Tuesday, July 26, 2016

what do we expect kids to walk out of yeshivah knowing?

A follow up post on education:

We spend thousands of dollars and invest hundreds of hours of classroom instruction in educating our kids. After 12 or more years, what do we expect them to know? What are we getting for our money?

My question assumes that, like E.D. Hirsch argued, there is certain “core knowledge” that is essential. It’s not enough for students to have some vague set of skills or good “midos” or hashkafos. They need to have real facts and information at their fingertips.

Here is what I consider the bare minimum, at least for girls:

1) Knowing all of chumash with rashi;

2) Familiarity with the text all of all nevi’im rishonim and basic content of nevi’im achronim;

3) Knowing orach chaim halachos as found in Chayei Adam or Kitzur;

4) Understanding basic principles of belief (this point needs a post of its own to define better).

That’s it.

Sounds simple, but I challenge you to test your average Beis Ya’akov graduate and see if she has mastered the items on my list.  My own kids have gone to what is considered a more academic B.Y., one which comparatively speaking does provide a decent education, and they complain to me that I’m being unfair when I expect them to know a pasuk and Rashi that they never learned in school.

(If you think boys education is any better, you're kidding yourself. A kid can walk out of 12th grade knowing 60-70 blatt gemara (in some cases, ha’levai that much) and the reid a rebbe said over to them for 4 years and that’s it – no knowledge of navi, chumash, hashkafa (outside of mussar shmuzen), and a smattering of Mishnah Berurah at best. Of course you have boys who become masmidim and excel – but those are the ones who are above average. What about the guy in the second level shiur in MTA, in DRS, in Chofetz Chaim, NIRC, or YFR?  What do they really know after 12 years of school?)

What is worse than girls not having learned this stuff in school is the fact that they never given the message that they have to learn it on their own, not because of the mitzvah of talmud Torah (which of course does not apply to girls), and not because they will do some kind of aveirah if they don't know a Rashi somewhere in Sefer VaYika (a very unlikely prospect), but simply because how can you live as a thinking Jew, a Jew who wants to connect with Torah = with G-d, if you don't even know chumash and Rashi? 

I should get back to posting on Torah only topics before I get myself too worked up or into hot water  : )

Monday, July 25, 2016

an "educational strategy" that undermines getting an education

I want to offer a quick comment on the attempt to draw conclusions regarding “educational strategy” from the fact that a high percentage of BMG/Lakewood students who took the CPA exam passed on the first try.

I think this would be wrong for the simple reason that the ability to score a passing grade on an exam that measures ability in a narrow subject area has nothing to do with being educated.

Steven Pinker, writing in the New Republic,
once described an educated person as follows:
I think we can be more specific. It seems to me that educated people should know something about the 13-billion-year prehistory of our species and the basic laws governing the physical and living world, including our bodies and brains. They should grasp the timeline of human history from the dawn of agriculture to the present. They should be exposed to the diversity of human cultures, and the major systems of belief and value with which they have made sense of their lives. They should know about the formative events in human history, including the blunders we can hope not to repeat. They should understand the principles behind democratic governance and the rule of law. They should know how to appreciate works of fiction and art as sources of aesthetic pleasure and as impetuses to reflect on the human condition.

On top of this knowledge, a liberal education should make certain habits of rationality second nature. Educated people should be able to express complex ideas in clear writing and speech. They should appreciate that objective knowledge is a precious commodity, and know how to distinguish vetted fact from superstition, rumor, and unexamined conventional wisdom. They should know how to reason logically and statistically, avoiding the fallacies and biases to which the untutored human mind is vulnerable. They should think causally rather than magically, and know what it takes to distinguish causation from correlation and coincidence. They should be acutely aware of human fallibility, most notably their own, and appreciate that people who disagree with them are not stupid or evil. Accordingly, they should appreciate the value of trying to change minds by persuasion rather than intimidation or demagoguery.

Rabbi Adlerstein on the Cross Currents blog
asks, “Are some kids wasting years of time because they could learn material much more quickly when a bit older?” The answer is “yes” only if all you expect them to do is cram into their heads the necessary facts needed to pass a few courses and tests needed to obtain a job.  If you expect them to become educated along the lines of Pinker’s definition or anything close, then 2 years or even 20 years is barely enough time to make a start of it.
Sadly, the pervasive ads in community newspapers for post-seminary/yeshiva diploma mills that offer degrees that can be attained by combining CLEP tests, yeshiva credit, study at home courses, etc. all so that one can maximize one’s time doing other things prove that an “educational strategy” that de-emphasizes education is becoming the norm.  It's the equivalent of high school students who have goofed off for 4 years enrolling in a crash course before the SATs to bring up their score.  They are not getting 4 years of education in a few months -- they are getting test taking skills and strategies and certain key facts necessary to do well on a test. 
What I regard as a flaw others regard as a virtue.  Few people want an education -- they want a degree that ultimately leads to a well-paying job.  Let's not kid ourselves -- no one is learning in 2 years or 18 months what takes years of schooling to master.  They are simply cutting out the pretense of getting an education and getting a degree / profession instead. 

