Friday, July 08, 2005

RJJ Newsletter - Secular Studies in Yeshiva High Schools

I am told that at the recent convention of Torah Umesorah, a leading Rosh Yeshiva questioned whether yeshiva students of high school age should be required to take the standard general studies or secular curriculum. His primary concern apparently was that the time devoted to secular studies is a diversion from full-time Torah study, thereby impeding the prospect that American yeshivas will produce Torah scholars and leaders of the first rank. There is the collateral issue which I will not explore here because its reach extends far beyond religious Jewish schools of whether the standard academic curriculum meets contemporary societal needs.

Doubtlessly, few of us will embrace the notion that teenage boys in yeshiva should no longer take any secular courses. The thought runs against the grain of what most of us believe Orthodox children need for their intellectual development and preparation for successful adulthood. It remains, however, that the hours devoted to this portion of the curriculum have been reduced in many yeshivas. In other ways, as well, secular studies are being downplayed, this despite the obvious importance of obtaining English language skills, basic scientific and mathematical knowledge and an understanding of history. For all that is problematical in contemporary life or even antithetical to Torah values, we generally adhere to the view that it is not possible or right to cut ourselves entirely off from engagement with the larger society. The termination of secular studies at the end of the eighth grade - and perhaps earlier - will, in effect, cut off yeshiva graduates from certain career opportunities and in turn this will result in financial deprivation.

Yet, the question raised by the Rosh Yeshiva deserves consideration, if only because a growing number of yeshiva boys of high school age already do not study secular subjects, devoting themselves full-time to Gemara and religious study. This trend is most pronounced in Chassidic schools, including Chabad, as some mesivtas or high schools serving Lubavitch families do not provide a secular education. This is obviously true of the familiar Chassidic groups in the New York area. There are yeshiva-world institutions that are heading in the same direction.

While the issue has been framed in terms of developing Torah scholars, it is evident that hashkafa or religious outlook is the primary factor. Yeshivas are not moving away from secular studies because they want to maximize the prospect that their best students will emerge as topflight talmidei chachomim but rather because they believe that secular studies should be off-limits for all of their students, including those of limited potential. They regard the time devoted to non-Torah studies as bitul torah. The fact that certain subjects, such as biology, may be incompatible with Torah teachings is no more than a secondary consideration.

In view of the way the wind is blowing, before long an even higher proportion of yeshiva high schoolers will engage exclusively in religious study. The issues raised by this development have been scarcely discussed. The following lines are intended to stimulate thinking and discussion. I should point out that the question of whether post-high school students should combine Torah and academic study is a separate issue. I deal here only with yeshiva high schools. At the Beth Medrash or post-high school level, there are powerful reasons why full-time Torah study should be the norm, although it is understandable why there are those who choose a combined curriculum.


The American Torah community was for nearly two generations led by men of great stature who were raised and educated in pre-Churban Europe. These were men of genius and extraordinary knowledge, as well as spiritual eminence. They inspired and guided us and raised the standard of observance in Torah study in a land that long had been regarded as inhospitable to Torah Judaism. The authority of some of these men extended across the globe, specifically to Israel. In a way, their life stories give weight to the argument that total immersion in religious study is a prerequisite for the emergence of elevated Torah scholarship and leadership.

In the Diaspora and notably in North America, the succeeding generation of Torah leaders includes persons of attainment who merit respect and obedience. Yet, it is painfully evident that there has been a steep decline from the heights that we witnessed not long ago. We can appreciate this decline by reflecting on how vital issues affecting American Orthodoxy are now decided by Israeli Torah scholars whose authority clearly surpasses that of American Roshei Yeshiva and Rabbis. This is an arrangement that was born out of necessity and it departs from the traditional understanding that local Torah leaders should, with the possible exception of matters of great importance, rule on issues arising within their community. Accordingly, the development of indigenous top-flight Torah leadership is a critical communal need, buttressing the view that full attention needs to be given to the study of religious subjects during the crucial teenage period of intellectual growth.


The existence of a need obviously provides no assurance that the means taken to address it will result in the desired improvement. We know that the European Churban disrupted and to a considerable extent undermined what we refer to as the Mesorah, the transmission of Torah authority from generation to generation. We were blessed in this country for twenty years with the gift of the great Rosh Yeshiva of Lakewood. He and others of enormous stature had a remarkable impact. They served as links in the Mesorah, for they received spiritual and intellectual sustenance in the communities and yeshivas where they were raised and educated and they imparted their learning and spiritual nobility to the emerging American Orthodox community. Their roots were always thousands of miles away and these roots were not quite transplanted when they arrived on these shores. Thus, we have experienced the decline that I have referred to.

