Wednesday, October 28, 2009

educational ideals and aspirations

Before we can figure out how to build an education system or assess whether an educational system meets the goals and ideals we aspire to as Torah observant Jews, we must first ask ourselves what those goals and ideals are. Note the important word in that sentence: ideals. Yes, ideals do matter, even if we often fall short of them, because of the other important word in that sentence: aspire. It is the sheifa l'gadlus, the aspiration to ideals, which tells much about what a person considers serious and important and defines the direction of his life. When a kid plays baseball, he imagines himself becoming the next Derek Jeter -- he doesn't aspire to becoming the next 40 year old overweight guy in the Sunday breakfast league. When a kid starts to learn Torah, he should similarly imagine himself becoming the next Rav Soloveitchik, the next R' Ahron Kotler, and put in hours trying to make that dream come true -- not aspire to becoming a 40 year old ba'al habayis who can barely kvetch through daf yomi with the Artsroll. At some point in life a person matures and is forced to realize he is not Derek Jeter and maybe becoming a lawyer rather than count on playing shortstop for the Yankees is not a bad idea. And at some point down the road most talmidim will realize they are not R' Ahron Kotler or the Rav and they too will need to make concessions to reality as well. But those decisions can come long after elementary school, even after high school.

So what are the big dreams we should to inspire students to think about? Should we inspire them to go figure out a cure for cancer, perform some valuable social service that can help the needy, improve the world in some other way? All those are important goals, but they are secondary and far less important than the one goal for which a Jew was created.

The Rambam asks in his introduction to Peirush haMishnayos: "Why is man here; for what was he created?" The Rambam answers that mank was created for one purpose alone -- to imbue his soul with the wisdom of G-d. All other wisdom is valuable only to the extent that it enables man to draw closer to that singular goal. The Rambam continues that even if a person lived a holy life of a nazir, perfecting his nature and character, performing mitzvos, avoiding sin and temptation, he would still be imperfect so far as he did not devote himself to attaining the knowledge of G-d.

R' Chaim Volozhiner writes in his Nefesh haChaim (4:30):
"The Torah further surpasses with its illumination and holiness all mitzvos combined. That is, even if a person were to fulfill all 613 commandments with true perfection as required, meticulous in every detail, with proper pure intention, so that every limb and fiber of that person's being becomes a chariot upon which may rest the tremendous sanctity of all those mitzvos, nonetheless, there is no comparison at all between the light and holiness of mitzvos and the light and holiness of Torah which manifests itself upon a person who studies it properly. The root of holiness [of Torah] comes from a much higher source than the root of holiness and great light of even all the mitzvos combined."

This same idea is already found in a Mishna everybody knows and says every day: "...v'Talmud Torah k'neged kulam." Our primary goal in life, the goal which is more important than even other religious achievements and certainly more important than secular studies and achievements, is the study of Torah.

If our educational philosophy is to be molded by the Rambam, certainly a thinker who many champion as their guide in other areas, or R' Chaim Volozhiner, as Volozhin is the mother of all modern yeshivos, or any of the many seforim which echo these ideas, then we obviously need to aspire to become masters of Torah wisdom and knowledge. It makes no sense to aspire to and idealize the baker who provides bread for the talmid chacham, or the carpenter who builds his house, or even the doctor who heals his ills instead of idealizing and aspiring to be the talmid chacham himself!

The education that would lead to the goal of gadlus in Torah, namely intensive immersion in learning for the majority of the day every day, is certainly not for everyone. The world will have its bakers and carpenters, its investment bankers and lawyers, and we need educational institutions that will give everyone some connection to Torah and a love of learning. Just because you can't be Derek Jeter is no reason to give up baseball, and just because you are not the Rav or R' Ahron Kotler is no reason not to learn. Aderaba, within your own limits learn and support learning. But the pragmatic concession to reality does not mean we should make a philosophical concession and idealize the investment banker or scientiest as spiritually equivalent to someone tucked away in a beis medrash pouring over the words of R' Akiva Eiger and the Ketzos. We all can't be sitting over a gemara all day, but we all can admire those who do and aspire to come closer to that goal.


