Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

1 Adar 5762 - February 13, 2002 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly









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Shema Yisrael Torah Network

Opinion & Comment
The Importance of Maintaining the Traditional Approach to Torah Education

by Rabbi N. Z. Grossman

The Danger of Changes

The shock that was expressed recently in the Torah world, primarily by its leaders with HaRav Eliashiv at their forefront, over governmental attempts to introduce changes into the Bais Yaakov school system, is an indication of the profound sense of responsibility that every Heaven fearing Jew has for his children's Torah education.

In his talks, HaRav Shach zt'l, would repeatedly stress that the basis of Klal Yisroel's survival as a Torah nation, depends upon the fulfillment of the posuk (Bereishis 18:19), "because he will command his sons and his household after him." Indeed, generations of Jewish parents have made tremendous sacrifices to ensure a pure Torah education for their offspring, who themselves will in turn one day be charged with building future generations.

Throughout the generations, our teachers have trembled at the prospect of introducing any changes into the time-hallowed system of Torah education. Even when a change appears to be insignificant -- or even if it seems to be an improvement -- our leaders have taught us to view every departure from the ancient system as a rocking of its foundations, with inestimable final results. Any imperfection in a boy or a girl's Torah education, has unknown implications for their and their own future offspring's spiritual makeup.

The analogy of children to arrows in the posuk (Tehillim 127:4), "Like arrows in the hand of a warrior, so are the youth," has been explained to refer to the fact that just as an imperceptible deviation in the direction in which an arrow is shot results in its widely missing its mark, with the deviation becoming more and more apparent as the arrow flies, so it is with a child's education.

As important as this awareness has always been, it has been especially urgent since the first of the maskilim began their attempts to influence faithful Jewry, directing their main efforts towards introducing changes into the system of Torah education. They knew that this was what the success of their ideology depended on, because if they succeeded in ensnaring the youth, the future was theirs.

In our times, the danger is far more acute, since our schools are subject to professional surveillance and are under the administrative aegis of representatives of the governmental education system who are liable to attempt to use their power to dictate changes in the Torah education system. Both our past and ll'a our present leaders, have ruled that the chareidi educational system must retain full educational autonomy. Whilst they permitted the acceptance of government allocations because we are fully entitled to them like any other citizens, they made this acceptance absolutely conditional on there being no intervention or influence whatsoever in the educational programs.

Their Goals and Their Means

The recent affair is a reminder that we cannot yet relax and that the stubborn battle for the independence of chareidi education must continue being fought as determinedly as ever. Those who have designs on us today have not yet lost hope of being able to "reeducate the chareidim" as the early maskilim, from whom they take their inspiration, wanted to do. They want to gain control of chareidi education, either through legislation or by means of incentives. Today, the struggle is over girls' education but just a year ago, some "recommendations" were made to "improve the program of studies for the chareidi boy."

The authors of the various articles and studies that recommend changes, some of whom have decision-making powers at official levels, profess to be motivated by "concern" over "economic distress in the chareidi community," towards the alleviation of which they demand that thousands of talmidim should leave their Torah studies. They loudly advocate a complete reshaping of the chareidi educational system from the youngest grades, which they see as "the source of the problem." They argue for increasing the proportion of "general studies" in the talmudei Torah, improving both the "quantity and quality" of the secular studies, as well as adding "civic studies," and other such subjects, in order "to equip the chareidi children and youth for productive lives in modern society."

We of course reject all such proposals out of hand. But those who are far from Torah find this hard to understand. There are some, not among our community, who claim to understand our opposition, whose roots they attribute to our concern over "bitul Torah" in the hours that would be devoted to their programs. The truth however is that the problem is far deeper and more basic than that of a few hours of bitul Torah (though this would be reason enough to object, for every moment of Torah study is of supreme value).

We have a tradition from our teachers, the luminaries of earlier generations, that any change in the program of studies or in the structure of pure Torah education, is liable to lead to the utter ruination of that system of education whose authentic form has been transmitted to us from previous generations. This is not only true of changes like the introduction of "general studies," but even of changes in the mode of instruction in limudei kodesh.

Two Centuries Ago

This fundamental principle was expressed by the Chasam Sofer zy'a one hundred and ninety years ago in a discourse that he delivered on parshas Beshalach, in which he addressed a problem that was then facing the Pressburg community and that has troubled many other communities in the past two centuries.

