(Oh good Lord, I’m very sorry this is so long. But I’ve wanted to express this to someone for a while, and this is more or less a compilation of my thoughts over the past few months)
A lot of this is based on my observation that I know several younger, on-the-ground Jews who are basically only remaining Orthodox because they’re scared (What will their family think? Will their friends still speak to them? Will they just be alone? etc). They’re remaining observant Jews because they don’t know how to be anything else (and if they did know how to be something else, they’d leave). I’m writing this for them, because I think they’ve been failed by the Jewish educational system, and I’d like to make some suggestions about how to improve it.
This is more going to focus on men’s education, just because I am a man with no sisters and so I’m less familiar with girl’s education.
The reason I’m expressing this anonymously on the internet is that I’m a conflict-averse coward who knows that he’s going to get pushback.
- Every young man should be able to study Gemara, but in yeshiva you often do it every day for several hours, and it’s often done at the expense of a lot of other very valuable texts (I’m mainly thinking of the Nevi’im and Ketuvim). I have met grown Jewish men who went through a yeshiva education, and they couldn’t tell you a single thing about Amos, Habakkuk, or Yoel, but could tell you all sorts of obscure things about the Ramban’s disagreement with the Rambam about the precise process by which Kohanim can enter the courtyard of the Beis HaMikdash.
A lot of the nitty gritty Gemara stuff (tumah and tahara is springing to mind here) seems like it should be reserved for a rabbinic education. The Gemara that is taught ought to focus on practical things you need to know in your everyday life (e.g. common Shabbos issues [shtei basai nirin is probably unnecessary], practical kashrus [Why does a yeshiva boy need to the details of shechita?], halachos of various holidays, marriage, etc.). This can help students gain an understanding of Talmudic reasoning, while at the same time giving them additional information that they can use later.
Rashi says (something like) that the Torah outlines what we must do, the Nevi’im tell us what went wrong, and the Kesuvim tells us how we can make things right. If you don’t study what went wrong and how you can make things right, and instead your life is just an endless deluge of rule after rule (and disagreements about the minutiae of rules), you might just stick to Judaism out of habit, rather than because you really believe it has something valuable to offer the world. And the trouble with habits is that once they’re broken, it’s really hard to get them back.
- People shouldn’t be staying in your religion out of fear; they should stay there because you’ve convinced them that it’s valuable. I’d like to see more study of Mussar and philosophical literature, because at the moment I think that there’s a lot of emphasis on details and insufficient emphasis on motivation. When you ask “Why should I do this?” and the response is “Because God said so,” that might be true. But it isn’t very satisfying.
I’d like to see more time devoted to answering questions like “Why do we do mitzvos [not some particular mitzvah; all of them]?” “What is our relationship to the rest of the non-Jewish world?” “What is our purpose in life, and how does Judaism elucidate that purpose?” If you think there’s a short one or two sentence answer to these questions and there’s nothing more to be said, I think this is part of the problem. I could sum up kashrus by saying “Fish: fins and scales. No birds of prey. Hooves and chew cud = good to eat,” but you would probably think I was rather oversimplifying things (and you’d be right).
In short, I think what is missing is motivation. A kind of…I don’t know, poetry? Something that makes all of this make sense? Something that tells you “This is your place in the world, this is why you’re here.”
- I think censorship in the modern day is an unsustainable method of keeping people Jewish. You can insulate yourselves more and more from the outside world, you can ban smartphones, you can only read certain newspapers that only filter certain information to you, you can ban the internet, but literally all of that can be ruined by one trip to a natural history museum (yes, I actually knew a guy who couldn’t take Judaism seriously after he went to a natural history museum and saw dinosaurs; you can probably guess the sort of community he came from).
I find that including conflicting information in an educational setting makes that information considerably less disturbing or upsetting than if someone were just never told about it. People often feel lied to or betrayed by their communities. I would strongly advise any educator to be familiar with things like evolution and modern critical Bible scholarship, because someone’s entire world is going to be shattered if they learn that these things existed and you didn’t tell them about it.
tl;dr: More emphasis on the “softer” subjects; mussar, philosophy, Nevi’im & Kesuvim and their commentaries, etc. Deal with uncomfortable facts rather than pretending they don’t exist.
Happy to take criticism as long as no one knows who I am. If anyone wants to tell me if this is applicable to girl’s education, let me know.