  1. The main place such inspiration has to take place is at home. A child can start off wanting to be the next godol hador but if he comes home with a great chidush and his father shrugs and his mother doesn't seem to care, his goals will downgrade over time.

    And what's wrong with being an overweight 40 year old in a beer league anyway!?

  2. Agree with you 100% (about the chiddush part. i don't know about the other part : )

  3. Chaim,

    The primary problem I have with this post is you seem to think that a rigorous learning environment that can nurture the next gadol hador and a legitimate education in math, science, history, english and other "secular" subjects are inherently incompatible. They are not.

    Along the same lines, math and science are chachmas hashem; they are windows into the universe hashem created, and understanding them engenders ahavas hashem and yiras hashem (see Hilchos Yesodei Hatorah, Perek Bais):

    הֵיאַךְ הִיא הַדֶּרֶךְ לְאַהֲבָתוֹ, וְיִרְאָתוֹ: בְּשָׁעָה שֶׁיִּתְבּוֹנֵן הָאָדָם בְּמַעֲשָׂיו וּבְרוּאָיו הַנִּפְלָאִים הַגְּדוֹלִים, וְיִרְאֶה מֵהֶם חָכְמָתוֹ שְׁאֵין לָהּ עֵרֶךְ וְלֹא קֵץ--מִיָּד הוּא אוֹהֵב וּמְשַׁבֵּחַ וּמְפָאֵר וּמִתְאַוֶּה תַּאֲוָה גְּדוֹלָה לֵידַע הַשֵּׁם הַגָּדוֹל, כְּמוֹ שֶׁאָמַר דָּוִיד "צָמְאָה נַפְשִׁי, לֵאלֹהִים--לְאֵל חָי" (תהילים מב,ג).

    ב וּכְשֶׁמְּחַשֵּׁב בַּדְּבָרִים הָאֵלּוּ עַצְמָן, מִיָּד הוּא נִרְתָּע לַאֲחוֹרָיו, וְיִירָא וְיִפְחַד וְיֵדַע שְׁהוּא בִּרְיָה קְטַנָּה שְׁפָלָה אֲפֵלָה, עוֹמֵד בְּדַעַת קַלָּה מְעוּטָה לִפְנֵי תְּמִים דֵּעוֹת, כְּמוֹ שֶׁאָמַר דָּוִיד "כִּי-אֶרְאֶה שָׁמֶיךָ . . . מָה-אֱנוֹשׁ כִּי-תִזְכְּרֶנּוּ"

    Beyond that, it's all well and good to build a school to generate the next Gadol. But that same school must - must - also be capable of preparing its Talmidim to become as great as they can be even if they are not going to be the next Gadol. If I send your school 5 students, 1 of whom has the potential become the next Gadol, one of whom has the potential to cure cancer, one of whom has the potential to develop a new, clean and freely available energy source, one of whom has the potential to become a successful surgeon and one of whom has the potential to become a leader of a philanthropic organization, and the school turns out 1 gadol and 4 bakers, then the school has failed - just as surely as if I sent the same 5 to another school and wound up with a shul rabbi and the other 4 meeting their potential.

    The bottom line is, so long as secular studies are seen as treif, so long as they are seen as destructive rather than a good in and of themselves, something to be excelled in and where excellence in them is to be celebrated, you will have a school that exists to serve the one in 100,000 children who have the potential to be the next gadol hador.

    Having children aspire to be the next R' Aharon, the next R' Soleveitchik is important. Catering only to those who can actually reach that goal, on the other hand - making those "concessions to reality" long after high school - is a terrible mistake.

    1. Look at r dessler at end of volume 3, and says 1/1000 make it and the 999 were worth it to produce that 1 gadol

  4. Inspiring.

    R' Chaim felt that it was important, and had ong term effects, for kids to 'reach for the stars' and to aspire for greatness; for everyone.