The circles of maskilim wanted to open a new type of school for children. The school was intended for religious families and was to be run in an Orthodox spirit, as far as teaching Torah and holding prayers went. Behind the venture however, were the local maskilim who clarified that all they asked were for certain "amendments" to be made to the traditional curriculum: some secular studies would be added and some "improvements" made to the Torah studies. To the Jews of the town, these changes seemed insignificant.

The Chasam Sofer delivered a penetrating talk, in which he laid the foundations for understanding the plan and function of Torah schools, for all times. He began by quoting the posuk (Shemos 13:17), "And Hashem did not lead them by way of the land of the Pelishtim, because it was close," and explained that this posuk warns us to keep our distance from the influence of the "civilized" nations with their "positive" ideas even those that make so much sense, because our traditional educational approach is intended to transmit the Torah's holiness, which is not dependent on human logic.

In his opening comments, the Chasam Sofer cites the gemora (Shabbos 63), that tells us that Rav Cahana said that even after he had learned the entire Shas, "I did not know [the rule] that `no posuk can be divested of its literal meaning' until now."

"From here it appears," said the Chasam Sofer, "that Chazal reversed the order and taught their sons the entire gemora and the pesukim according to the way they expounded them, without telling them the simple meaning, even though the posuk can never be divested of the latter. This would seem to be a bad way of doing things, chas vesholom. [However,] there is no doubt that they had a tradition of teaching like this, which had been transmitted by word of mouth and which they had seen their fathers and grandfathers following. "

He also mentions that we find that Chazal warn us to, "Prevent your sons from engaging in higoyon" (Brochos 29). Rashi explains that this means, "Don't get them too used to studying Scripture, because it is attractive." Others explain that it means that they should be kept away from studying other disciplines.

Why were Chazal so particular about children not engaging in the study of Tanach too much, or even in other subjects, asked the Chasam Sofer? Learning in an orderly manner, stage by stage, would seem to be a good thing, first learning all of Tanach according to the plain meaning, before learning gemora. It would also seem good for children to learn other disciplines, which seem to serve a constructive purpose for Torah study itself. "For all the other disciplines are [but handmaidens] in respect to Torah; they are openings and gateways [affording approach to Torah]. If someone has no knowledge of anatomy, he will not fully understand the laws of tereifos. Knowledge of ratios and arithmetic is necessary for understanding eruvin, succoh and the division of the Land etc. This being the case, why should people prevent their sons from such studies? It would be good for them to learn Tanach or these disciplines when they are young and from these subjects they could work their way up to what is greater and holier still, namely the wisdom of the Torah?"

The Only Way

"However, there is a source for all of this, namely, the Giver of the Torah, yisborach shemo. Hashem took bnei Yisroel out of Egypt, a land of shame, where every practice that is abominable to Hashem was practiced, [inhabited by] a despised, ignoble nation, as is known from the Egyptian customs. Yisroel lived among them, odious slaves who worked with bricks and mortar. Without a doubt, they did not know how to act straightly, nor did they possess any wisdom or knowledge, nor any of the trappings of a nation, nor any worldly ways. In Yoma 75 we find, "Rav Acha bar Yaakov said, `To begin with, Yisroel were like chickens pecking among the refuse, until Moshe came and fixed a mealtime for them.' " They didn't even have a regular time to eat, just like barbaric slaves.

"How then, did He bring them to Har Sinai straight away for the great occasion, and reveal to them what was above and what was below and they all merited the level of prophecy and their hearts opened wide in comprehension -- while at the same time they retained their bad habits, as is evident from their behavior and their complaining in the desert? Wouldn't it have been better to lead them slowly, to teach them civil behavior like that of the civilized nations so that they could at least be considered a nation, and then to raise them level by level until they were fit to receive the Torah on Har Sinai?

"But the path of truth is clear. It was clear to Hashem yisborach shemo that the only way to separate Yisroel from the nations was to separate from them utterly, not to learn from their wisdom in the ways they are like us, not even the plain meaning of Scripture, for they are the same as us in that. Were this to have been the course, it would be very quick and easy for the people to go back to the ways of their [i.e. the gentiles'] multitudes -- were the separation not to have been as drastic as could be. Were Hakodosh Boruch Hu to have first led Am Yisroel along the path of derech eretz, they would never have merited attaining the truth of the Torah and of faith, because they would have turned back before having reached the farthest point, because all these studies and this way of learning, are still close to the mentality of those gentiles. Even were Yisroel to have realized that the gods of the nations are worthless and illusory and even if they had not believed in them, they would still have shrugged off Hashem's yoke completely and they would have believed in neither this nor that.

