Monday, December 31, 2007

Dr. Yitzchok Levine Speaks About the State of Secular Studies In Our Yeshivos

Dr. Yitzchok Levine recently spoke at the Talmud Torah of Flatbush on the topic of secular studies in our yeshivos. The title of the lecture is "Why Can't Yankel Read, Write and Do Arithmetic?" I was not at the lecture, but it can be heard online here. A question and answer session followed. I *highly* recommend that anyone who cares about the state of secular studies in our yeshivos listen to the lecture.

In his lecture, Dr. Levine observes something that we all know... that our boys' yeshivos (in Brooklyn, anyway) don't train children in the basic life skills that they need. Fractions, percents and basic math are unknown by a good percentage of bochrim "graduating" from the eighth grade. When he asked one high school student whom he was tutoring what a third plus a half was, the student answered two fifths (he simply added the numerators and the denominators). He could not tell Dr. Levine how many inches were in a foot, how many ounces in a pound or how many feet in a yard. And what's worse, many of these students don't even *care* that they don't know these basic facts. They approach math with a "what do I need this for" attitude?

Heaven forbid you try to teach something like algebra, geometry or trigonometry, subjects that don't have practical applications at an immediate glance -- that's viewed as a complete waste of time. Dr. Levine mentions that when he encounters this attitude, he brings out the Vilna Gaon's sefer Ayil Meshulash, a treatise on geometry and trigonometry. This, he says, usually holds the student for about a week until they respond to him by telling him that either (a) the Vilna Gaon wrote it in the bathroom (showing that the student has no idea what types of bathrooms the Vilna Gaon had in his day) or that he wrote it before he was Bar Mitzvah (and hence there was no bittul Torah). Needless to say, neither objection is factual.

Part of the problem, unfortunately, is that the secular studies department is being undermined by the Rabbeim in the yeshivos themselves. In one case, Dr. Levine tells the story of an acquaintance of his who was a teacher in a yeshiva. The boys in the yeshiva gave him a terrible time. However, the straw that broke the camel's back and which prompted him to finally quit, was that he found out that the eighth grade Rebbi was advising the kids not to attend secular studies in high school. When one boy asked the Rebbi how he would support himself in life, the Rebbi answered that he's going to marry a wealthy girl.

I personally, can back up some of what Dr. Levine says. I, personally, have seen secular studies denigrated by rabbeim as being unimportant and unnecessary. When I was in high school, the rosh yeshiva would, on occasion, pay lip service to the idea that secular studies are important, but we all knew that he was lying through his teeth and that he didn't really believe a word he said. It was well understood that he and all of his staff would get rid of the secular studies in an instant if they could and that they viewed it only as a necessary evil dictated by the state. Sometimes, the rabbeim would state this openly, other times in hints and attitude. But it was well known in the school where the secular studies department stood. And, of course, this attitude was passed on from the rabbeim to the students. I once asked a friend of mine how he would earn a living when he grew up he said "nu, I'll open a store." Opening a store is nice, I suppose, but I'm fairly certain that you still need basic math and life skills to operate a store.

Of course, no one in my yeshiva ever thought of entering the sciences. That's because science, in many black-hat yeshivos is equated with things like evolution which fall outside the pale of traditional Jewish thought. Of course, by not studying science, they were completely closing themselves off from any possibility of a professional career, such as law, medicine or the like, since any undergraduate degree is going to require some basic science courses. Unfortunately, however, the idea exists in much of the yeshivish world that scientists are either (a) engaged in a massive conspiracy to hide the truth of God's existence or (b) are dumber than potted plants and can't even recognize the basic evidence that the Torah is true. Because of these attitudes, the sciences (and all secular studies by extension) are relegated to the garbage heap of knowledge. However, Dr. Levine brings an interesting quote from an article by R. Shimon Schwab, in his essay "The Jews in Galus: How High A Profile." R. Schwab said:

If all the nations of the world (and it is a tendency today to think this way) are depraved foolish and wicked, it is no distinction to be better than those who are depraved, foolish and wicked. That is no basis for praise to the Ribbono Shel Olam. By the same token, gratitude for being given the Torah cannot be meaningful if all non-Torah science is nonsense, if all secular knowledge is without value. What glory is ascribed to Torah knowledge if it's distinction is simply that it is superior to nonsense. To the contrary, Chazal have told us that there is chochma, wisdom, amongst the nations. As a matter of fact, upon seeing a wise non-Jew one pronounces a blessing, praising God for having given of His knowledge to a creature of flesh and blood. But all their knowledge, all their sciences and all their wisdom shrinks into absolute nothingness before the majesty of one kutzo shel yud, one small stroke of the sacred Torah.

