Why Do Our Girls Learn Chumash the Right Way and Our Boys Barely Learn Chumash At All?

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15246_4This 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.

Also see: What We Can Learn About Chazal and the Rishonim from Parshas Tazria

  • Nach is for girls….

  • Dov

    I also strongly feel we should learn more Nuvi. Just learning all of Shmuel, helped me have a better appreciation of Tehillim and where David was coming from. Which in turn helps during davening.

    • The fact that we can put navi in the same category as Chumash speaks more to the problem than the solution.

      • dov

        At least we can say we learned Chumash.

  • When I taught in a boy’s high school I tried to teach Chumash along these lines. I really enjoyed learning Chumash this way (in preparation for the class), but I don’t think it was so successful on the student level. Although that might just have been because I wasn’t that good a teacher.

    This way of learning really brings out an appreciation for the Rishonim on Chumash.

  • In a book called Rav Yaakov weinberg talks about chinuch he discusses if we should employ new methods to how we teach children torah. His answer was a resounding and adamant no. I will reserve my own opinion but isn’t it telling that half of Rav Gil’s classmates are no longer orthodox? Out of curiosity, what percentage of your fellow students from NIRC who learned chumash rashi are still orthodox?

    • 1) Many talmidim of RYW say that book is not accurate. It was written by a talmid.

      2) The Dean of Ateres Bais Yaakov is talmid muvhak of RYW.

      3) Seriously? Gil went to Frisch, he himself not a graduate of an orthodox elementary school and you are trying to compare that to NIRC high school?!

      4) And do you really think that even if there was an accurate correlation that THIS would be the causation?!

      Come on…

      • 1) everyone says everything put out in the name of RYW isn’t really accurate. but from what I understand the book is based a transcript.

        2) I know he is, he’s a great mechanech. But you’re trying to extrapolate from that model to apply it elsewhere. You are asking why girls are instructed differently then boys, I’m supplying a reason.

        3 & 4) I’m not sure I understand your point, but Rabbi Weinberg’s point was that torah learning cannot be compared to acquiring other forms of knowledge. Therefore when you apply methods that would work for teaching social sciences for example to learning torah you are undermining the nature of how torah is meant to be acquired.

        Do you agree or disagree with that principle?

        • 1) Granted. But this one has less support than others.

          2) Okay.

          3) & 4) If that’s what he was saying then it has nothing to do with this. It’s not teaching like social sciences. It is learning the way the rishonim learned.

    • Yair_Daar

      I can’t imagine that the fact that they aren’t Orthodox has anything to do with how they did or did not learn Chumash. It probably had to do more with their general Jewish identity. Although openness to new chinuch methods probably goes hand in hand with a more modern hashkafa, it is the effect, not the cause.

      I am also curious, was there any nuance to RYW’s answer?

    • S.

      You can’t stifle conversation because one person said something. Someone always said something pro or against. For every good – or bad – idea, someone always said something that would stop the conversation if we simply let them have the last word.

      Since are talking about NIRC, I’m reminded of a 45 year old Association of Orthodox Jewish Scientists journal. Cyril Domb has an article where he talks about various ways in which they, Orthodox scientists, who are scientific in their professional lives, can upgrade their own Torah learning, by taking it more seriously and acquiring various skills, such as learning Aramaic. Included at the end are hasagos by none other than Rabbi Moshe Eisemann; I don’t remember exactly what the context was; I guess Domb asked him. And for each idea that Domb had, Eisemann’s response was basically “who says?” and “this is not the way the gedolim promote chinuch, so who is he to suggest something else?”

      This may be your way, but it ain’t my way, and I don’t think it’s Rabbi Fink’s way. Suggestions for chinuch and innovative approaches have to be taken directly to parents, since the “Who says?” and “Your rebbe said no changes allowed!” crowd isn’t going to deal with ideas at all. If you have some kind of criticism besides conflating what happens to kids in Frisch with educational ideas, why not say what they are? Just saying that R. Weinberg was against it as a conversation killer is not going to cut it here, I’m sure you realize that.

    • anonymous2

      How many of his classmates were Orthodox to begin with? I’m not so familiar with Frisch, but the two MO schools I am most familiar with have many students from non-Orthodox homes.

      • R’ Gil actually clarified on the Vosiznaies repost of this article. They were not from frum families. It was just to illustrate that the boys school teaching like this was LWMO and had not frum students.

  • Dov

    I want to give a prop out to Rabbi Schwarts of Shaarai Torah in Suffern. This was when it was Rabbi Weins yeshiva.

    In 9th grade we spent a whole year learning Vayeshev for an hour a day. When we finished the year, we knew there was so much we did not yet cover in that one Parsha. Recently I saw Rabbi Schwartz and thanked him specifically for that one Shiur he gave. He informed me that he has had other people come back and thank him for the same reason.

  • anon

    Your article was forwarded to me by someone who has heard me sing this song for years, especially as I have the education of both sons and daughters to compare . THANK YOU for sharing your thoughts publicly! The plainest symptom of this neglect is the lack of expectation at the shabbos table that a HS bochur has anything to share about the parsha. “That’s not what they do in yeshiva”. Did parsha stop being important after middle school?

    The deeper symptom I have seen is a lack of resources for making connections to many topics in the gemorrah. Boys don’t have a strong foundation on which to base deeper learning, which creates lack of connection to the topic. Is it any wonder so many show little enthusiasm for learning? Four+ years of hours a day doing something they don’t care about doing. How can we be surprised that the final products of the ‘system’ know how to ‘talk the talk’ but in reality have no passion for living beyond the superficial?

    Bringing Tanach into yeshiva learning doesn’t have to be earth-shattering or in place of regular learning. BH our nation is filled with clever mechanchim who could surely devise an appropriate curriculum that is a happy medium.

    Who will be the leader?

  • Yair_Daar

    Pretty sure that a lot of this has to do with the emphasis on Gemara. To teach Chumash this way requires developing a much more nuanced and robust curriculum. It would take away teacher investment in Gemara.

    Also, I wonder if many teachers in the schools you are referring to have to capacity to teach Chumash this way. Gemara is (unfortunately) often about presenting content and hoping that the students get the requisite skills along the way. To teach critical Chumash skills requires different pedagogical methods.

  • your cousin

    my boys’ chedar in israel does teach chumash like the rishonim did it.

    • That’s great. Where? What kind of cheder is it? And what happens in high school when their minds are more developed?

  • G*3

    > Why Do Our Girls Learn Chumash the Right Way and Our Boys Barely Learn Chumash At All?

    Girls learn tanach because “real” learning is gemara, and that’s reserved fro boys. Boys don’t learn tanach because that’s not “real” learning, and is what little kids and girls learn.

    • Shayna

      Exactly. Maybe the problem is why are girls spending this much time on Chumash and none on gemara; rather than why are boys not learning chumash the way girls do.

      • G*3

        Not at all. It’s bad enough boys are subjected to hours on end of gemara every day, with a relatively short time devoted to even other Torah subjects. Why would you want to put girls through that, too?

  • I did learn chumash this way in high school. We went text first, looking at words, themes etc. I think it’s more common at MO schools that at the yeshivas

    • and to give props where due, Rabbi Eytan Tokayer and Rabbi Tzvi Grummet at TABC were most influential on me in this respect but there were others.

  • Will

    Girls do not learn Gemora. They have a lot more free time and unused brain power at hand.