Secular Learning versus Yeshiva Learning - What is the Difference?

    August 2010            
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Intelligence, Yeshiva versus College Learning

By Avi Lazerson

I read in the Israeli Internet news, now and again, that the Israeli secular public is at arms because the religious (notably the orthodox) do not teach in their schools many of the subjects that are so common in the secular schools, notably advanced mathematics, science, and the like. With your permission, dear reader, I would like to add my life experience to the fray.

I was brought up in America in a weakly observant house; we knew about kosher, shabbat, but did not observe them, just the basic holidays: Passover, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur plus assorted family events, brits, bar mitzvahs, and weddings. After graduating from college and entering into my chosen profession, I began attending a Talmud class and found it interesting. I continued my professional career and pursued my Talmudic inclinations until I actually became highly proficient in them to the point that I taught an advanced class in Talmudic studies for adults as I continued working in my profession. This was at the same time I had to take secular courses to continue and update my knowledge in my profession.

As you can see, I have had much exposure to both secular learning and yeshiva learning. I have seen and experienced both types of learning and I feel that I am qualified to give an opinion of both that is impartial and perhaps enlightening.

First of all, let us understand that the secular studies generally require much memory. When we learn math we learn 2 + 2 = 4 and we then proceed to commit it to memory. When the teacher asked us who knows how much 2 + 2 is, those kids with good memories shout out four; the kids with lesser memories put two fingers out, then two more fingers out, proceed to count them up and then said four. So we grew up thinking that the kid with the better memory was a better student – and in this environment of learning he certainly was! For multiplication and division (as well as many other subjects) we had to use or memorization skills, as in math, we had to memorize the multiplication tables and know them by heart. Any child who did not know them by heart was considered a slow student. The same was true of spelling, grammar, and many other disciplines, memory was crucial – a good student was one who had a keen memory and a poor student was one who's memory was slow or deficient. Even in college, memory was a very important factor in getting good grades, we had to memorize, memorize and memorize more.

That was my general experience in secular school. My experience in yeshiva was a quite different. While memory is an important element in learning and succeeding, analytical thinking is also a important ingredient. Talmudic learning is based not so much on mere rote memory but also on analytical skills. Talmudic learning as is taught in yeshivas is based on understanding and challenging the concepts as they are presented. Memory is important, but only as a support for analysis.

As an example, the yeshiva student is presented with an argument concerning some aspect in Jewish law. Normally when presented with conflicting opinions we would try to decide which opinion is the 'correct' opinion. However, in Talmudic learning a deeper understanding is always sought. Why do the rabbis differ? What is the possible outcomes from their disagreement? We try to understand the rationale of these rabbis with out passing judgment on their opinion.

What proofs do these rabbis offer to substantiate their views? We then analyze these 'proofs' to see if they are directly applicable or indirectly applicable. We ask ourselves why do the other rabbi not accept the first rabbi's proof, and then why does the first rabbi not accept the second rabbi's proof? We analyze the proofs, why each rabbi has chosen this particular proof and rejected the others proof.

The concepts are then reviewed with the opinions of scholars who lived in later generations and who have written commentaries on the Talmud. Many of the later scholars disagree with each other. We are concerned with knowing how they have viewed the various arguments. It is important to understand how and why these later rabbinical scholars have arrived at their conclusions.

This is only a brief explanation of yeshiva learning but it highlights the emphasis on creative analytical thought as opposed to memory skills of secular school learning. In secular school, one does not challenge the teacher, in yeshiva, a good student is one who can ask a question that can challenge the teacher‘s ability to respond.

Both secular learning and yeshiva learning are concerned with the development of the person and his mind. Both will tell you that memory and analysis is important, and they are correct. However in my experience, the secular education system puts much more emphasis on memory while the yeshiva produces people with analytical and creative minds.

To add a bit of emphasis to the above, I want to relate a true story of a young man I personally knew who was 15 years old at the time that I first met him. He came from a background that did not emphasize tradition but honored it. He was enrolled in a public school but did not do well in his studies. His parents decided to enroll him in a local yeshiva, perhaps, they reasoned, he would do better there. He was a frequent guest at my house for the Sabbath meals and we got to know him quite well. He enjoyed himself at the yeshiva and while not excelling in learning, never the less, was a diligent student. The only problem was that he became much more religious than he parents wanted him to be.

After being in the yeshiva for almost a year, his parents refused to let him return to yeshiva. Instead they forced him to return to public school. He dropped out of sight for many months and then quite unexpected he turned up at our door during his vacation. We were overjoyed to see him and he told us of what fate had befallen him. Amongst the things which he told us was his progress in his secular studies. He told us that he had shot up to the top of the class. He looked down on his fellow students' abilities and mocked them, saying that they possessed no analytical skills, while he could easily detect when the teacher did not fully comprehend the lesson. Unfortunately, this story does not have a happy ending because this boy was stuck in the secular school system and we eventually lost contact with him.

Now when I hear of the secular Israeli bemoaning the religious system for not teaching the subjects that they are so used to, I must smile. I know that it is just the opposite, it is the yeshiva men who through their dedication to their seemingly useless and impractical studies, they are the ones who have the good business head. I should know, I have a son-in-law who with no money and only a yeshiva education managed to become a millionaire in the short space of a year.

Yes, I know that there are many yeshiva men who do not succeed in business, but so too are the secular students who barely eek out a living with their secular education. I have seen both sides now, win and lose, and my opinion is that the advantage in with the yeshiva man. If the secular Israeli were to give it a chance, I am certain that he would also agree that the education received in yeshiva is indeed greater than that received in secular school.


from the August 2010 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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