Fundamentally Freund: Teaching kids to hate Talmud

The centrality of the Talmud in Jewish life now faces an alarming threat from a most unexpected source: Israel’s religious educational system.

Scene from The Animated Talmud 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Scene from The Animated Talmud 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
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 after generation has rejoiced in its intricacies and delved into its complexities, poring over the text with an extraordinary combination of love and purpose.
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.
But 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.
“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.”
THE PROBLEM is hardly new and has been a topic of discussion for more than two decades.
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 “boring.”
Nonetheless, not enough has been done in the interim to correct the situation.
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.
It takes time to grasp the methodology and structure, and the topics under discussion can often seem arcane to youths growing up in the iPod generation.
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.
By 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 intimidating.
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.
Now, don’t 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 Israeli youth.
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 (, which assists lost tribes and hidden Jewish communities to return to the Jewish people.