Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, the noted educator, author and Talmudist recently wrote a lengthy article in one of the religiously oriented newspapers here in Israel about the problems of curriculum as it currently exists in Israeli Orthodox Jewish schools - and worldwide. He decried what he considered to be the over-emphasis and even exclusivity of the study of Talmud, to the exception of all other areas of Torah scholarship, that exist in our schools.
He compared the study of Talmud to learning how to play chess. Chess in its highest form is a very complicated and exacting mental exercise with relatively simple moves on the chessboard that even young children can master. Yet we all realize that there are relatively few chess masters in the world. Though almost all of us know the simple moves of the game and understand the ultimate purpose of capturing the opponent’s king, few of us are really disappointed at not being masters of the game.
Rabbi Steinsaltz maintains that this is a just comparison to the study of Talmud. Everyone can learn the simple rules of that study. But, few can rise to the level of master. And everyone understands that the purpose of the study is not only to grant one familiarity with the Oral Law of Sinai but also to facilitate a soulful and emotional connection with Jewish tradition, Torah values and an intimate connection with one's inner self and its Creator.
Rabbi Steinsaltz agrees that everyone should learn the rudiments of playing chess. But it is impractical to create an educational system geared only for chess masters, who realistically will always be only a small minority of the players. By carrying this analogy over to the world of Jewish education and curriculum, in his view, less stress, time and effort should be devoted to the study of Talmud in Jewish schools at the expense of other necessary subjects of Torah and tradition.
This issue has long ago festered in the Jewish educational world. On the one hand, it is obvious that the Jewish world will always need masters – people who are great in Torah knowledge and steeped in Talmudic analysis. Without the great scholars in Torah – and this immediately presupposes mastery of Talmud and its layers of commentary and exposition – the great spiritual world of Judaism, and in fact the continuity of the Jewish people, is placed at risk.
On the other hand, the vast majority of students attending our religious schools today are not going to be masters, at least as far as Talmud is concerned. In fact, many a promising student has been turned off to Judaism itself by the preponderance of Talmud study in the curriculum of the Jewish school that he attended.
The yeshiva world of Eastern Europe – especially in Lithuania in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, was composed of prestigious institutions catering to a very elite and relatively small student body. Before World War II there were probably no more than 3500 students in all of the yeshivot of the Eastern Europe combined. In the Diaspora, in spite of the substantial population of Jews, the number of students in yeshivot then was probably even smaller. The yeshivot were the schools of the masters and not of the ordinary.
All of this changed after World War II. The destruction of Eastern European Jewry and of almost all of its yeshivot created a black hole in the Jewish world. The great men of Torah, the relatively few who somehow survived the Holocaust, now devoted themselves selflessly and almost exclusively to rebuilding the world of intensive and elite Torah study.
They were determined to create new masters, and in order to do so every Jewish student had to at least learn the rudimentary rules and moves of the game. This emphasis slowly but surely came to dominate the curriculum of all Jewish schools, and the goal remained to produce masters, even at the expense of the ordinary players.
This was especially true when it became clear that in the modern, secular, assimilationist atmosphere, it was almost impossible to remain an observant and believing traditional Jew without a relatively intense education in Talmud. So, as is always the case in life generally and certainly in Jewish life, the issue now becomes a matter of balance.
We cannot educate everyone to become a master. Yet everyone must somehow know the moves of the game and be able to participate. There are now new initiatives and institutions that somehow are trying to square this circle.
The full wonder and breadth of Torah and Judaism should be communicated to the next generation of Jews currently populating our schools. How to accomplish this without an unrealistic overemphasis on the exclusivity of the study of Talmud remains one of the core problems faced by Jewish educators in today's world.