Before considering any suggestions of change to the current Yeshiva curriculum and educational philosophy, it would be wise to review the underlying value that informs much of the structure of the Lithuanian Yeshiva model that forms the basis of our current educational system. This value was famously articulated in a letter written by HaRav Eliyahu Dessler in 1951:
“The approach of the yeshivos was to establish a single goal, that being the development of greats (gedolim) in both Torah and fear of Heaven. It is for this reason that they forbade their students to attend university, as they could not see a way to develop “gedolim” in Torah without focusing their students’ sights exclusively on Torah.
However, one must not think that they did not recognize in advance that following this method would certainly alienate some who would be unable to subscribe to this more extreme position and would choose instead to leave the path of Torah. Nevertheless, this was the price they were ready to pay for the “gedolim” in Torah and fear of Heaven that would be raised in their yeshivos.
Of course, they would work aggressively to do whatever possible to help those who would not remain bnai Torah, but not in a way that would draw others after them.”
– Michtav MeEliyahu vol. 3, p. 355.
An Authentic Understanding of the Yeshiva Philosophy
The value and priorities described by Rav Dessler may strike many as shocking, and understandably so. While the Rambam had already written in philosophical terms (in the introduction to his Perush HaMishnayos) that the world’s purpose is fulfilled only in the production of individuals of unique greatness who count perhaps even only one-in-a-generation, it remains difficult to imagine choosing to educate the masses in a system designed to produce only those few extraordinary individuals. Yet Rav Dessler confirms that this is a foundational value of the Lithuanian yeshiva system. And it is equally apparent that his approach continues in the present day.
It is noteworthy, however, that the system designed to produce gedolim has had an impact that extends far beyond the production of the rare gedolim. The intense and immersive atmosphere of the yeshiva – suffused with striving for Torah greatness and an intense commitment to piety – generates a level of commitment to the centrality of Torah study and yiras shamayim that continues to inspire huge numbers of those who pass through its doors. Even today, and regardless of any flaws, yeshiva graduates have most impressively shaped a community of rabbis and teachers, professionals and shopkeepers, businessmen and tradesmen, all sharing a lifelong commitment to Torah learning, focused and inspired tefilah and conscientious halachic observance. And the vigor of these yeshiva graduates has had a profound effect on the broader observant Jewish community as well.
Thus, instead of viewing the yeshiva system as serving the masses but designed exclusively for the purpose of producing a handful of gedolim, it could be more appropriately understood as a system that nurtures striving for individual spiritualgadlus (greatness) amongst all whom it encounters, whether or not they are individually destined for greatness. Consequently, while the intensity of the system may alienate some, this may not justify diluting a system crucial to the creation of a community that broadly strives for greatness in avodas Hashem. And while today’s yeshiva system is providing an educational home for more of our community’s children, and for much more time than the yeshivas of the past, it remains the case that adjusting down the educational system and philosophy to accommodate a broader spectrum of students may constitute a compromise on this core value of striving for greatness that is a fundamental characteristic of the yeshiva community.
As such, this article will attempt to respond to the challenge of how we can make our yeshiva system more effective with more of its students, but to do so within that system and without compromising the core values that inform it. The proposal presented below will thus attempt to address the following challenge: If the system is designed for those who can excel in serious learning and yiras shamayim, but is serving many who will not reach that level of intensity, how can we ensure that more of those students do not become alienated but instead gain from the atmosphere and take its inspired commitment forward into their lives?
Premises of the Proposal
- The Study of Emunah and Mussar: Among others, HaRav Aharon Feldman – as quoted in the introduction to this issue of Klal Perspectives – has called for a restoration of the teaching of inspired emunah as part of every student’s curriculum. It is essential to infuse our students with the soul of Yiddishkeit in order for them to develop as complete talmidei chachamim. Moreover, while Talmudic mastery may be the province of relatively few, the fundamentals ofemunah are essential to every Jew, and the meaningful teaching of these fundamentals is a message to which all students are likely to respond.
- The Role of a Rebbe/Mentor: Chazal placed great emphasis on the role of the Rebbe/Mentor in the development of students. Observable trends have validated this emphasis, as responsible and consistent mentorship has evidenced a demonstrably positive impact on the lives of young people. The rebbe’s role is critical, both as an educational guide, and – even more importantly – as an understanding and supportive influence in personal development. Sadly, many students fail to enjoy these benefits of a rebbe due to the high rebbe/student ratios in most classrooms, to the rebbe’s need to dedicate much of his time and energy to producing quality Talmudic lectures and effectively stimulate learning on a high level, and due to the fact that his emphasis on Talmudics necessarily directs the Gemara rebbe’s attention to those students excelling in Talmudic study.