"So it is with our children and offspring. If, when they are young, they first learn the simple meaning of the pesukim and other disciplines that are external to Torah, then before they grow up and arrive at the portion of expounding [the pesukim] and the oral Torah, which is the main thing, they will already have chosen abandonment and will have denied Hashem and His Torah, as we see in this evil generation in several countries where they reversed the order set by the earlier generations and they ran afoul. None of those youths remains within our religion, in our many sins. Not one of them is interested in learning Shas, or the rulings of issur vehetter. No true success will come from them."

The Chasam Sofer explains that this is why Hashem warned the people not to go close to the country of the Pelishtim. The ways and the deeds of the Philistine nation were known as being more reformed than those of the Egyptians, and it might have seemed proper to have had them first learn civilized ways from the Pelishtim.

"But He did not do so for the above reason. All this is alluded to in the posuk, `And it was, that when Pharaoh sent away the people, and Hashem did not lead them by way of the land of the Pelishtim,' to teach them the proper customs of the Pelishtim, even though this was a correct way. Why? `Because it was close,' that way of life was close to that of Egypt; it was not very far removed from their original way of life, `lest the people have regrets' when they see the beginnings of the war against desire and the yetzer hora and then, in a moment, they might swiftly `return to Egypt,' meaning the Jewish people would go back to behaving like Egyptians, not like Jews."

The Chasam Sofer sums all this up very forcefully. "One should take a lesson from this not to listen to those who have recently arrived on the scene, [who wish] to distance Hashem's nation from His Torah, to utterly reverse the order, to teach us the path of logic, to corrupt our children, so that no remnant will be left to study Talmud or gemora, chas vesholom -- do not acquiesce and do not listen."

While this essay does not actually speak about the important subject of the preservation of the traditional method of educating our children, which deserves treatment on its own, it should be noted that the leaders of recent generations have warned us not to deviate at all from the ways of teaching that have been transmitted to us, even when it seems that a new way is simply a technicality, devoid of real significance, only affecting the way the knowledge is actually transmitted. (Our teachers have told us that even when teaching the alef-beis, the traditional method of "kometz alef -- oh" embodies the Torah approach to the transmission of the holiness of the letters with which heaven and earth were created and with which the Torah was given to Yisroel.)

We have it by tradition that learning in a talmud Torah is not merely supposed to convey knowledge but to fashion the child's soul according to the oral Torah, at the same time endearing him to the Torah's sweetness and to the pleasantness of thinking, which should serve as a firm foundation for his future bond with Torah, whether he merits developing into a great Torah scholar or whether he sets aside fixed times for Torah study. Without the proper foundation his whole future relationship to Torah is questionable, chas vesholom.

Bitter Legacy of a "Modest" Request

As we have said, this is a large and important subject, that cannot be encapsulated in these short lines. However, the Chasam Sofer's words provide us with an idea of great centrality. The entire purpose of Torah education is to distance us and separate us from other ways, which seek to design "the complete man" or "the new Jew," without recourse to a blatt gemora.

In his excellent new book on the Vilna Gaon, in the chapter dealing with the battle against haskoloh, Rabbi Dov Eliach tells the story of "the sage" Naftali Herz Wessely who wreaked untold spiritual damage on Am Yisroel with his attempts to introduce the ideas of haskoloh into Jewish schools. He didn't seek to banish limudei kodesh altogether. All he asked for was for a distinction to be made between "Man's Torah" and "G-d's Torah," and that the former be taught first to the children as a separate discipline, equal in standing and prior in instruction to the latter.

A study of the Chasam Sofer's words reveals that his remarks are directed against this venomous attitude that attempts to fashion man in the image of foreign ideas and disciplines, relegating Torah study to a mere addition or to being extra "study material" the way that any nation provides for studying its culture and laws. This approach is extremely dangerous and the Chasam Sofer therefore writes that our entire education aims at separating us from alien cultures.

As previously mentioned, all this is true of the way that limudei kodesh themselves are taught, not only of introducing other disciplines. With his foresight, the Chasam Sofer saw that the demands of the maskilim to increase the study of Tanach according to the simple meaning of the text, were not purely inspired and that they were really intended to push aside study of the oral Torah and in-depth Talmud study.

Today, two hundred years later, we can see how these same circles have broadened the involvement with "the simple meaning of the texts." The State of Israel's first prime minister prided himself on his knowledge of Tanach and his followers held Tanach study groups and an annual "Bible Quiz," in which youths who have devoted themselves to learning pesukim compete, without having drawn spiritual sustenance from the Torah's soul or from the holy teachings of Chazal on the pesukim.