The experience of Israeli Torah leaders was different in that the intra-generational transmission reflected far less discontinuity with the pre-Churban European experience. In fact, some outstanding Israeli Torah personalities of the recent period were raised and educated in Israel. The variance in Torah development between Israel and North America has abetted the view that the absence of secular studies is a key factor in the emergence of Torah greatness because Israeli Torah leaders have not studied secular subjects.

But there may be an historical lesson that points in a different direction. What are we to make of the incontrovertible fact that during the past 1,000 years or more there were Torah giants who read widely and were knowledgeable in secular subjects? Were they no more than exceptions to the rule that exclusivity in Torah study is a prerequisite to greatness of do such examples challenge the claim?


There may be what can be called environmental conditions that determine the capacity of a society to produce preeminent Torah scholars. Rav Yitzchak Hutner, ztl, the extraordinary Rosh Yeshiva of Chaim Berlin was a genius in chinuch, in understanding how to develop to the fullest the skills of his students. Many of his students have made important contributions to the Torah community. After his passing, one of them, Rabbi Pinchas Stolper, wrote a memorial tribute in Jewish Life, then the publication of the Orthodox Union. According to Rabbi Stolper, Rav Hutner asserted that it took ten generations for Torah greatness to emerge in a new geographic setting. We are familiar with the concept of "Ten Generations" (Pirkei Avos), so that the Rosh Yeshiva's observation is more than a bit of homiletics.

Can the process be speeded up, perhaps through immersion in Torah study? My recollection is that Rav Hutner suggested that because of the Churban, there is an obligation to seek means for the more rapid development of Torah scholars. There is a sense of urgency, the feeling that to compensate for the disruption of the Mesorah, we need to establish advanced and intensive Talmudic and kollel study as the norm for our young men. In a word, quantity is to compensate for the loss of quality.

Hopefully, the enthusiastic embrace of Torah learning by thousands of young men will result in the emergence of eminent scholars who will inspire and lead. There is, however, the additional question of whether mass education brings about mediocrity, if only because when the many rather than the relatively few with the greatest promise are provided support, inadequate resources are available for the limited number of students with the greatest potential. This issue is raised reluctantly because I fear being misunderstood. Kollel students deserve our respect and support. Yet, by developing a study system - it probably wasn't planned - that essentially treats students equally, we may be inadvertently undermining the goal of developing great scholars.

Mass Torah education, as all forms of mass or universal education, is predicated on cultural norms - that is, it is the right thing to do - as well as on the ability and willingness to provide the funds to sustain such an arrangement. In periods of economic deprivation, as was true of pre-Churban Europe, generally only the best students continued full-time Torah study after their marriage. In this sense, poverty was perhaps a breeding ground or a precondition for excellence. While there are now significant pockets of poverty in this country in both the Chassidic and yeshiva world sectors, there is also considerable affluence which sustains the expanding network of advanced yeshivas and kollels. Without underestimating the effects of financial deprivation in many homes in our community, it remains that what some of us may call poverty would have amounted to near affluence in pre-Churban Europe. In a letter to Rav Chaim Ozer Grozienski, ztl that is included in the fourth volume of Mishnas Rav Aharon that was recently published, the Great Roshe Yeshiva writes that there is not a scrap of food in Kletsk and no funds to buy any food.

As we know, the Talmudic sages saw a link between Torah greatness and the children of the poor. Can we readily disregard the prospect that our relatively affluent life style reduces the prospect of achieving Torah greatness? By affluence I do not mean the possession of wealth and comfort but an approach to life, an approach that is antithetical to hatznea leches or modesty. The point is not what we have but what we want to have. This is evident in our homes, in our travel, in our dress, in our being conspicuous consumers whose focus is self-indulgence.

Most of us have lost the ability to be mistapek b'muat or satisfied with little. With relatively few exceptions, kollel families, including those that are rightfully regarded as poor, are not entirely immune from this phenomenon. Is it inappropriate to inquire whether our addictions to cell phones and cars are greater impediments to achieving Torah greatness than mathematics and English language arts?

Could it be that the reason why there are Torah leaders of greater stature in Israel is that their life style and the homes they live in are more conducive to greatness?