    R' Leib Malin wrote that the purpose of his yeshiva was to implement the sheyfuh for Gadlus and to become "Gedolim". (He put Gedolim in italics)

    Dangerous associations...

  5. Akiva,

    >>> rather than a good in and of themselves,

    Where do you get this idea from? The Rambam certainly does not agree with it, not does R' Chaim of Volozhin. Secular studies are at best an instrumental good to come closer to G-d for those who cannot do so through Torah alone.

    Someone commented on the previous post that there is a "religious obligation" to study science. Do you think R' Chaim Brisker was an inferior Jew because he did not study science and math and "only" sat and learned?

    Again, pragmatically speaking we are all not R' Chaim Brisker and so we do need those secular disciplines not only for parnasa, but to make us better human beings. But that is a concession to reality, not an ideal.

    I simply do not understand what it means to open a hyphen-orthodox coed yeshiva that offers one period of talmud a day and tout it as fulfilling some sort of ideal. Call it what it is -- a means to get some Jewish education into kids who otherwise would have none -- but don't frame it as the ideal to which we should aspire.

  6. > you seem to think that a rigorous learning environment that can nurture the next gadol hador and a legitimate education in math, science, history, english and other "secular" subjects are inherently incompatible. They are not

    I agree 100%!

    However, the simple resolution to the dispute is to invoke kavannah. Why do I learn Torah? To understand Hashem's world. Why do I learn science? To understand Hashem's world! If we teach our children that this secular knowledge has value in that it makes you understand Creation that much better, then it brings with it tremendous advantages.

  7. Mike S.8:09 PM

    I have issues both theoretical and practical with your post.

    Theory first:
    Granted, that man's goal is to: to imbue his soul with the wisdom of G-d. All other wisdom is valuable only to the extent that it enables man to draw closer to that singular goal. Torah also gives us the preferred means to reach that goal, which is a combination of intense Torah study, and the practical observance of mitzvot in daily life (most of which in necessarily outside the 4 walls of the beis medrash). Thus, when Chazal debated whether study or action was more important, they concluded that study was more important when (or because) it led to action. Similarly, the Mishna in Avot "Study is good when combined with a livelihood, since the toil of both leaves no energy for sin." After all, who is the better example for us, David Hamelech alav hashalom, or R. Shimon ben Azzai? The ideal the Torah sets for us is a combination of deep and intense study with pursuit of a livelihood. If you see how the Tannaim and Amoraim and most of the Rishonim lived, you will see that Rav Hirsch was right when he said that the ideal of isolation from the general society that prevailed in Europe from the crusades through Napoleon was making a virtue out of what was imposed by the Gentiles.

    On a practical level, I'll use your analogy. If you take a whole little league full of six year olds, and have them all practice like they might be the next Derek Jeter you don't end up with a Derek Jeter and a bunch of guys playing for fun on Sunday. You end up with one Derek Jeter and a bunch of kids who hate baseball. And you don't need to do this to find Derek Jeter anyway. He's the kid who you can't pull away from the ball field no matter what. Compare the results of Rav Hirsch's educational system to that of Eastern Europe. The German schools, true, did not produce Gedolim like the yeshivot of Eastern Europe. But they also didn't produce the bundists, secular Zionists, anarchists, communists, and meshumaddim that came from the Yeshivot of Eastern Europe along with the Gedolim. And the Germans who had the chush for more learning went to Hungary and Eastern Europe to get it and became Gedolim anyway.

  8. >>>Thus, when Chazal debated whether study or action was more important, they concluded that study was more important when (or because) it led to action.

    The Rambam himself addresses this point and notes that study always precedes action (e.g. u'lemadtem v'asisem) because it is superior in importance. The need for a livlihood is no different than the need for food, water, shelter -- a means to survive. It's page 8 in the beginning of the Yachin u'Boaz mishnayos if you want to see it inside.

