Are yeshiva students dumb?
by Jonathan Rosenblum
January 2, 1998
Some years ago, my study partner and I were learning in the Mirrer Yeshiva when suddenly a violent argument broke out between two 18-year-olds sitting directly in front of us. They leapt to their feet, gesticulating wildly, and stood jaw to jaw for nearly five minutes. Fisticuffs did not seem out of the question.
My partner and I, both of whom did our studying at comparable ages in university libraries, where even a loud whisper provoked angry glances, looked at each other with bemusement escalating quickly to outright amazement. I did not shout 'Eureka,' but at that moment I finally solved a longtime puzzle: How could young boys, barely half my age and without the benefit of an education in the world's leading universities, consistently think so much more deeply than I in Talmud?
The answer, I realized, is that their intellectual training from an early age is active, compared to the passive absorption of information, which formed the bulk of my elementary and secondary school education. From the age of 10 or 11, yeshiva students spend a large portion of their day studying together with a partner. Each views his primary task as the refutation of everything his partner says. No statement simply passes without contest. Only out of this 'war of the Torah,' they are taught, can the truth emerge.
Yeshiva students are encouraged to question and challenge everything their teachers say. Nothing so pleases a rebbe as being stopped in his tracks by a question he cannot answer.
At any level, Talmudic learning requires the mastery of mental operations left to a much later age in the standard Western curriculum. Ten-year-olds test the truth or falsity of a statement by examining its contrapositive.
Talmud study, writes the great Harvard medievalist Harry Austryn Wolfson, involves 'the very same kind of logic which underlies any scientific research, and by which one is enabled to form hypotheses, to test them, and formulate general laws. . . . In truth, it is nothing but the application of the scientific method to the study of texts."
The mental acuity engendered by Talmudic learning readily transfers to any other intellectual endeavor. One year, for instance, yeshiva graduates captured 50 percent of the places on the Columbia Law Review, while comprising no more than five percent of the class.
At the cornerstone-laying of Ponevezh Yeshiva, nearly 50 years ago, many were surprised by the presence of Mapai stalwart Pinhas Lavon. Asked what an avowed secularist was doing there, Lavon replied in all seriousness, 'The leaders of the Jewish people have always come from the yeshivas. If we have no yeshivas, where will the leaders come from?"
Recent studies show that young yeshiva students score far above average on standardized math tests, despite far fewer hours devoted to math. Yeshiva graduates move easily into computer programming, often without formal training. George Morganstern, an American software entrepreneur, finds that he can produce proficient programmers out of yeshiva graduates in one-quarter to one-half the time it takes with the average hiree.
According to him, the qualities demanded by Talmud study - 'patience, willingness to go into detail and the concentration to make sure you dotted your I's and crossed your T's and to go over it again and again" - make for excellence in programming.
Talmud study encourages profundity as well as sharpness. Nobel Laureate Isadore Rabi once said of his colleague J. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the A-bomb, that it was too bad he had used his spare time to study Sanskrit and not Talmud. The study of Talmud, Rabi concluded, would have made Oppenheimer a much greater physicist: 'I never ran into anyone who was brighter than he. But to be more original and profound, you need to be more focused."
WHY belabor the obvious? Surely no one denies that many of the finest minds in history have been engrossed over the last 2,000 years in Talmud study.
Or so I thought, until I read a recent article by Professor Bernard Wasserstein in this paper, in which he claims that yeshiva 'training" is 'intellectual mud" that 'numbs the mind and leads to a lifetime of blinkered intellectual poverty." At last, I reflected, a charge so wild that even those predisposed to believe any canard about the yeshiva world will laugh. A secular acquaintance whose judgment I respect highly, however, set me straight: There's nothing they won't believe.
Wasserstein's remarks reflect a curious intellectual phenomenon: Intelligent and learned people, who would never dream of expatiating on the General Theory of Relativity, but who nevertheless feel perfectly comfortable making the most uninformed assertions about Judaism. I would bet dollars to doughnuts that Wasserstein has never spent a day in a yeshiva.
His reference to pilpul - a method of study disfavored in yeshivas for nearly 200 years - suggests that his knowledge is garnered from textbooks, not experience.
Nothing has changed in yeshiva learning in modern times. If anything, the trend since the Vilna Gaon has been towards ever greater analytical rigor.
Talmud study remains what it has always been - the most stimulating and demanding of intellectual endeavors (not to mention the most spiritually elevating.)
For proof of that proposition I need not travel outside of my own neighborhood in Jerusalem. Among the local Talmudic scholars is one with a PhD in mathematics from MIT and another who earned his PhD in theoretical physics from Princeton when he was barely out of his teens. Both taught these subjects at the university level, even as they devoted almost their entire day to Talmudic learning. And both of them have put aside all academic pursuits for more than a decade to teach and learn Talmud. Neither suffers from intellectual ennui as a consequence.
A local ba'al teshuva yeshiva boasts three Harvard, two MIT, and three Wharton graduates in its small student body. Let Wasserstein ask any of them what is the most rigorous intellectual challenge they have ever confronted. Or let him ask some of the tens of thousands of doctors, lawyers, accountants and businesspeople who study the daily page of Talmud what is the most intellectually demanding and exciting part of their day.
Talmud students may have horns on their heads, but they are not stupid.
Related Topics: Chareidim and Their Critics
receive the latest by email: subscribe to the free jewish media resources mailing list