My wife reminded me that she once posted on this same topic and related the story that her grandfather, R' Dov Yehudah Shochet, one of the tamidim muvhakim of R' Yosef Leib Bloch, was given permission by R' Bloch to attend university on the condition that he immediately return to yeshiva in Telz when instructed.  When he was just short of finishing his degree, R' Bloch sent word that it was time for him to come back, and so he did (side lesson: that's real hisbatlus to one's rebbe).  When he asked R' Bloch why he called him just then to return, R' Bloch explained that he allowed him to go to university in order to get an education.  That he already had done -- the degree was just a piece of paper. 

Fast forward to our times v'na'hapoch hu -- the tables have been turned.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

"l'hatoso ba" -- did G-d want to cause Bilam to go astray?!

Commenting on Hashem’s question to Bilam, “Mi ha’anashim ha’eileh imach?” Rashi writes, “l’hatoso ba,” Hashem caused Bilam to err. By asking such a question, G-d gave Bilam the impression that He is not all knowing. Bilam therefore thought that he could curse Bnei Yisrael without Hashem being aware and get away with it.

It sounds like Rashi is telling us that Hashem stacked the deck and set Bilam up for failure. “L’hatoso ba” doesn’t mean G-d was ambiguous and allowed Bilam to err. It means G-d deliberately wanted to cause Bilam to err. How could G-d do that? How is that fair? Since when does G-d want people to fail?

Secondly, Rashi’s comment here seems at odds with an earlier comment of his. Rashi (Braishis 3:9) comments that when G-d asked Adam, “Ayeka?” he did so in order to initiate conversation. It’s terrifying to be addressed by G-d, so G-d made it a little easier by opening the dialogue with some innocuous question. Why didn’t Rashi offer the same explanation for Hashem’s question here? (See Mizrachi)

R’ Chaim Hirschensohn in his
Nimukei Rashi answers as follows: just as a chacham derives whatever he knows about G-d through his own thought process, the navi derives his perception of G-d through his neshoma. Knowledge of G-d is by definition subjective, as no human being can ever apprehend the objective reality of what G-d is. The brains or personality/neshoma of the individual becomes the prism through which everything is filtered. That’s why Chazal tell us that nevuah is given over only to someone who is wise, rich, happy, etc. -- in other words, a complete and fulfilled person, one who is not likely to distort or skew the message because of his own failures or biases.

That being said, sometimes an exception to the rule is called for. If there is a message that G-d wants to get out, even though the conduit does not measure up, he/she experiences nevuah. When Hashem “spoke” to Kayin right after he murdered Hevel, it’s not because Kayim was worthy of nevuah – it’s because Hashem needed to get a message to him. When Hashem gave nevuah to Bilam, it was not because Bilam met all the qualifications needed to deserve nevuah, but rather because at that time and place Hashem needed a navi la’goyim.

The downside to that happening is that just as the perfect navi interprets the experience of nevuah through the prism of his holy personality, the Bilams of the world interpret nevuah through the prism of their twisted personality.   To Adam haRishon, "Ayeka?" was an innocent question.  To Bilam, there was no such thing as an innocent question.  Since his own speech was filled with hidden meanings designed to deceive and conceal, he interpreted other's words -- even G-d's -- in the same way, and therefore assumed there was a message that was not there.

Of course, writes R' Hirschensohn, G-d did not come to trip up Bilam.  The subject of the verb "l'hatoso ba" is not G-d, but rather G-d's question, the words of nevuah.  What Rashi is telling us is that the simple question experienced prophetically that could have been understood differently was the cause of Bilam's downfall, as, when filtered through his debased heart, they led him astray.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

the one thing that mattered most to Bilam

Lo sa’or es ha’am ki baruch hu…” (22:12) Rashi comments that Hashem first told Bilam that he cannot curse  Bnei Yisrael, to which Bilam responded that that's no problem, he will go and bless them. Hashem answered that he shouldn’t do that either, as “bauch hu,” they are already blessed and don’t need Bilam’s brachos.

At first glance, it’s hard to understand Bilam’s thinking. He jumps from extreme to extreme, first expressing the desire to curse  Bnei Yisrael destroy them, and then, when that was not allowed, expressing a desire to bless them. Why would he want to give brachos to the same nation that a second ago he wanted to curse and destroy?

What the Torah is showing us is that only one thing really mattered to Bilam: being the center of attention. Curses, blessings, whatever – none of that really mattered.  Bilam was flexible when it came to ideology and principle. What he was not flexible on was missing out on having a starring role in whatever was happening.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

dear Ramaz graduates...

