The Challenge of External Criteria
School consulting is a big business now. Schools need to balance their budgets and attract the “right” kind of students. However, if we run our schools like businesses, our children become the “products” and the defective merchandise must be thrown out, or never accepted in the first place. As Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman ztz”l once wryly remarked: “With the criteria that some schools are setting up today, even Avraham Avinu couldn’t get accepted into a “good” school!” (Reb Aharon Leib, Naftali Weinberger, p. 152).
The measure of a school’s success becomes the quality of the graduating products. We will require objective standards by which to measure this success: dress, behaviour, academic benchmarks. This is the “box”, the “system”. The problem: chinuch is the neshama business, no principal, school board chairman or prospective parents can see what is inside a child’s neshama. Often these external markers have no bearing on a students’ potential.
As the Steipler Gaon wrote:
“It is known that in their youth, many talmidei chachamim were considered by their peers to be failures and of inferior intellectual ability. As they grew older, however, it became apparent that they had acquired a fundamental knowledge of most of Shas and were, in fact, superior in the give-and-take of Talmudic debate. They became experts in rendering psak halachah.” (Chayei Olam p.82)
Even if a student never becomes a great talmid chacham, was his Torah education for naught? There are two apparently contradictory Chazal where 1000 students who go to study and only 1 comes out a poisek. (Midrash Koheles 7:38) Everyone has the ability to become like Moshe Rabbeinu. (Rambam Teshuva 5:2) So which is correct? Either the truly great are only 1/1000 or we all have potential for greatness even to be as great as Moshe Rabbeinu. The answer is, it depends on your definition of greatness. If we are looking at an external measure — who will be the rabbi to pasken for the community — then indeed it will be 1/1000. But what if greatness is measured not by comparing ourselves to others but to our own potential? Moshe Rabbeinu developed his full potential as a human being and perfected his middos. It is this self-perfection that the Rambam is saying each of us can work on. In this respect we all have the ability to become our best selves as Moshe Rabbeinu became his best self.
Competing against others harks back to ancient Greece where the Olympics were born. Their infatuation with the beauty of the human form led to sports contests where athletes would compete against one another to demonstrate the strength, speed and agility of the human body. The strongest, fastest and most skilled would win the contest. No points for “trying hard” or “beating your personal best”. This is a zero-sum game where there is only one winner. If I am best, by definition you cannot be.
In ruchniuyus by contrast we can potentially all be winners. One person’s success does not detract from another’s. When schools focus on producing “quality products” and when we force our children to compete against each other, we risk creating whole classes of losers for the sake of the few winners. We are distracting students from the real spiritual goals of striving for personal growth and self-perfection. This goal can only be attained when teachers help students recognize their true potential and give them tools to achieve it.
Rabbi Abenson is the founder and director of ShaarHatalmud, a unique yeshivah-based online program, which incorporates learning all Kodesh subjects, from Kriah all the way up to learning Gemara, Rishonim and Shulchan Oruch. He also conducts evaluations, remediation and training, and consults with school principals to improve students’ underdeveloped skills.
Rabbi Dovid Abenson can be contacted at:
Email: [email protected]