Indeed, as Dr. Levine points out, it must be made clear to our students that Torah study is the most important function of a yeshiva. When Walter was entering first grade, there was one yeshiva that we were somewhat impressed with. We ended up not sending him there for a few reasons but my main objection was this: For the first year or two the secular studies would be taught in the morning and the limudei kodesh in the afternoon. This was done strictly for scheduling reasons -- from a practical point of view, I couldn't argue with it. But I felt uncomfortable with this approach -- I feel that the raison d'etre of a yeshiva is to teach our kids Torah. No matter what my sons and daughter will do in life, they will first and foremost be Jews and have to live according to the Torah. It doesn't matter whether they go on to learn full-time, work full-time or find some happy medium in the middle -- regardless of what they do and where they go in life, they have to know that they are Jews and have to know the Torah. As such, I felt it extremely important that a yeshiva have Torah studies first in the morning, sending the message to my kids that their Torah studies are more important than their secular studies.

That doesn't mean, of course, that I think secular studies are unimportant. Anyone who has spent any time reading my blog knows my feelings regarding the acquisition of secular knowledge. In fact, when we were looking for a high school for Walter, we wanted a place that had an excellent Torah studies program AND an excellent secular studies program. We wanted a place that would prepare him for learning after high school at the beis midrash level AND prepare him for college, should he choose to go. Sadly, there was no place that we found in Brooklyn that met those requirements -- and as such, he has a *long* commute to school every day and back. He's not happy about the commute, but he loves the school. He's happy that he's found a place where he can flourish in both departments. And, he's in an environment, where the Rabbeim are not undermining the secular studies department. He's in an environment where the Rabbeim understand and appreciate the value of a good well-rounded education.

So, what can we do to change this situation that exists in our schools? I don't know. I wish I did. Dr. Levine gives some interesting suggestions in his lecture (again, I highly recommend that you listen to it). But I think the main thing we can do is to try to make students realize that there is value in a good education and that we have to make sure that they get the message that knowing the sciences, math, history, etc. help one to be able to learn Torah better.

The Wolf

P.S. Dr. Levine's publications, writings and lectures can be found on his web site.


Miriam said...

sometimes I wonder how to people understand Torah w/o math and science. Especially math.

-suitepotato- said...

Well, without math, no more numerical games of the sort in Kabbalah will be forthcoming. Paranoid insert: maybe that's the point.


Seriously though, knowledge of craft and finance were needed by the Jews of the old world to make an income, support their families, and in some cases achieve renown in their field. Without these things, it won't be these Jews that make those marks in the future. If they want those to be made by the unobservant and secular, are they saying that the ambassadors of Judaism to the nations should be people less learned in Torah than themselves?

Anonymous said...

It's a great speech, but it's undermined by the fact that he's a creationist! (And not in the good sense of believing in a Creator.) He can't in good conscience promote learning science and math while at the same time rejecting the basic facts of the history of life on Earth. Never mind the hypocrisy of quoting an anti-science lunatic like Rav Avigdor Miller in support of science. The real flaw is that in rejecting a basic fact of life he himself is doing what he's protesting, the rejection of basic facts of life!

Rabbi Levine is great, his overall speech is great, and his platform is crucial to the future success of Orthodox Judaism. However, he hobbles his own cause until he takes his own medicine. Telling a child that all of the well-founded findings of linguistics are to be rejected is not any different from telling him or her that math is "goyish, feh."

Chana said...

Beautiful Post, Brooklyn Wolf, about a very important topic. Kudos!

Anonymous said...

Never mind the hypocrisy of quoting an anti-science lunatic like Rav Avigdor Miller.

While Rav Avigdor Miller knew almost nothing of science, I don't think that it's appropriate to call him a lunatic.

Jeff Eyges said...

My nephew, who became a Chabad BT, told me that he considers secular studies to be unimportant, and that everyone he knows who grew up in Chabad and who didn't have a secular high school education (or not much of one) was able to teach him/herself whatever he/she needed to know. Apparently, this is what they are being told.

I really don't harbor much hope for the future of Orthodoxy.

BrooklynWolf said...


I agree completely. Calling R. Miller a lunatic is, IMHO, very wrong.

