This week I was in filming my father’s school in Monsey, Ateres Bais Yaakov, for their annual dinner. I always swell with pride as I get an intimate look at this incredible school. It is remarkable how much the students love their school, their teachers, Torah, and learning.
One of the highlights for me is always observing (and filming) a high school Chumash class. At Ateres, the girls are challenged to actively participate in their learning and ask questions during class.
In particular, Chumash is not so much taught, as it is learned. The students rigorously and precisely translate the words of the text, analyze the text for grammatical or other anomalies, and compile a list of questions for each verse. Only once that task is complete does the teacher begin to introduce the commentaries and interpretations of the great medieval commentators.
In this way, the various ways of learning the verse are not simply abstract interpretive choices made by great Torah scholars, rather they are solutions to problems in the text which give way to novel and illuminating interpretations. This is how the Rishonim learned Chumash. They were masters of diction and grammar. When they read a verse, they knew if the verse was rendered perfectly or if it needed interpretation. They knew all of this because, of course, they were experts in Biblical language and grammar. That expertise formed the basis for all their interpretations.
i think it is great that young women are learning Chumash in the same manner as our rishonim. It was also really enjoyable to be a fly on the wall for a class like this and that is what got me thinking.
In my yeshiva high school we were responsible to learn the parsha every week and we were tested on Chumash with Rashi every Sunday. This way we all became familiar with the storyline and mitzvos in the Torah while also learning the most well known commentary. To me, it was a way to learn information. What does the Torah say and what does that mean? But we learned no skills (unless zipping through the Birnbaum Chumash with Rashi in English in 30 minutes and scoring a 95 on the test is a skill) and we did not get an appreciation for why Rashi chose the interpretations in his commentary. Nor were we acutely aware that there are many other equally valid interpretations on each verse in the Chumash. Certainly we had no ability to explain why each commentary chose its interpretation over the other.
Yet, at least in this high school, the girls are learning all of that. I mentioned this to R’ Gil Student at our little Asifa in Manhattan and he told me that he learned Chumash the way the Bais Yaakov girls learn Chumash in his left wing modern orthodox high school. (He also said that half his classmates are not orthodox today.) I can’t speak for modern orthodox high schools. But I can speak for yeshivos. The most rigorous Chumash curriculum mirrors my experience. Unfortunately, I think most yeshivos have far less Chumash learning that what I experienced.
I think we need to work on this. I think that we have a lot to gain by teaching Chumash the way Dov Bear and R’ Josh Waxman approach Chumash. We need to cultivate the skills necessary and an appreciation for true Chumash study.
Learning Chumash the way our ancestors learned Chumash requires a working knowledge of grammar, an open forum to ask questions, and a little bit of reprogramming about our Mesorah. Those are all good things. As a side benefit I think this will help us meet some of the challenges presented by modern scholarship.
At the very least, every kollel guy should have a seder with his wife where she teaches him Chumash the way she learned it.