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Progressive Ancient Jewish Education

Progressive Ancient Jewish Education

How does our site score on answers and dialogue?


Hello Chabad,

You rabbis seem to take it as a given that wisdom flows from the vast amount of writings (biblical and more recent), history, interpretations, opinions, etc., that it has accumulated. You appear to think that wisdom flows in one direction only. The supplicant asks, and the rabbi answers. A particular rabbi may not have the answer at hand. But he knows where to look, can find it and supply it. That is the way it flows.

There is a tacit assumption that there is an answer to every question. It is only necessary to find the applicable source or the appropriate expert, and the answer is there.

I think that there is a great deal of wisdom in Chabad, and want to benefit from it. But I find the basic process to be too rigid, too frozen. I think that the communication should be two-way, not one-way.You appear to think that wisdom flows in one direction only.

I think the universe is understood very poorly, that there are more questions than answers. The Chabad assumption that it has all the important answers already is a turnoff.

A modern university, where one can ask anything and try to find the answer, is the place to seek wisdom.


Thank you for sending this. I found your critique very helpful.

I’m especially concerned about your feeling shut out of the dialogue because before I came to yeshivah, at 20 years of age, that’s just how I felt. A healthy rebellion against “top-down” secular education motivated me at the ripe old age of 14 to get involved in what was called, and what I then thought was, “progressive” education. A group of us decided to drop out of the system and start our own school. We applied for government funding, and called it “Total Education High School.” (Among ourselves, that was “Total High.”)

To me—and this is what I tell my kids, over and over—learning is something that emerges out of dialogue. Books are great, but without bouncing ideas back and forth, debating, reiterating yourself, defending your position, hearing the other and coming back again with a refined argument—there just is no real learning.

That’s what we attempted to achieve at Total High. But, admittedly, it didn’t really work out because, for one thing, we didn’t know (nobody told us) how to properly contain and frame an open conversation. At every age, it can really be useful for somebody top-down to tell you what the next right thing to do is, no matter what you think. I ended up going elsewhere to get my high school diploma at age 15, and soon after was getting an education hitchhiking the world. (Eventually, yes, I did end up entrapped in a university.)The system of learning for which we had been searching had been around for thousands of years!

So, when I walked into a yeshivah study hall six years later, I was shocked and delighted to find the system of learning for which we had been searching—and it had been around for thousands of years.

In yeshivah, you learn in chavrusa. That means, with a partner. What does the partner do? Principally, he argues with you. However you understand things, he tries to see if it could be understood differently. Then the two of you try to work it out.

Sometimes, a debate erupts and sends shockwaves through the beis hamidrash (study hall), until everyone else is sucked into the discussion. A school library is quiet as death, but a beis hamidrash is afire with life.

It also struck me that yeshivah classes were not the frontal lecture with which we are all too familiar (how many times can you count the holes in the drop ceiling?). Instead of rows of desks, in yeshivah we sat around a table. The instructor began to talk, and immediately discussion ensued. Everything was up for questioning, and every question led to new dialogue, new insights, new perspectives on everything we had learned.

So, when you write this critique of our site, I start to worry. Perhaps we have failed at bringing that flavor of the yeshivah to our site.Our job is not to answer questions. Our job is to answer people.

I have trained almost all our Ask the Rabbi rabbis. I’ve given them a mantra: “Our job is not to answer questions. Our job is to answer people.” And quite often, the last thing the person needs is a pat answer. Sometimes it’s more information. Sometimes it’s an open mind with a listening ear. Sometimes it’s just someone to come back and affirm what he knew all along, but didn’t have the confidence to believe.

For every rabbi, Chabad or not, there are questions, and there are questions. There are the kinds of questions that have a straightforward halachic answer, and for most of those, yes, there is a “top-down” response that is the result of scholarly research and something close to a kabillion conversations that have taken place over thousands of years. These are almost all of the “what should I do about this?” variety. And yes, even in universities, especially in medical and engineering schools, there are plenty of direct, top-down answers, thank G‑d. Then there are the questions that require your participation, input and insight, questions about meaning, purpose and intention. These are of the “what do I think about this?” and “why is this the conclusion?” variety.

In our articles, we attempt to present multiple views, when appropriate. Of course, we’re principally an information site. People come expecting authoritative opinions and well-researched facts. But even then, we encourage reader comments, moderated in order to keep them from being dominated by the bullies and the beasts.

So, if you could point us in any particular direction where you feel we’ve failed, we would love to hear. Give some real examples, and tell us how you would like to see it done better.

BTW: Have you yourself been in yeshivah? Have you considered the possibility of giving it a try?

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, a senior editor at, also heads our Ask The Rabbi team. He is the author of Bringing Heaven Down to Earth. To subscribe to regular updates of Rabbi Freeman's writing, visit Freeman Files subscription. FaceBook @RabbiTzviFreeman Periscope @Tzvi_Freeman .
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Tommy Richmond hill March 23, 2014

Lol LOL at total high! Reply

Anonymous Virginia March 13, 2014

SACRED'S TREE POWER - WISDOM It is my intuition - The fruits of raised properly with moral values and the love to humanity. Daily reinforcement by expanding my knowledge and understanding
of the Torah - discerning good and evil and shining away from evil.

Shalom to Israel

Martha Barron
March 13, 2014
Time 1:20 pm Reply

Steven L Mitchel Port Townsend, WA., USA March 12, 2014

Web Site I thank you for being part of my conscience.
As a gentle raised in the traditional Western Baptist philosophy, I have strived to study all religions over the years since college.
I fine myself the latter years of my life, drawn more towards the Jewish theme.
There many terms in my studies of the religion that I struggle to understand which thereby slows my learning process.
But, I continue to persevere.
May the blessings of G-d continue to show you his intention and path.