On this subject, it should be noted that Rabbi Eliach quotes some forceful comments from one of the greatest transmitters of the Vilna Gaon's kabboloh teachings, the gaon and mekubal HaRav Shlomo Eliashiv zt'l, author of Leshem Shevo Ve'achlomoh. HaRav S. Eliashiv writes, "See that all those who are involved with the wisdom of this world, such as the wisdom of nature and the like, most of them are far removed from fear of Heaven. For the power of evil that clings there [i.e. to those disciplines] attaches itself to them R'l. Even in our holy Torah, we also see that those who only involve themselves with the outer aspects of Torah -- such as grammar knowledge which consists entirely of the words and language, as well as those who only busy themselves with the simple meaning of Tanach though they have the wisdom and the strength to become involved with gemora and poskim -- we have seen a number of them who are far from fear of Heaven.

"This is because the outer shell always dwells around the superficiality of holiness, to draw its sustenance from it, according to the secret of "the wicked go around" (Tehillim 12:9), and therefore, all who are only involved in superficiality are liable to sin, R'l."

All the methods of teaching Torah have been handed down from generation to generation and our teachers have warned us of the great danger that lies in exaggerated involvement in the simple meaning of Scripture. This is why Chazal warned us to, "Prevent your sons from engaging in higoyon."

However the Chasam Sofer identified a further point: the very fact that this study is favored by the maskilim, who prefer "the simple meaning of the text" and "knowledge of Tanach," is reason enough in itself to distance ourselves from such programs as they once wanted to introduce into Torah schools.

The Aim of Our Education

The purpose of Torah education is to know that there is no way for a person to develop without learning Torah in the way that has been handed down to us, appreciating the sweetness of a sugya in perek Shor Shenogach and keeping far away from the derech eretz of the Pelishtim, even if it is more cultured and more "sensible." We have to be aware that it is only possible to escape from Egypt and its forty- nine levels of tumah in one go, ascending straight to the summit of kedushoh at Har Sinai. It cannot be left gradually, where there is a danger of becoming satisfied with an intermediary level, or where another possibility for a person's development can be perceived, by becoming acquainted with the world's civilization and by gathering superficial knowledge of Tanach, devoid of the soul of the Oral Torah.

This is why, writes the Chasam Sofer, our education is principally based on the Oral Torah, not on learning the simple meaning of Scripture, even though logically this seems to be "a bad order, chas vesholom . . . However, there is no doubt that this is what they received by word of mouth and always saw their fathers and grandfathers doing."

The basic lesson lies in the obligation to distance ourselves from the strayers, "because it was clear before Him yisborach shemo, that it was impossible to separate Am Yisroel from the other nations unless they are utterly separated from them and from their ways, not learning from their wisdom in what they are equal to us, not even Scripture according to the plain meaning for they are equal to us in that. For a man's heart can swiftly revert to be like their multitudes unless he keeps the very greatest distance possible!"

Better the Little of the Righteous

It should be noted that further on in his illuminating discourse, the Chasam Sofer explains the pesukim (Tehillim 37:14 -16), "The evildoers drew their sword . . . to slaughter those of upright path . . . the little that a righteous man has is better than the large amount that the many evildoers have." He explains this posuk to refer to those of evil influence who throw off the yoke of Torah and claim, with their smooth talk, that they only want "to improve" the educational methods.

Such people have always claimed that the ancient methods "are no longer relevant and no longer suited to the general population" but only to the select few who utilize them to grow into great sages. They are not for the majority, they say who, they claim, require extra subjects and new pedagogic approaches that are simple and easy to grasp, that take the "modern era" into account and that plan new learning systems that are designed with consideration for those who are not going to grow up into talmidei chachomim and will go out into the wide world.

"The posuk appears to allude to our situation now, in this evil generation, when seducers and instigators have arisen with the swords of their mouths and the bows of their inkwells, writing works of iniquity to try and draw the hearts of Am Yisroel and to push them away from Hashem . . . saying, that the teaching methods that we have used up until now are crooked and improper. The sign that this refers to our time, is that numerous unstable and empty- headed individuals are ruining themselves because they did not learn according to the established order and they left school empty of any knowledge.

"Because of this, they want to make a new order, so that most pupils will leave school knowing Scripture and Latin and the like -- this is what they say, and they mouth nothings." (The Chasam Sofer adds that in order to further their plans, the maskilim availed themselves of the gentile authorities who, even though they did not intend any harm, "do not know . . . that this contradicts the foundation of our religion and that it is a plan to abolish Talmud [study] among us and to make us forget it entirely.")

