A New Model of Learning: The Yeshiva as R&D Department of the Jewish World

photo courtesy Yeshivat Talpiot

by Alieza Salzberg

The traditional name of a place of higher Torah learning is a “yeshiva,” literally a place of sitting. Too many of our religious institutions today focus on stability – on sitting still and maintaining the status quo. Long hours of study can paralyze the progress of Jewish thought. But it doesn’t have to. Right now, with so many pressing questions facing the Jewish people – from who is a Jew, to human rights, and the roles of women and men in the wake of the feminist revolution – we cannot afford to settle for a religion frozen in the past. Starting with the first monotheistic scripture to the idiosyncratic Talmud, Jewish learning and writing has always been creative and innovative. Today too, our religious institutions should grow apace.

At Yeshivat Talpiot, where I work as co-director and educator, we think of the yeshiva as a center for research and development, a place where the texts of the past meet the challenges and values of today. Yeshivat Talpiot is a new place of learning in Jerusalem, where Israelis study a familiar curriculum of Talmud, Midrash and Tanakh in a creative, serious and egalitarian environment. Just like the R&D wing of a Google or Apple, we aim to create space for intensive learning and experimentation. To foster the next important Jewish breakthrough we need to combine an intimate knowledge of our tradition with an ability to envision our next steps.

How does one build an R&D Yeshiva? Here were some of our considerations when we began to build the Yeshivat Talpiot three years ago.

1. The traditional model of intensive learning has a lot to offer. The yeshiva on a hill top (or an ivory tower) protects its students from the fast-paced world of the blogosphere, celebrity culture, and the race to accumulate wealth and prestige. For young adults taking a study-break before or after college, this temporary isolation from the pressures of modern society can be enriching, providing a time to immerse oneself in the world of ideas. These experiences allow our future lawyers, teacher, business people, artists and voting citizens to set priorities that will serve them when they merge back into the fast lane.

2. The total isolation of a single minded learning program has its pitfalls, including detachment from the Jewish community. Unfortunately, many yeshivot strive to cut themselves off from the challenges that democracy, feminism, and post-modernism pose for religious people. Many attempt to freeze time and reify past visions of Judaism, ignoring the important political and social changes happening all around them.

3. We have learned from our students at Yeshivat Talpiot that these strategies of isolation leave many students with a hollow sense of religion. Returning to the real world, what they once learned in yeshiva may now seem irrelevant, quaint or even problematic. In boredom, exasperation, or protest many young Jews leave the world of Torah behind, abandoning the most vital communal questions for others to answer for them.

For example, the feminist turns away because she can’t stomach her exclusion from the synagogue or the inequality of traditional marriage; but if she doesn’t take a stand, she will find herself back in a rabbi’s office for her own wedding. Likewise the peace activist who abandons the language of Torah will have no shared language with which to discuss the politics of security, nationalism and governance with his religious friends. The dangerous result is that some of our most important issues facing Israeli’s and the Jewish world as a whole – such as, conversion, marriage, divorce, burial, national identify – are by default relegated to “traditionalistic” rabbinic institutions.

4. The new model of an R&D Yeshiva can bridge the gap between our rich heritage and the questions of today. At Yeshivat Talpiot we are taking up significant questions of civil and religious society and building an R&D center for Jewish questions. While our faculty and students feel inspired to change the world, we also believe that we can’t and shouldn’t disregard thousands of years of tradition; halakha and Jewish practice provide us with a strong base on which to stand and a rich spiritual and practical language to work with. We do need to sit and study for hours and days and years to achieve solutions to our communities’ questions; but we never aspire to do so in a vacuum. The questions of synagogue politics and Israeli politics are part and parcel of studying Torah and building community. We sit and stretch, research and develop, and then rise from our books ready to take strides in the world.

5. Students must be active and empowered in order to engage in the hard work of research and development. Many of the students who find their way to Yeshivat Talpiot come from the fast-paced world of sound-bites and political slogans; they want relevant answers immediately. Hoping to learn texts that justify their view of a moral economic system or a more positive sexuality, they are impatient. Our task is to teach these students to slow down, to sit still; we empower them to learn the tools of the trade for the long game and to accept the complexities of religion, politics, and life. Ultimately the depth of learning will support their heartfelt values all the more.

For other students who have already been trained to sit and study, to accept what they learn at face value, we seek to awaken their sense of passion, shake the stability of the world as they know it, and teach them to think critically. We hope that the young women and men who study in our halls are awakened to the political consequences of how they choose to read and interpret a text.

Aside from the title yeshiva, another word echoes in our halls “halakha,” literally walking. This Hebrew word for law and legal discussion in the talmudic tradition encapsulates the idea that religion is ever-changing, in motion within the community that practices it. Never has Jewish study meant a static memorizing of the past. It is a process of R&D, of deep study of the wisdom of the Torah and a sensitive imagination. We invite other to join us, blending the values inherent in the terms yeshiva and halakha: to read intensively and to take our learning to the streets.

Alieza Salzberg is co-director and educator at Yeshivat Talpiot in Jerusalem.