SLM Reply

Michael New York March 11, 2014

As one studying to be one if those Rabbis (and who very much enjoys the side to side over top down learning) I too find there are questions rabbis can't answer. My friends can't either. Not my parents. Not even my wife to be. Some of them aren't really questions that can be enclosed into words, and they aren't easily answered with them either. Some of these questions seem more like inner turmoil, the sound of inherently spiritual entity brought to a seemingly entirely physical existence. It's less a question and more a desire to be heard. Rabbi Shlomo Katz discusses this, the, "why can't anyone hear me" questions. At least, my questions are. It used to bother me but I think the answer is sometimes, "it's ok". Keep going and the answer will arrive. Or it won't. But you have to be looking for it. And the answer might be closer than you think. The verse says, "this thing is very close to you"; this thing may be your answer. Bhatzlacha! With success and good tidings. Reply

Michelle uk March 10, 2014

LOVE this! thanks for a beautiful and as often, timely piece

I felt like Chana for a long time until I came to Chabad! and then I did as Gabriel wrote, I used what I'd learnt to question the Almighty, with interesting results. but the biggest thing I have learnt over time, is when I return the question, my mind quietens and if it doesn't, I missed something and 'find' myself 'looking' and finding out or receiving feedback from other people/places. and the acknowledgement of prayer helps me let go of the ques

My biggest problem with learning was I just didn't find someone with a similar point of view at a level that I could grasp let alone explain! I think being encouraged to give feedback helps and has given me the confidence (over many years now) to take what I've learnt and taken to heart on the inside back outside, but I can only do that because I know, I will always be a student and can never be left in charge because what I probably lack is courage or rather the fear, of getting it wrong! Reply

Gabriel FL February 25, 2014

Chana Chana I think that the Only One who can help with your worries is HaShem, the Creator of the universe. And I think He does so by sending you the people and situations of your life. You can either respond that these people don't really help you but HaShem knows who to send (to help and appear not to help, but they are). Reply

Chana February 24, 2014

question, question, question I have found in my life that no matter how much we have learn there are always situations in life that gives us more questions, my big problem is I have not found any Rabbi or anyone who has been able to really help. Oh there are answer and most are the pat answer one comes to expect but what I desire is someone who will
listen and give me some kind of understand from the heart not only from what they know through the years, I am still searching and I am alone. Reply

Anonymous USA February 21, 2014

You do anwer people! I have found all of the information at Chabad. org to be very stimulating, engaging, and especially, very conducing to dialogue! No "pat answers" or "top down" condescending attitudes at all!
Be encouraged, and keep up the good, light-giving work! Thank you!
BHT Reply

Gabriel FL February 21, 2014

I think it's a blend of the two. Philosophy, for example, the question at hand can be debated. Medicine, on the other hand, has pretty straightforward answers once the problem is discovered. In the Torah, there are cases of both. Don't murder, don't lie, don't gossip. But there are cases when these are lifted for an ultimate good. Reply

Tzvi Freeman February 21, 2014

Re: What about me? Today, anybody anywhere can jump-start right into yeshiva-style learning. It's called JNet dot org. They'll arrange a personal Torah coach for you by phone or video-conference, at the time of your choice.

For info on yeshiva options for men and women of all ages, see my article "Why Spend a Semester in Yeshivah?" Reply

Marty Denver February 21, 2014

Examples Rabbi, I've pointed in "particular directions" and given "real examples" for years. At best, I was ignored, often I've been censored. And I tried yeshiva too, I experienced the disengenousness first hand. Reply

Anonymous Auckland February 21, 2014

I have just got to know you through your Utube "How to Make a Wild and Wonderful Passover Seder" Just so loved your family/community inclusiveness and ability to draw from all and every one on/of their talents (even your own children's ideas I see ) I will be applying most of your basic ideas this family Seder to make sure" that 5th child will be so very sorry he didn't come after all to our celebration!!"
But to this extract above :- Wow! I love Your heart here:-
I've given them a mantra: "Our job is not to answer questions. Our job is to answer people." And quite often, the last thing the person needs is a pat answer. Sometimes it's more information. Sometimes it's an open mind with a listening ear. Sometimes it's just someone to come back and affirm what he knew all along, but didn't have the confidence to believe.
All Of this is I find very much how I am wired and how love drawing others in to be valued , considered and (even if necessary) mobilized. Regards Reply

Gene Colorado February 21, 2014

Yes and do not forget some of us have to wait until we are 63 or so, but Baruch Hashem we do get a chance to come to view from a better perspective. Reply

Jacenty Domanski February 20, 2014

The dialoge. The best way to learn is dialogue with others, guided by some wise sage! Reply

Anonymous Wisconsin February 20, 2014

What about me? I have read before about learning in Yeshiva, and am so wishing I could experience it. I am an older woman who lives in a remote area. Is there any way, online or somehow to participate in "chavrusa" study?

So glad to hear the story of your youthful try to do something better. Too many people accept the status quo. People need to question and that is one of the many things I love about Judaism; the eternal dialogue about "everything". Govenments sometimes try to control the thinking of the people, but that is called slavery. When you cease to question, you begin to slave. Reply

Bachmann UK/IL February 20, 2014

The art of learning Beautiful and thanks for sharing - chavrusa - if one could only 'transplant' some of this into secular learning. Wishful thinking I know. Reply

pnda The United States of America February 20, 2014

I think of what of the few billions on earth who cannot access universities? Reply

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