    I am not sure I grasp the point you are trying to make re: the practical level. As I wrote, "We need educational institutions that will give everyone some connection to Torah and a love of learning." All I am saying is that the concession to our own limitations that forces us to engage in the study of other disciplines both for parnasa and to feel personal shleimus is just that -- a concession to our own shortcomings, not an ideal state of affairs.

  9. Maimonidean1:11 AM

    Chaim, when Rambam wrote that man was created to "imbue his soul with the wisdom of G-d", he was certainly NOT referring to shteiging over the Gemara! He was talking about philosophy. You need to read up a little about Rambam.

  10. Mike S.7:17 AM

    OK, but see the Bartenura there also. And note that the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 156:1) also brings the 2nd part of the Mishanh (Torah unaccompanied by work leads to sin). The ideal life, as presented by Chaza"l in both word and deed is combining intense Torah study with at least some other work.

  11. Maimonidian, I am aware of your point which is exactly why I quoted the Nefesh haChaim. He makes the the case far more strongly and I think is more representitve of the post-Rambam world view. The Rambam is more nuanced. He does write that a great philosopher can earn olam haba as well, but at the same time stresses Torah as a superior means of attaining ahavas H' and knowledge of G-d. I would not go so far as to say the Rambam held T"T is just a means to an end, but I don't have a clear enough picture to say more than that.

    Mike S, does that mean work is an ideal or simply an instrumental good as a means of avoiding sin? I am in the middle of reading a book that touches on Jewish thought and the Puritan work ethic -- something for further thought

  12. Mike S.7:47 PM

    1) It is clear to me that Chazal thought of it as an ideal. Positive comments on work abound throughout the writings of Chazal. Breishit Rabbah says it is better than Z'cut Avot; there is the drasha repeated every Motzaei Shobbos "Yigea capecha ki tochel," and there are many more like them.

    2) On the practical level telling every 6 year old (or six year old boy anyway) that they should aim to be the next Rav or the next Rav Aharon Kotlar (or whoever), like telling them they should all aim to be Derek Jeter, is setting up 999,999 out of a million to feel like failures and hate learning. They should all be taught to aim for the highest level of yirat shamayim and talmud torah that their talents and circumstances permit. One would think that the rapid spread of Chassidus in its early (and schismatic) days would have taught the Talmudic scholar not to be contemptuous of the ordinary Jew, but it seems that lesson needs to be relearned with some frequency.
    The Rav, ZT"L, used to say that, although the Gaon was certainly a far greater talmid chacham than the cabinet maker of Vilna who said Tehilim while he worked, that did not mean he had a higher level of kedusha.

    One reason the Torah commands a mixture of learning and practical observance is that everyone can excel in the Divine service somewhere on that continuum.
    That needn't be full time learning, and even in learning it needn't necessarily be in Shas and posekim.

  13. Historian4:43 AM

    "someone tucked away in a beis medrash pouring over the words of R' Akiva Eiger and the Ketzos"

    I think you meant "poring."

    Also, many Rishonim would not considered there to have been much value, if any, in poring over the words of R' Akiva Eiger and the Ketzos. The idea of talmud torah was learning halachos. lomdus for the sake of lomdus, without getting down to the bottom-line halachah, would have been seen as a waste of time. and when you are knocking on doors to make the community pay for it - it would have been seen as positively sinful.

  14. Unless you refuse to do your laundry with a washing mashine because Rashi historically did his by hand down by the river, how the Rishonim managed to practically combine work and learning is not reallty relevant to our discussion of the theoretical parameters of the issue.

    As I have written before, halacha and history are different disciplines and, not surprisingly, often come to different conclusions. See here:

  15. Mike S.12:16 PM

    I do not know whether the last was meant for me or for Historian, but if it is addressed to me I would say that the Rishonim's writings as well as their deeds show the value they placed on work.

    It may be that our circumstances prevent us from following their example, but if so we still need to recognize that as a departure from the ideal. Of course, one could point to more recent examples like the Torah Temimah and R. Kahati of people who combined high level learning with work.