- The Role of the Alter/Mashgiach Ruchani: A study of recent eras leads to the observation that in many cases the dominant spiritual influence in the lives of our greatest gedolim was not their Talmudic teacher, but rather their guide in matters of emunah and personal development. Thus, for example, the dominant, formative influences in the yeshivas of Slobodka and Mir were – respectively – the Alter of Slobodka and Rav Yerucham Levovitz, neither of whom served as a teacher of Talmud. Instead, their focus was on developing their students’ self-knowledge, faith, piety and personality. The texts used for their classes and lectures were the Chumash, aggados chazal and sifrei mussar, and much of their time was spent in one-on-one engagement with their students, exploring issues of personal and religious development.
A single adjustment to the current yeshiva format could have an enormous, positive impact. Yeshivos – both high school and post-high school – should consider expanding or altering their staffs by providing additional rebbeim whose primary responsibility would be the cultivation of the personal and religious development of the talmidim. These rebbeim must be substantial talmidei chachamim who are deeply engaged in Talmudic studies on an advanced level, which will be a critical factor in their earning the respect of the students and of their fellow rebbeim. But in addition to Talmudic scholarship, the primary responsibility and the specific prior training of theserebbeim would be in the areas of emunah and personal development.
These rebbeim would not be considered “lower tier” personalities in the yeshiva hierarchy, or be assigned to care for weaker students or enforce the yeshiva’s rules, in the mode of the “Mashgiach-policeman.” Instead, they would play the role of the “Alter” or “Madrich,” garnering the respect and building the character of each of the students. This madrich-rebbe’s teaching responsibilities would consist of regular classes in matters of emunah and hashkafa, via the study of Chumash and sifrei mussar. Consistent with traditional practice, these classes would occupy a relatively modest portion of the student’s day, but would be allocated greater attention and energy, as these subjects would be the primary teaching responsibility of themadrich-rebbe, rather than a secondary responsibility of a Gemara rebbe. The balance of the madrich-rebbe’s time – indeed the bulk of his time – would be focused on students individually, working with them, learning with them, and helping them find their path to personal growth and fulfillment as people, as lomdei Torah, and asovdei Hashem.
This proposal is not intended to replace or diminish in any way the traditional rebbe, whose primary responsibility would be Gemara studies. This Gemara rebbe would dedicate virtually all of his energies to producing high caliber Gemara shiurim, and to generating and participating in the give-and-take that is the heart and soul of a vibrant bais hamedrash. In doing so, he would of course have a formative influence on, and develop relationships with, the talmidim he engages successfully in learning. These relationships would be a natural outgrowth of, and would complement, the Gemara rebbe’s passion – the study and teaching of Gemara to his students. And while the Gemara rebbe would work hard to engage all of his students in the wonder and excitement of Talmud study, he would work in tandem with the madrich-rebbe, who would be involved with all the students, working to engage those who are not as successful in the study of Gemara.
The success and effectiveness of this team will rely upon their mutual respect and trust. They must have shared values regarding the goals of both their yeshiva and their students. Neither rebbe can view the other as a threat, but must see him instead as a tremendous ally and partner. And while there are always challenges when “adding cooks to the kitchen,” if compatible rebbeim are properly chosen, the approach can generate enormous success.
Perhaps the most obvious challenge to this proposal is economic. Yeshivas are already strapped for funds, and parents are overwhelmed with educational costs. Yet asyeshivos grow in size, it seems eminently clear that staffing levels need to grow as well. Introducing such additional staffing into existing yeshivos one at a time is a cost that can be bearable.
Yeshivos that are starting up may go a step further and consider a model where two grades or levels have two rebbeim – one a Gemara rebbe and one a madrich-rebbe. This would provide the economic benefit of avoiding additional hires, and would also allow the relationship between rebbe and talmid to develop over a longer period of years. Since this arrangement would alleviate some of the Gemara rebbe’s other responsibilities towards his talmidim, which would be assumed by his partnermadrich-rebbe, the Gemara rebbe could deliver more than one daily Gemara shiur, using the same material at two different grade levels. Additionally, given that each Talmid already has the madrich-rebbe dedicated to his needs, there may be room to be more creative in placing talmidim in the Gemara shiur most appropriate for them, with less emphasis on grade level, and less concern about class size.
This proposal is innovative, but not radical. It reflects the importance of inspiring alltalmidim with the soul of Yiddishkeit, and the recognition of the critical value of ensuring that each student has a rebbe who understands and relates to him. Moreover, the proposal is not a deviation from, but rather a return to, the practice of years past, when the rebbe of emunah – the Alter – guided his talmidim to greatness. These are all very traditional assumptions. What is different about the proposal is the suggestion that these assumptions should direct how we structure the faculty of ouryeshivos and how we train and assign our rebbeim to allow them to focus on their specific goals.
I would note in closing that I am not a professional yeshiva educator, and so I propose this idea with the hope that it will be considered and addressed by those in the field who have the wisdom of experience and the desire to explore new avenues to our shared goals.
This originally appeared in Klal Perspectives, Summer 2014.