A few years ago I was reviewing our gemara curriculum with a committee of administration and faculty members. Specifically, we were looking at ways to improve instruction. We all realized that learning gemara presents a huge challenge to our students. And that the students do not graduate with anything but the most rudimentary of skills. It is the rare, exceptional student who leaves the school with the ability to open a random gemara and make any sense of what is printed on the page.
So we were looking for ways to improve on our results. We looked at one particular prepared curriculum that was being developed in Israel. There were workbooks, of course. There were structured lessons. There was also a clearly thought out and articulated methodology for teaching how to learn gemara. Statements fell into broad categories, questions and responses, with subcategories of the types of questions or comments.
Everyone seemed to be favorably inclined towards the curriculum.
But then one objection was raised. And it stopped all consideration.
The sin of the curriculum? It did not use the printed page of the gemara. Rather than include the entire page of text of the gemara, highlighting the section under discussion, the materials used only those phrases that were being analyzed, printed in a modern font and not using the page style of the gemara at all.
The thinking was that if we don’t use the standard printed text of the gemara we would be performing a huge disservice to our students. How would they be able to learn gemara on their own if they didn’t use the format everyone else uses? The “traditional” page is important for the learning of gemara. Anything else is somehow not authentic.
I did not adequately reply at the time because my remonstrations failed to sway enough people. The objection has bothered me so much that I have not stopped thinking about it. I felt we were causing our students unnecessary anguish, and even harm, by insisting on using the standardized page of text of the gemara.
A page of gemara contains a block of unvowelized, unpunctuated text. Lines and lines of words with no clue as to where a sentence begins or ends. Are the words a question? An answer? A tangential comment or story? There is no way to know simply by looking at the text.
The reality is that the same is true for all traditional Jewish texts. The Torah is also without vowels or punctuation. There are paragraph breaks, though. We don’t even have a traditional paginated text of the Mishna.
When we teach our younger students chumash we do not insist on having them look at columns reproduced from a hand-written Torah. Isn’t it less than authentic to use a book with sentence demarcations and other punctuation? After all, the trop marks are not merely musical notes for chanting the text. They serve primarily as punctuation marks, guiding the reader to break up the sentences into smaller phrases. Those same punctuation marks are used by the gemara to teach us important halachot as well.
So why don’t we force students to sit in front of a column of undifferentiated text? Because that’s not a very smart way to teach. We try to make the task of learning chumash as easy as possible by removing as many roadblocks to comprehension as possible. So we break up the text by pesukim. And we insert all the punctuation we have. The fact that schools do not teach the trop as punctuation, so that students can better learn how to parse the text, is a problem for another post.
When we start teaching our students other important texts, we likewise look for vowelized versions of those texts. Has anyone learned mishna from a book without nikkud? After all, why complicate the process any more than necessary?
When it comes to gemara, though, then we get pushback. We have to use the traditional text. The fact that what is now the standardized format of the gemara is less than 200 years old, a mere blink of an eye in Jewish history, isn’t the point. The issue is that this is the way it has always been done. Tradition! And how dare we break from that time-honored tradition.
Well, we’ve already decided to break that tradition for all the other core texts we teach. The tradition of teaching chumash is significantly longer than that of teaching gemara. Yet we have no problem at all with using a printed chumash, rather than a facsimile of the Torah, when learning chumash. The same is true for navi and mishna.
So why, when it comes to gemara, which is arguably many times more challenging than chumash, navi or mishna, after all it is in a different language, why do we insist on putting up unnecessary roadblocks for our students to trip over? Are we trying to teach our students gemara or are we using it as some sort of weeding out process, perhaps to see who really cares about learning Torah? Or who is “smart” enough to earn our approval?
Unless there is a different reason. Misery loves company. And if I had to suffer through learning gemara, then that must be the way all students have to go through that process.
It is time that we put our students first. Our job is not to make them into roshei yeshiva, even if that is what they will eventually become. What are we trying to accomplish then with teaching them gemara? Let’s figure that out first. Each school will find its own answer. Then let’s work to make the path to that goal as straightforward and simple as possible.