From a petition:

Rabbi Lookstein, all the good work you’ve done in your life – everything you’ve done for your community, for the plight of Soviet Jews – will be flushed down the toilet for ten minutes on stage in Cleveland. This is the single action history will remember you by, and history will not be kind.

Dear Ramaz Graduates,
I originally was going to begin this post by saying that this single petition, which a few hundred misguided souls put your signatures on, is the action history will remember you by, and history will not be kind.  However, I think that is as wrong as saying that Rabbi Lookstein's speech would have defined his career. 
You espouse the rhetoric of tolerance, protesting for the Mexicans and Muslims who you claim Trump will harm, but in truth, you stand for intolerance.   You stand against the right of free speech, the right of Rabbi Lookstein to simply to deliver an invocation at a political gathering. You speak of celebrating diversity, but want to silence views that you disagree with.
You stand against giving the leader of your community the benefit of the doubt, something he undoubtedly has earned through decades of service to the Jewish community, and instead would judge and condemn him for taking a position at odds with your own.  
If you reject Trump, with whom do you stand?
Do you support the Democrat party, which considered labeling Israel an "occupying force" and whose committee charged with formulating policy includes BDS supporters like Cornell West?
Perhaps you forgot this scene from the last DNC convention?
Or perhaps you forgot the DNC and Hillary Clinton's support of eliminating sanctions on Iran, allowing them to develop weapons that can be used against Israel and giving them access to funds that are used to support terrorism?

You seem to confuse bombastic rhetoric, which Mr. Trump is perhaps guilty of, with bombastic policy and actions that have led to the death of your fellow Jews, and indeed, to the death of thousands the world over. 

Monday, July 18, 2016

why complain now?

Why did Bnei Yisrael in last week’s parsha start complaining about the man after 40 years in the desert, right on the threshold of entering Eretz Yisrael? For close to 40 years the menu had been the same – man for breakfast, man for lunch, man for supper – and no complaints (aside from at the beginning of the 40 years). If the menu was good enough day in and day out for all that time, why start complaining now?

Chasam Sofer answers (and my son pointed out that R’ Bachyei says something similar) that when Bnei Yisrael first entered the desert, there were complaints because that generation had grown up eating regular food and the switch to man was a shock to the system. The generation that grew up during the 40 years in the desert had never known food other than man. For them, this was the norm! When after 40 years they reached the outskirts of civilization and tasted real food, they suddenly realized what they had been missing.

This explains, writes the Chasam Sofer, the midah k’neged midah of the punishment of nechashim ha’serafim. For 40 years the ananei ha’kavod had smoothed out the road and eliminated any danger from snakes, scorpions, and other creatures of the desert. Hashem was telling Bnei Yisrael that if they don’t like the miracle-food of man – they want the real thing – then they would get reality. The reality is that snakes bite and sting, as they would discover.

When I said this over on Shabbos, my wife added a chiddush of her own. The man freed Bnei Yisrael from having to deal with the kelala given to Adam of “b’zey’as apecha tochal lechem,” having to toil for one’s bread. By transcending the cursed state of Adam, Bnei Yisrael were also freed from having to deal with “v’eivah ashis beincha u’bein ha’isha,” the curse of animosity between the snake and man. Once Bnei Yisrael expressed a desire to come back down to earth and have real bread, i.e. have the “b'zey’as apecha tochal lechem.” Hashem showed them that it was a package deal, and they would now have to deal with the nachash as well.

Speaking of the Chasam Sofer, he is the only source I think I have found that addresses the question of why Miriam deserved to die in the desert and not enter Eretz Yisrael. He quotes from Chazal that lashom ha’ra hurts the one who does the speaking, the one who it is spoken to, and the one spoken about. It was the sin of speaking against Moshe that did Miriam in. Moshe and Aharon, the ones spoken to and about, were also guilty, but they were given a chance to redeem themselves by speaking to the rock. Had they done so, it would have demonstrated to Bnei Yisrael the power of speech, and the danger that comes with misusing words. Since they failed, they too were subject to the punishment that came from Miriam’s lashon ha’ra.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

you and I can be as great as Eliyahu

1) Ramban writes (Shmos end of ch 15) that the Hashem is “mamtik mar b’mar.” Lemons are bitter so we add sugar to make lemonade; Hashem makes the lemonade sweet by using the bitter items themselves. When Bnei Yisrael left Mitzrayim and came to Marah, a place with bitter undrinkable water, Hashem showed Moshe how he could sweeten the waters by using a bitter tree. Normally, as Ramban on our parsha writes, a person bitten by a snake would not be able to tolerate even the sight of a snake, but Hashem arranged things so that looking at the nechash he’nechoshes would cure the bite. I would argue that we take advantage of this same miracle in our lives. The very same germs that cause all kinds of diseases can be injected into a person to protect them from those same illnesses – vaccination.

