Reconsidering Torah Education (part one)

But beware and watch yourself very well, lest you forget the things that your eyes saw, and lest these things depart from your heart, all the days of your life.  And you shall make them known to your children and to your children's children, the day you stood before Hashem your L-rd at Chorev, when Hashem said to me, "Assemble the people for Me, and I will let them hear My words, that they may learn to fear Me all the days that they live on the earth, and that they may teach their children. (Sefer Devarim 4:9-10)

I. Transmitting the Story of Revelation

In the above passage Moshe tells the people that they must not forget the Sinai Revelation.  Ramban – Nachmanides – comments of this passage:

“In my opinion this passage is a negative commandment.  It intensely admonishes us.  For when he [Moshe] says that we should observe all the commandments and observe all the statutes and ordinances to perform them, he reviews and says, “But I severely admonish you to take care and guard yourself intensely to recall from where these commandments came to you.  Do not forget the assembly at Sinai [and] all the things that your eyes beheld – the sounds and the flames, His glory and greatness – and the words that you heard [emerging from] within the conflagration. Make known all the things that your eyes beheld at that glorious assembly to your children and grandchildren, forever.” 

Ramban expands upon these comments.  He explains that Revelation is the foundation of the Torah.  We are required to observe its commandments and to transmit our commitment to our children.  To accomplish this, we must remember Revelation and tell our children about it.  Revelation will be the foundation for their observance.

II. Revelation is a Verifiable Event

Ramban further explains that Hashem gave us the Torah though public Revelation to establish its authenticity as an unassailable historical fact.  In other words, Revelation and the authenticity of the Torah is established and “proven” according to any reasonable standard for verifying the authenticity of an historical claim.

Apparently, the commandment to not forget Sinai obligates us to transmit to our children and grandchildren the Revelation narrative as an historic fact.  We must “prove” the authenticity of Revelation.[1]

Ramban describes very briefly and vaguely his proof.  Rambam – Maimonides – agrees that Revelation is foundational to the Torah.  He does not include among his commandment the admonition to not forget Revelation.  However, he includes Revelation among his thirteen foundations of the Torah.  Like Ramban, he does not present a detailed description of the proof of Revelation.  He seems to regard the historic authenticity of Revelation as self-evident.  Others develop the argument for historical authenticity more thoroughly.  These include Rabbeinu Yehudah HaLevi in his Kuzari and Rabaynu Aharon HaLevi in the introduction to his Sefer HaChinuch.[2]

III.  A Crisis in Observance

Recently, a former student shared with me his anguish over the path that has been taken by too many of our young people.  They have forsaken observance.  He feels that our Torah high schools have not prepared our children for the religious challenges they will inevitably face.  Products of our day schools and yeshivas who have spent a year or more in post-high school Torah-learning programs are abandoning observance.  Some depart from observance during their college and university years.  Others abandon observance once entering the secular workplace.  He argues that we do not provide our young people with a solid foundation for observance.  Because they lack this firm foundation, once their beliefs are challenged or simply become inconvenient, they forsake them.[3]

In his opinion, we must rethink Torah high school education.  During their high school years our children must be provided with a sound foundation for observance that will allow them to persevere and overcome the inevitable challenges that will assail them.

IV. Provoking Doubts

I responded that during my career as a high school educator I was ambivalent about this issue.  I appreciated and was sensitive to the view of many parents that discussing the foundations of the Torah and Judaism, by necessity, raises questions that many young people would not otherwise consider.  For example, discussion of the historic authenticity of Revelation implies that an historic basis is necessary.  Some young people accept Revelation as a fact and do not require a proof.  These parents argue that we should not undermine the simple, pure belief of these young people.

In short, I was confronted with a paradox.  Perhaps, if I provide my students with responses to the fundamental questions they are likely to encounter as young adults, they will be better prepared to resist these challenges to their commitment.  On the hand, by engaging in such a program I will necessarily present questions and doubts to my students that they have not yet experienced.  I may provoke the very crisis that I am trying to forestall.  And it’s far easier to elicit doubt than to respond to it.

V. The Proper Moment

My student responded that the ideal time to engage a young person in discussion of the Torah’s foundations is before the student begins to question his or her faith and enters into crisis. He explained that our job is to prepare our young people for the campus and secular workplace.  This requires that we establish an adequately sound basis for observance that can withstand the challenges encountered in these environments.

He further explained, that when our young people enter into crisis, on campus or in the work-place, they are often responding to intense social pressure to forsake religious observance.  At that point, the questions are more excuses for leaving observance than the basis for the crisis.  We need to thoroughly convince our young people of the truth of the Torah.  Their conviction must be strong enough to resist the inevitable social pressure to adopt a more secular life-style.  The time to act is before our young people enter into crisis.

VI. Guidance from Ramban

The issue is complex.  My student makes a compelling argument.  Nonetheless, I expect many educators will experience my ambivalence.  What is the best path to take in educating our high schoolers?

Perhaps, Ramban is answering the question.  He is asserting that we are obligated to instill within our children a firm conviction in Revelation. We are required to establish its historic validity.  Ramban does not concern himself with provoking questions in our children that they have not asked.  Instead, he emphasizes creating a firm foundation for Torah observance.

My student insists that it is time we revisit our educational model and recognize that it is failing too many of our children.  Perhaps, Ramban agrees.

[1] See also Ramban’s comments in Critique on Maimonides’ Sefer HaMitzvot – Negative Commands that Maimonides Neglected to Include, mitzvah 2.

[2] Contemporary readers will benefit from an expanded more detailed presentation of the argument.  An excellent presentation is provided by Lawrence Kelemen in Permission to Receive.  Also, my rebbe, Rav Yisroel Chait in his essay “Torah from Sinai” presents the argument. This essay is available at

[3] Many factors contribute to abandonment of observance.  It is not reasonable to attribute to our schools sole responsibility for the phenomenon.  Some families make compromises in their observance.  Their children, who forsake observance, feel they are making their own compromises and are fundamentally acting no differently than their parents.  Furthermore, some families place few restrictions upon their children’s access and exposure to contemporary culture.  This culture is antithetical to Torah values and, in general, hostile to religion.  Should we be surprised if some of these young people, rather than being proudly Torah observant, feel that observance is out-of-sync with their environment.