We must hope, even expect, that outstanding Torah leaders will emerge in North America. What of the many more who will not reach a high level, young men of sincerity and piety who will eventually enter the job market. Those who teach in yeshiva or take other communal positions will presumably be sufficiently prepared under an educational arrangement that focuses entirely on religious study. But a substantial number will not seek communal jobs. Will they be hurt if they did not develop writing and other skills needed in contemporary workplaces?

There is the possible example of Chassidic young men whose secular education is more limited than yeshiva world graduates. Perhaps because they have not been prepared for ordinary jobs, there is among such young men an instinct for entrepreneurship, for going into business. This indicates that a secular education may not be all that it is cracked out to be. There is another side to the picture, a side that indicates that there are many Chassidic families that cannot cope.

In the yeshiva world, there is far less of a cultural imperative to go into business. The more pronounced tendency is for graduates to become employees, with many working hard and honorably and being trapped in jobs that offer insufficient pay and limited advancement. Of course, factors other than an inadequate educational background are at work, including limited geographic mobility, large families, the cost of religious obligations and lingering job market discrimination toward religious Jews. But it is not mere speculation to suggest that their limited academic background is also a factor.

To sum up, limited secular education may be desirable for yeshiva students with outstanding religious and scholarly promise and it may work for those who veer toward communal positions or entrepreneurship. It is not a desirable approach for the great number of yeshiva students who do not fit this bill.


We know that there are yeshiva students who are at risk and that their number has been growing. More students, primarily of high school age, do not fit into the yeshiva regimen. At times, behavioral factors are the catalyst for these students being designated "at risk." More frequently, I believe that these are students who cannot cope with a curriculum that focuses nearly exclusively on Gemara study.

It is admirable that steps have been taken steps to establish schools for such students. As a rule, these separate educational programs do little to ameliorate the problem, perhaps because they do not have sufficient resources. More likely, the act of removing students from the yeshiva-world educational mainstream generates attitudes and behavior that add to the at-risk character of such students. Put otherwise, it might be better to retain such students in the regular educational program, even if they are weak, which was the practice in the early period of Othodox Jewish development in the U.S.

As yeshivas increase the time allotted to Gemara study and certainly if secular studies are eliminated altogether, there is a diminished likelihood that students who cannot cope will be able to remain. I believe that there is a correlation between the growing number of at risk students and the shrinking number of hours allocated to secular studies. If yeshivas eliminate secular studies entirely, there is a good likelihood that the number of at risk students will swell further.

This consideration may not be strong enough to warrant opposition to all yeshiva high schools requiring all students to take secular courses. It is certainly strong enough to justify opposition to blanket policies that would deprive all Orthodox highschoolers of a secular education.


As indicated, the winds are blowing strongly in the direction of limiting or eliminating secular classes. This is the reality, however we may look at the issues I have raised. We will have to live with this trend, at least until new developments bring about change. Whatever other consequences this trend may have, hopefully it will produce men of great learning and great stature.

There is a side issue that needs to be addressed. New York, New Jersey and probably all of the states have compulsory education laws mandating secular education through all or nearly all of the nominal high school years. Teenagers are required to remain in school until they are 16 or older. How does the trend in the yeshiva world fit into this requirement?

The U.S. Supreme Court decided Wisconsin v. Yoder in 1972, a case that has a direct bearing on whether yeshiva students must attend high school. It involved the Wisconsin Amish, a religious sect distrustful of modernity, governmental regulations and secular education beyond the eighth grade. For these Amish, on religious grounds formal schooling ends after elementary school. Wisconsin charged Amish parents with violating the state's compulsory education law. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the parents, saying that the Amish belief system had a long history going back to 18th century Switzerland, where the sect had its roots. The refusal to send children to high school was therefore not opportunistic but grounded on religious belief which was protected under the Free Exercise of Religion clause of the First Amendment.

At the time, some yeshiva world students were already not continuing on to high school.

I alerted several Roshei Yeshiva of the Supreme Court ruling and suggested that if only because our obligation to study Torah extended to Sinai, the decision provided a legal basis for those students whose secular education ended with elementary school. My efforts were for naught.

What happened years ago cannot be altered. As more students have opted out of high school, there is, I believe, a responsibility to locate this development within the framework of America’s legal requirements. I conclude with the hope that there will be leaders who understand this opportunity and obligation.