The Chasam Sofer therefore adds that Chazal explained the posuk (Koheles 7:28), "I found one in a thousand," as meaning that of every one thousand pupils that begin learning, one hundred will know Scripture, ten will know mishnah, and only one will be capable of making halachic rulings. However, so long as we maintain the old, traditional method through which one single pupil is versed in halochoh then, at any rate, "all the other nine hundred, who were not successful with Scripture, mishnah or Shas, will not abandon their religion and will not profane Shabbos publicly" since they have absorbed the foundations of the oral Torah and have formed an attachment to the teachings of the early Sages in a good and wholesome way.

This is what Dovid Hamelech referred to when he said, "The little that a righteous man has is better than the large amount that the many evildoers have." The path which guarantees the maximal success for the individual few who will grow to become the teachers and leaders for the many, and which at the same time promises that the many, who will not merit attaining the highest levels, will still remain observant of Torah and tradition, is better than the alternative, which supposedly worries about "the many" and "the general public" but which brings destruction to Klal Yisroel as a whole, ruining the chances of developing the select few, while wreaking havoc with the multitudes as well.

"And if they argue, `Your own mouth answers against you: Chazal say that a thousand enter school and [only] one [knowledgeable one] leaves implying that the remainder have no Torah knowledge,' whereas if we listen to them [they say] knowledge will increase . . . In response to this the posuk says, `The little that a righteous man has is better than the large amount that the many evildoers have,' because when they increase their knowledge they tend towards heresy and there are many slaves [to their desires] who break out of line in all kinds of ways while the few righteous individuals who are put into every generation will guard the edifice from decay, with Hashem's help to the valiant."

Keeping to Ourselves

We have quoted at length from the Chasam Sofer because his words are so illuminating in fathoming the inner workings and the spirit of pure Torah education and they help us to understand to what extent we have to guard from the slightest deviation from the educational path that has been transmitted to us.

We learn from the Chasam Sofer that the duty to separate ourselves from those who abandon Torah and the yoke of Heaven's rule is especially important in matters of education. We have no share in the universalist trends in education. Their education is not ours. What they define as "a developed individual" has not yet started to build himself according to our approach.

Even the way limudei kodesh are taught is completely different in our schools than in the "improved schools" of the early maskilim, who wanted to make a revolution from the very foundations.

We have concentrated on things that were written about boys' education even though the current debate, which was mentioned at the outset, centers upon girls' education, whose aims and purposes are different. However, in view of what has been written above a firm connection can be discerned between the two. (Of course there is a need for us to also be constantly watchful for attempts to force changes in boys' education.)

If the Chasam Sofer warns us of the need for complete segregation from all foreign ideas of "developing [civilized] people" according to other systems, or studying Tanach in any other way but our traditional one with regard to boys' education, the basic thrust of which is the command to learn Torah -- "and you shall teach them to your sons" (Devorim 6:7) -- then how much more is his warning valid for girls' education!

The Heart of Bais Yaakov

As is known, girls are not commanded to learn Torah. They learn those halochos which apply to them, as well as mussar, faith and fear of Heaven. Long ago, when Am Yisroel was living its authentic, spiritual life, the Jewish street was suffused with purity and holiness and there was no need for educational institutions for girls. Only when foreign ideas began to infiltrate and difficult trials began to be encountered within our own quarters, there was a vital need to strengthen the girls in Bais Yaakov schools, which were set up as a pressing need of their time.

The whole idea of Bais Yaakov is to inculcate our daughters with the awareness that we have no interest in the world of education and academia, which seeks to value the culture of knowledge for knowledge's sake and study for the sake of study, while fostering the importance of getting a degree and encouraging the pursuit of status and material achievement, which requires getting an education of some kind. The attempts to bring some of this spirit into Bais Yaakov through the back door undermine the entire approach.

The Chazon Ish once commented to students who were learning in a certain "yeshiva" whose leader was a scholar with false ideas: the whole purpose of learning in yeshiva is to know and understand that this is not the form that a talmid chochom was supposed to take and that we are not seeking this type of thing. What then, is the purpose of a yeshiva that teaches exactly the opposite?

We can say the same about the present struggle. The whole purpose of Bais Yaakov is to maintain a correct perspective on the role of a Jewish woman and to keep our distance from the crazy pursuit of academic and materialistic achievements. What is the purpose of a Bais Yaakov that absorbs such worthless ideas?

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