- Torah Education
- Moshe Ben-Chaim
- For quite some time now, I wanted to address the topic of
education for many reasons. My primary concern is that the student
develops a healthy outlook for, and a magnetic attraction towards
Torah study. I will address a few issues in this first article
and hope to continue with a follow up.
- A friend's daughter repeated a medrash - a story - taught
to her by her teacher. The teacher said that certain "righteous"
people have the ability to alter nature - an ability we must
only ascribe to the Creator - Who created natures' laws. Taking
such stories literally eliminates any chance for the student
to think into the true ideas behind such metaphors. All knowledge
encapsulated in these metaphors by the Sages' cryptic writings
is lost. The Rabbis did not intend for us to believe that Og
lifted Mount Sinai off the Earth, or to believe that we actually
studied Torah inside our mothers' wombs.
- Where did this teacher get the idea that unbelievable metaphors
are to be taken literally? No Sage said these are literal stories.
In fact, they teach us just the opposite, that such stories are
metaphors. King Solomon says in his opening statement in Proverbs,
(1:6) "To understand metaphor and poetic expression, the
words of the wise and their riddles." Kind Solomon clearly
states that Rabbis spoke in riddles and metaphors. If Og lifting
Mount Sinai is not a metaphor, I don't know what is.
- Metaphors are a means by which we may arrive at deep concepts,
not readily accepted by the masses. If one cannot unravel the
riddle, then the idea is safely transmitted to the next generation.
The priceless, hidden ideas are not lost. If one can see through
the metaphor, then he arrives at a true concept. But one should
not believe things which make no sense to his or her mind. If
as a teacher, you come across a story which you cannot explain,
seek understanding from those greater than you. If your own superiors
take it literally, you have no obligation to follow in their
error. Skip it. Perhaps later in life you will merit to understand
the Rabbis' true intent. But by all means, do not teach something
just because Rashi said it. Teach only what makes sense to you.
Teaching means you enlighten your students to a new idea, leading
them to a true appreciation of God's wisdom. If you simply teach
them Rashi's words, but they are left with no understanding,
it is better not to confuse them. They might even develop poor
self esteem if they continue to be confused by incoherent statements,
blaming themselves for their ignorance, and not the teacher.
- Training children and students to accept fantastic stories
has become the way of Jewish educators, who themselves were subject
to this damaging practice. However, by reading what King Solomon
taught, and what Maimonides' son Avraham discusses in his intro
to Ein Yaakov, we realize that fantastic stories are not to be
understood literally. We remove ourselves from fallacy and fantasy,
and gain a chance at learning the true, underlying concepts that
the Rabbis wish us to understand. Appreciation of God's Torah
wisdom means it must register on our minds as sensible.
- As a teacher, your goal is to help your students sharpen
their minds. You must not feel that your job is to feed them
every Rashi on the Chumash. Help them to move forward, starting
at the stage of intellectual development they presently are at.
Many teachers mistakenly teach Genesis to first graders, one
of the more abstract and difficult parshas, just because it is
at the beginning of the Chumash. Adults have a hard time grasping
Genesis, let alone children. I understand that schools have a
curriculum, but perhaps with your input, they too will understand
that certain areas are better left for those of greater intellectual
maturity. Don't just follow the masses when Torah education is
- Children are tomorrow's leaders. Take responsibility. Teach
them Torah as the Rabbis taught. Not only will the children benefit
and enjoy their studies, but you pave the future with greater
- Responding to Questions
- Say you don't know when you don't. No student expects a teacher
to have all the answers. Be honest. If you have a possibility,
say it's a possibility. You are not a teacher to impress upon
your student's your absolute knowledge or control. If you feel
this is true in yourself, stop teaching immediately. Your goal
is to open up students to God's knowledge. When you admit error,
the student will respect your honesty. Their trust in you will
go very far. They too will feel comfortable when they don't know
something. It makes it OK for them to ask questions, and this
furthers their learning to such a greater degree. Ethics of the
fathers teaches us that one embarrassed will not learn. By saying
"I don't know", you enable a student to accept themselves
when they don't, and you encourage their curiosity. Contrast
this great good to those destructive teachers who enter teaching
just to satisfy their need for control. What a sin that is saying,
"that's not a good question" when you are bereft of
an answer. Dismissing the student's real questions encourages
him to refrain from speaking up in the future. He learns to resent
authority, ad he learns to despise anything associated with learning.
- Today, Torah education lacks teachers who actually learn
the Foundations of Torah - the Yesodos of Yahadus. Many teachers
merely parrot notions they have heard from fellow Jews, not principles
they have read in the Sages' works.
- For example, a widely accepted view today is that "all
opinions are correct." People base this on the Rabbis' statement,
"70 faces to the Torah." The one problem is as follows;
why did Ramban argue on Maimonides, or Ramban on Rashi? If all
views are correct, shouldn't Ramban accept Rashi's opinions?
The Talmud in Chullin states, "had Yehoshua ben Nun said
it, I would not follow it." What is this Talmud teaching?
These cases are examples of how the Torah sages learned. They
were not blinded by reputations, they followed their minds. I
have heard responses to this argument, "well they are greater,
but we don't have the right to argue." This sentiment is
not found in the Torah. We see just the opposite, that we are
to use our minds. See the introduction to "Duties of the
Heart". The author teaches that we are not to simply follow
the Rabbis blindly, but we are to think into all matters and
commands so they are clear and rationally pleasing to our minds.
As we recite in Alenu each day, "And you shall know it today,
and you shall return it to your heart." Knowledge of the
law is not the ends. It must be followed by a "returning
to your heart." Understanding is where all studies must
- Confidence, Praise and Independent Thought
In order to develop an independently thinking child who selects
his own values, thinks for himself and is actually meritorious
of 'his' views, a level of confidence must developed. All actions
as teachers or parents which may topple this delicate structure
in its formation must be avoided. Most adults remain victim to
public opinion. They value what others think, more than what
their own mind tells them. They live for others, and rarely for
themselves. A true waste of an individual mind.
- Our Torah is designed for a person's well being, and for
his or her own merit in following it. Merit, by definition, means
that one acts for themselves. They do not act to impress others.
To bring a student to such a level, we must help them with the
most important of all challenges; developing independent thinking,
based on a clear and accurate understanding of Torah values,
ideas, morality. This goes back to our first point, that teaching
facts bereft of any new rational idea is not teaching. This type
of approach of spoon feeding incoherent facts spoils the minds.
Instead of sharpening students' minds, you blur their thinking
and cripple their lives.
Who came up with this idea that all students in a class of
25 must be measured by the same barometer? What a harmful practice.
How many adults today would love learning, were it not for the
poor self image that they developed due to feelings of inadequacy
produced by tests? And the tests themselves don't even measure
what the Torah values. "The purpose of learning is svara"
- reasoning. The Talmud does not say the purpose of learning
is a memorization of facts. Ethics of the Fathers (2:8) compares
memory to reasoning and the higher praise is for Rabbi Elazar
ben Arach who is equated to an increasingly strong spring. The
idea is that one who produces new insights like a spring outweighs
even one with greater memory. Why is this quality of insight
a greater trait than memory? Think about it, we will continue
next week. Have an insightful shabbos.