That being said, I initially found the use of R. Miller in defense of science a bit odd, but now that I give it more thought, I think it was appropriate.

Do I think that R. Miller was wrong regarding aspects of evolution and cosmology? Yes. Nonetheless, I also believe that science *attests* to the existence of God -- and giving students an appreciation of the fact that nature comes from God is a good thing.

The Wolf

Anonymous said...

"While Rav Avigdor Miller knew almost nothing of science, I don't think that it's appropriate to call him a lunatic."
"Calling R. Miller a lunatic is, IMHO, very wrong."

Perhaps it was inappropriate to call R Miller a lunatic. However, no one did more to damage to the secular curriculums of Brooklyn yeshivas then him! He and the talmidim who followed him are the very ones who eroded the esteem of secular studies in Brooklyn mosdos. Invoking him in support of teaching science is beyond bizarre.

R Miller wasn't for science, he was for a know-nothing sense of awe from ignorance, mixed with a unhealthy dose of Seventh Day Adventist dogma (that he stole shamelessly). His books mangle history (Jewish history), promote a wacky linguistics, and completely oppose the vast majority of every physical science, from physics to biology to chemistry to paleontology to astronomy. And that's not even the bigotry towards non-Jews (and even more so non-Orthodox Jews) that suffuse his books. Where do you think this "goyish, feh" and "science is treif" attitude came from??? Rav Miller was central to it. Calling him on his lunacy may be inappropriate, but not nearly as inappropriate as citing him in an argument for respecting secular knowledge.

Nice Jewish Guy said...

Miller may not be a "lunatic", but speaking as someone who spent a considerable amount of time in his shul with my father growing up, I can say that he is definitely out there. He was a very rigid, stern man, who apparently said some very highly controversial things to his congregants (another post for another time), many of whom were wackier than he was. He also apparently had some significant personal and family issues of his own (surprise).

Holy Hyrax said...

What type of yeshivot are we talking about here? I know plenty of OJ yeshivot in LA that stress secular studies. The only one that I can think of that would lead to problems is the Cheder.

Holy Hyrax said...

> Telling a child that all of the well-founded findings of linguistics are to be rejected is not any different from telling him or her that math is "goyish, feh."

Well, the key to your comment here is 'child." Most adults don't know a thing of what linguistic speak of. Speaking to children about linguistics would be foolish. This is something that should be taught in high school. Also, I don't think you can compare linguistics and Math. They are on two seperate realms.

Orthonomics said...

An excellent lecture and Q&A session. There is so much to comment on, but I particularly liked the idea of putting together frum textbooks for history or what have you.

There is a lot of money that is spent on curriculum development. I can appreciate creativity, but to me a more centralized curriculum that could be supplemented as seen fit would be far more preferable to each school on its own (paying for it as they go along).

Zev Stern said...

If someone tells me that the earth is flat, or that the sun revolves around the earth, or that the value of pi is an even three, I will call him a lunatic. Denying evolution is in the same category; it is as robust a theory as any in science and there is no controversy in the scientific community about its having occurred. So yes, by that criterion Avigdor Miller was a lunatic and, tragically, he infected thousands of young people with his lunacy.

While a child may be unable to comprehend linguistics, he does not have to be fed "facts" that are demonstrably false, such as that the first spoken language was Hebrew and everybody on earth spoke it.

As for frum textbooks, several English literature texts were published around the turn of the century by affiliates of Artscroll, and there was talk from the publishers about putting out a biology book. At the time I published a letter in Jewish Action that can be read here: .
Thank the good Lord that project never got off the ground. I'm not an expert on English literature or history, but I'm very familiar with high school biology texts, and they are excellent. To think that Artscroll or any similar company can compete with the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study is utterly ludicrous. And why would anyone want to put out a "kosher" biology book if not to downplay or "sanitize" evolution?

Jewish Atheist said...

It's more important to the rabbis that the children stay (ultra-)Orthodox than it is that they are able to support themselves or (chas v'chalila!) engage in critical thinking. You see the same attitude in religious fundamentalists around the world.

"If it disagrees with the Koran, it's heresy; if it agrees with the Koran, it's redundant." Koran, Torah, what's the difference?

Jewish Atheist said...

Hehe, oops. This post is the first google result for Brooklyn Wolf. didn't realize it wasn't new.

BrooklynWolf said...


That's okay. I still see them -- no matter how old they are.

The Wolf