. I am omitting their names only because the purpose of this article is not to discuss their personal views, but their representative outlooks. And I do not want to risk misrepresenting those views. No doubt both are impressive scholars.
The rabbi in Frisch maintains that the purpose of teaching Talmud studies is for the students “to love learning Gemara; to have the skill sets to do so on their own and to be inspired to live a life of “yirat shamayim.” While historical perspective of the Talmudic era is very important, he maintains, it is not essential to developing a love for learning.
The rabbanit, on the other hand, maintains that in order to develop a true understanding of the text of the Gemara, it is important to understand the social/historical background of the Gemara being taught.
For example, when teaching the mishnah in Bava Kamma (27a) that deals with the case of legal responsibility of one who leaves a hazardous pitcher in a public place, it is important to understand the historical background for the positions taken in that mishnah and the ensuing portion of the Gemara – how much space was normal to leave open in a public plaza, etc. Each society had different norms. Thus, each respondent in the Gemara may have taken positions commensurate to those norms.
The writer goes on to say that the teachers in her school devised a mission statement as to what they feel their goals as Gemara teachers should be. Their last point was to “Guide students to see the Talmudic process as an expression of Modern Orthodox thinking, i.e., an attempt to balance commitment to texts and real-world issues in the hope of internalizing not just the content but the approach itself as a model of living one’s life as a Jew.” This is lost, writes the author, if the Gemara is approached “ahistorically.”
As I wrote in the beginning, my intent here is not to critique the approaches of the two Gemara teachers. It is certainly not to question their credentials. But I do believe that the approach of the SAR teacher leaves room open for some important comments for the Modern Orthodox world of chinuch, education.
There are certain words in the Jewish lexicon that defy translation. Nachas is one such word. I once heard in the name of Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l that the term Yiddishe nachas is a redundancy. There can only be Yiddishe nachas. How else can we express the joy and pleasure we have as we celebrate milestones reached by our children and other relatives? Can we explain the nachas of attending a child’s siddur party? What about a bar/bas mitzvah? Or even an upsherin. Certainly a wedding. Nachas is nachas.
Another word is “geshmak.” Yes, a good cholent or a piece of kishke is geshmak – thoroughly enjoyable no matter what the health or corpulence price may be. Enjoyable, though, is not a good enough word. Geshmak is.
What is missing in much of today’s Modern Orthodox teaching is “geshmak.” I believe it was Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik zt”l who said that the difference between the Orthodox way of learning Torah and the non-Orthodox way is that we learn Rashi and the Rambam. They learn about Rashi and the Rambam.
While it is very important to study in a class on Jewish history or even in a class on Talmudics, the historic background of the Chazal, it is much more important to transmit the geshmak of the Gemara to reach the goals in yir’as Shamayim as described by the rabbi from Frisch.
Rabbi Berel Wein a few years ago addressed a chinuch audience right here in YCQ and recalled how his rebbe in the fourth grade in cheder in Chicago would always refer to Rashi as “the heiliger (holy) Rashi.” That instilled in the students an emotional attachment to Rashi from the earliest ages.
I notice my grandchildren in Lakewood and elsewhere are so excited in the pre-1A or first grade to learn Torah from their rebbe or morah. One even goes to bed with a model sefer Torah that he made himself from toy tiles. He was in a real dilemma what to cherish more: his sefer Torah creation or his new hamster that his uncle bought for him and his brother. (I know what the mother preferred.)
My takeaway from the discussion in Tradition is that Modern Orthodoxy needs to find ways of getting that geshmak across to its students. While living up to all the academic standards of appreciating the historical development of the Gemara or other parts of the Torah is not to be underestimated, the emotional attachment is key to developing any long-lasting effect for the love and practice of that very Torah, its people, and its land. Now that’s geshmak!
Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills, Vice President of the Coalition for Jewish Values, former President of the Vaad Harabonim of Queens, and the Rabbinic Consultant for the Queens Jewish Link.