Friday, September 9, 2011

Maharsha on the Arrogance of our Schools

It has been argued that our elementary schools do our children a disservice by pushing a gemara curriculum at the expense of Tanach, philosophy, tefillah (prayer) and halachah.

The blame is cast in many directions – to parents for pressuring elementary schools out of fear that their children won't get into the right high school, to high schools for placing a premium on gemara education, to school administrations and teachers for poor time management. I don't know enough to comment.

Here's an interesting take, though, on the central cause: According to Maharsha, writing in 16th century Poland, the problem is one of arrogance.

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 24a) links the name בבל (Babylon) with the word בלולה (mixed-up), to say that in Bavel their learning is a mixture of Tanach, mishnah and talmud (meaning analytic study).

The gemara there does not state whether this is a positive or negative, and Tosafot there actually sounds like it is a feature rather than a design flaw, but Rabbi Yirmiyah adds what certainly sounds like criticism: "Eichah 3 says, 'Gd placed me in darkness, like the dead of eternity' – This is the study of Bavel."

Maharsha there explains:

"As a result of their arrogance, their learning is all mixed up and out of order; the one who should learn Tanach at 5 is studying mishnah, the one who should be learning mishnah at 10 is learning talmud. In their youth they learn a mix of mishnah and talmud, as a result of their arrogance.

"Rabbi Yirmiyah said regarding this, 'They placed me in darkness' – The prophet Yirmiyah (not to be confused with Rabbi Yirmiyah) declared this regarding the Babylonian exile, and Rabbi Yirmiyah used it regarding himself, for he was Babylonian and he had learned in that mixed-up system."

So the gemara's line is not describing the multidisciplinary nature of Babylonian Talmud. Rather, it's criticizing the educational approach in Babylonian schools, teaching children Mishnah and Talmud before they are ready.

What does the Maharsha mean? What's the connection between arrogance and starting kids on gemara too early?

Is he saying that parents pressure teachers and schools because they want to believe their children are precocious?

Or does he mean that teachers and administration rush students into the advanced curriculum to build/maintain a school's reputation?

I'm not anything resembling an expert, but I wonder what the Maharsha meant.

Sanhedrin 24a:
אמר רבי יוחנן בלולה במקרא בלולה במשנה בלולה בתלמוד +איכה ג'+ במחשכים הושיבני כמתי עולם אמר רבי ירמיה זה תלמודה של בבל
Maharsha's text:
והוא שמתוך גאותן לומדין בלול ומעורבב לפי הזמן דבן ה' למקרא לומדין משנה ובן י' למשנה לומדין תלמוד שבקטנותן לומדין מעורבב משנה ותלמוד מתוך גאותן וקאמר רבי ירמיה על זה במחשכים הושיבני וגו' ירמיה הנביא אמר האי קרא על גלות בבל ואמרו רבי ירמיה גם כן לסימן על עצמו שהיה מבבל ולמד שם תלמודם מבולבל ומעורב


  1. Rav Zilverman's yeshiva learns only Tenach and Mishna up to the age specified by the Gra. My impression of this is very positive. As far as I have heard from people the people that come out of the Zilverman system know Mishna in fact very well but i never had a chance to actually talk with the children themselves and find out their level of knowledge. Most discussions I had with Reb Zilverman were in halacha or about Rebbi Nachman or else my own personal affairs.
    That thing which impressed me about his yeshiva was the strong impression I had of people actually sitting a learning very seriously.
    This impression remains with me. However I want to mention in my own experience that people that don't start Lumdut very early and very powerfully just don't every seem to get it. They think Lumudut is opening up the Reb Chayim or making pilpulim of stupidity. They never seem to get the ability work out the exact details of the Gemara. They always get some vague impression of the Gemara and sometimes a little Tosphot and then go on to some stupid Lumdut. This leaves them with a complete lack of discernment when it comes to evaluating a concept or a author or book in Torah. This lack of discernment has bothered me for years. This lack of ability of people to tell the difference between real Lumdut like in Tosphot and pseudo Lumdut I think is the root of the lack of ability of orthodox rabbis today to be able to discern between lunatic Chasidut (Chabad) and real Torah.

  2. adam zur goes from site to site to spew spurious anti chabad...