Yet that’s not how the Mishna in Rosh haShana (3:8) seems to present how things work. The Mishna rhetorically asks, “Is it the snake [the nachash he’nechoshes] that kills or cures”? Of course not. Rather, looking up at the snake caused people to direct their eyes toward heaven and remind themselves that they need to accept ol malchus shamayim – that’s what cured people.

M’mah nafshach: if the cure came through looking to shamayim, i.e. through tefilah, then why did Moshe need to make this precise tool of the nechash nechoshes? Why not just point toward the sky? But if the nachash he’nechoshes really had the power to cure, then why do Chazal tell us that it was looking heavenward that did the trick?

The Mishna in Pesachim writes that King Chizkiyahu did away with the “Book of Cures.” Rambam quotes that some explain that this was a book of medicine that Chizkiyahu chose to hide because people relied on it for cures instead of trusting in G-d. Rambam rejects this as ridiculous. Going to a doctor or taking medicine does not prove a lack of trust in G-d any more than eating when one is hungry does. Ramban, on the other hand, writes in Parshas Bechukosai that when the nation will reach a high enough spiritual level there will be no need for doctors. True bitachon means relying on G-d alone.

Sefas Emes (5636) answers our question regarding the nachash ha’nechoshes by trying to have his cake and eat it too when it comes to this machlokes. The nachash, the tree that made the water drinkable, vaccines, all really do work, and Hashem wants us to use these tools. You can’t just point to the sky and hope for a miracle. The Rambam is right -- we live in a world of teva and Hashem wants us to play by its rules.  That being said, what Chazal in the Mishna are telling us is that we also have to realize that this is not the ideal.  We need to look up to heaven and at least dream of a time and place where we are not constrained by the rules of teva.  Ramban is right not in a practical sense, but in an ideal sense. 

2) “Rosheich alay k’Karmel v’dalas roseich k‘argaman…” (Shir haShirim 7:6) The Midrash reads this pasuk as describing the beauty in G-d’s eyes of even the worst members of Klal Yisrael. “Rosheich” is read by the Midrash as “reishech,” from the word “rash,” meaning poor person – not poor financially, but poor in good deeds; “dalas” is taken by the Midrash as a hint to the word “dal,” another synonym for a person who is wanting. The Midrash writes that the poorest miscreant in Klal Yisrael is as valuable in G-d's eyes as Eliyahu haNavi who davened for rain and was answered; the poorest no-goodnik is as great as David haMelech and Daniel.

Three years ago
I posed the question of how this makes sense. It’s like saying that since I can swing a bat I am as good a baseball player as Derek Jeter. Obviously, it’s not true.  So what do Chazal mean?

Back then I outlines two approaches: 1) Shiurei Da’as: the distance between man and G-d is infinite. When you travel down an infinite road, it’s true the person who has progressed 2 miles has gone much further than the person who has gone 2 yards, but relative to the road as a whole, both are in about the same position; 2) my own thought: l’fum tza’ara agra. G-d measures our achievement on a scale relative to our abilities, not as an absolute. 

Fast forward three years and I found the Netziv in the Harchev Davar on this week’s parsha  addresses this same Midrash and suggests that the Midrash is equating the avodah of Joe-ordinary with Dovid, Daniel, and Eliyahu only with respect to the power of tefilah. The need for tefilah is built into the teva of the world.   Parshas Braishis tells us that Hashem wanted to bring rain for the plants to grow, but he waited until Adam was there to daven for it. Hashem wants it to rain, he wants the plants to grow, he wants teva to operate as it should.  All that stands in the way is for someone -- like you or me -- giving the word.  The bar of what is required, at least in ensuring that our needs are met b'derech ha'teva, is so low that no matter who you are, you can accomplish what needs to be done.

This is why, says the Netziv, the Midrash uses the example of Eliyahu davening for rain.   Hashem had already promised to lift the drought before Eliyahu davened. His words didn’t cause the rain to fall – they were just necessary as a trigger to bring about what Hashem already said would happen. David’s tehillim, Daniel’s daily tefilah – these were the same prayers that you and I say, not extraordinary requests for extraordinary things. 

Chazal see the end of the pasuk in Shir haShirim, melech asur b'rehatim, as a reference to Moshe Rabeinu's sin at Mei Meriva.  Hashem wanted Moshe to speak -- to daven, and show that the needs of the people could be met not through the supernatural, but through tefilah, which is part of the natural way the world works.   This lesson was necessary as a prelude to life in Eretz Yisrael -- a life of farming, working, etc., a very different existence that life in the midbar.  This hanhaga was not the midah/character of Moshe, and therefore, he did not meet Hashem's expectations.

I don't think I captured the Netziv's point as well as I could have, so please see it inside if you can.  It's well worth it.