For the past 1500 years, Jews around the world have devoted themselves to the
study of Talmud.
More than any other book besides the Bible, the Talmud
has shaped the Jewish people, its values and world-view.
generation has rejoiced in its intricacies and delved into its complexities,
poring over the text with an extraordinary combination of love and
The debates between Hillel and Shamai, Abbaye and Rava, and
Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Meir fired our people’s collective imagination and helped
to preserve the integrity of Jewish tradition throughout the exile.
the centrality of the Talmud in Jewish life now faces an alarming threat from a
most unexpected source: Israel’s religious educational system. Sadly, it seems
that a large number of students are learning to hate – yes, hate this most
remarkable of books.
Ask any Israeli religious high school student what
subject he likes least and chances are that the Talmud will be right at the top
of the list of the most unpopular.
In an admittedly unscientific survey
that I recently conducted among a number of religious Israeli teens, I could not
find one – not a single one! – who said that he enjoyed learning Talmud in
school.Some were quite enthusiastic about math, computers or even history, but
mere mention of the Talmud elicited reactions that were often visceral and
tinged with frustration.
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“I hate it,” said one. “It is boring and has
nothing to do with my life,” said another, echoing many of the criticisms that I
heard from others. “I don’t understand it,” he added, “I can’t follow the text,
and don’t see why we cannot just learn what the halacha is instead.”
PROBLEM is hardly new and has been a topic of discussion for more than two
In 1989, Hebrew University Professor Mordechai Bar-Lev published
a ground-breaking - and heart-breaking - study of the subject. Asked to rank
their subjects of study in order of preference, many respondents put the Talmud
at or near the bottom, while 44 percent said it was
Nonetheless, not enough has been done in the interim to correct
The fact that hundreds and possibly thousands of religious
Israeli youth are systematically being turned off to the Talmud is a Jewish
tragedy in the making and it must be addressed.
To be sure, there are
objective difficulties in teaching Talmud to teens. The text is in Aramaic and
has no punctuation, making it intimidating to many would-be students.
takes time to grasp the methodology and structure, and the topics under
discussion can often seem arcane to youths growing up in the iPod
Accustomed to immediate gratification, many teens seem to
lack the patience and perseverance that are necessary to work one’s way through
the thicket of legal argumentation.
Clearly, a lot of tinkering needs to
be done with how the Talmud is taught, especially to those who are more likely
find it difficult.
Simple changes, such as taking a topical approach
rather than plowing straight through the text, could go far in making Talmud
study more appealing to such youth.
For example, instead of opening up
the seventh chapter of tractate Baba Kamma to teach students about various laws
relating to theft, they could instead learn how the Talmud might view the
purchase of pirated DVDs or the download of music from the internet.
making the text more relevant to their everyday lives, teens are far less likely
to be turned off to its study.
Instructing youths in some of the basics
of Aramaic might also make the Talmud more accessible and less
But it may just also be time to consider some more radical
alternatives as well.
Two months ago, Rabbi Yosef Avraham Heller, a
prominent Chabad-Lubavitch rabbi who is a member of the Crown Heights Rabbinical
Court, did just that, causing a stir when he suggested that perhaps not everyone
needs to study Talmud intensively.
“Before the War, it was unheard of
that every child learned in yeshiva the entire day; it was only a selection of
students,” Rabbi Heller said, adding that, “Today, however, there is a new ideal
that has no source in Torah: everyone has to learn Gemara, and someone who
learns Mishna is considered a ‘loser.’” “Never in history,” he noted, “was there
such a phenomenon.
Throughout the generations, each person learned
according to his level.”
Rabbi Heller rightly pointed out that “it does
not make sense for each person to learn the same thing, for Hashem [God] did not
create us the same.”
Indeed, sometimes less is more.
get me wrong. Personally, I love the Talmud and find it to be an endless source
of wisdom and fascination.
But for many Israeli teens, spending two to
four hours a day studying Talmud may actually be pushing them away from Judaism
rather than enhancing their spirituality.
The current system is simply
not working, and a way must be found to impart a fondness for the Talmud among
Left unchanged, the present method will surely continue to
produce many formidable Talmudic scholars, but it will also result in a
frightening number of graduates filled with animosity and distaste for one of
our people’s greatest masterpieces.
The writer is Chairman of Shavei
Israel (www.shavei.org), which assists lost tribes and hidden Jewish communities
to return to the Jewish people.
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