The first eight columns that appeared in this space made the case for a more balanced kodesh curriculum in our yeshivos, one that includes more chumash, halacha, and tanach – in other words, to go back to the syllabus that we were exposed to in our yeshivos three decades ago. Additionally, I made the argument that due to parental pressure; we are rushing our children along too quickly during their "Training Wheel" phase – as they are being introduced to new limudim (topics) such as chumash and gemorah. Nowhere in these essays was the matter of secular studies mentioned in this context.
However, due to the fact that so much ink was spilled responding to the “name withheld” letter writer (issue #153) taking me to task for purportedly pushing a secular-studies agenda, I think a response on my part is in order.
To begin with, I think that a clear delineation ought to be made between the study of secular studies and the acquisition of life-skills. Studying Shakespeare or learning physics (both of which, for the record, were part of the curriculum when I attended Mesivta Torah Vodaas in the 1970’s) could be fairly represented as secular studies. But learning to articulate oneself in one’s native tongue or express one’s thoughts in writing is an extremely important life skill. Included in this description are learning the requisite math skills to calculate interest rates on a credit card or to balance a checkbook. I maintain that teaching a child these life-skills are incumbent on every father nowadays, as they are prerequisites to the obligation on a parent to teach a child a trade (Kiddushin 29-30).
Let us for a moment set aside the majority of our children who will seek employment in the business world, as they will most certainly need these skills to feed their families and pay the tuitions of their children. The brutal fact is that the vast majority of those entering the work force lacking language/math/computer skills will be forced to take lower paying jobs. But even – or perhaps especially – those who will be inspired to pursue a career in the rabbinate, chinuch or kiruv (outreach) will desperately need these tools to succeed. Sure, one can point to individuals who have been successful in these fields without these skill sets. But they are the exceptions rather than the rule – just like there are those who are less-than-literate and become wildly successful in business. Having interviewed prospective rebbeim for teaching positions, and counseled hundreds of sincere yungerleit looking for post-kollel jobs over the years, I can tell you firsthand how critical these attributes are for those wishing to enter chinuch or rabbonus. (Click here for “The Plan,” an article I wrote on the subject of life planning for yeshiva bachurim.)
One would be hard pressed to maintain that these skills are a barrier to Torah greatness. The Rambam, who famously served as a court physician, wrote beautifully in Arabic and Rashi was quite the expert in old French. Rabbi Isaac Don Abarbanel served as the finance minister of Spain and Rabbi Meir Shapiro was a member of the Polish parliament. And while many of the European gedolim who came to America following the Holocaust did not develop a command of the English language late in life, they were all fluent in the native tongue of their host countries. Read the biographies of my great rebbi, Rav Avrohom Pam and his rebbi, Rabbi Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz. Both of these Torah giants took the time to learn English properly in order to be able to communicate with their talmidim effectively.
It is also historically inaccurate to suggest that our gedolim were opposed to providing our children with a solid general studies education. Rabbis Moshe Feinstein, Yaakov Kaminetsky, Gedalia Schorr, Avrohom Pam, Mordechai Gifter zichronom tzadikim livrocho all presided over mesivtos which had excellent general studies programs.
Enhanced language and writing skills enable a Torah scholar to expand his sphere of influence wider and wider, like ripples in a pond. If one needs an example of the exponential power of effective writing to spread Torah learning, one need look no further than Rabbis Zlotowitz and Sherman of Artscroll, who engineered a ‘Torah revolution’ over the past thirty years that is perhaps unparalleled in our glorious history.
Rabbi Moshe Sherer, the legendary President of Agudath Israel, understood the importance of having yeshiva bachurim acquire these skills. Over a period of many years, he took time each week from his busy schedule to teach a voluntary homiletics (public speaking) class which I had the good fortune to attend for an entire winter while in my late teens. Rabbi Sherer often told us that we ought to view this skill building as an integral component of our training to become the disseminators of Torah to the next generation.
When I speak to my talmidim about the importance of applying themselves to their general studies classes, I often quote the words of our great rebbi, Rav Avrohom Pam. In his classic Friday schmuz’en (lectures), he would often tell us that regardless of our professions later in life, we would all need to become teachers of Torah eventually. (Click here for a dvar Torah on this subject.) He explained that when Moshiach will come, Klal Yisroel would need each and every one of us to teach Torah to our brothers and sisters who did not have the privilege to study its halachaos and lessons during their formative years.
Helping our children acquire the skills to learn and teach Torah in an articulate and erudite manner is a goal we should all strive to achieve.
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