by Rabbi Yossi Rosenblum
The Zekelman Standards for Chumash present a significant milestone for Torah educators, but not necessarily an innovation. A closer look at our sources shows that an approach to Chumash that is based on skills and mastery, as opposed to coverage alone, is deeply rooted in in our heritage.
The Maharal, commenting on the word “Veshinantam” which connotes fluency and ownership, notes the unfortunate prevalence in his day of a rushed approach to Limud HaTorah. He refers to the Mishna in Avos that delineates a sequential approach to Torah study: ben chamesh limikra, ben eser limishna, and so forth. He bemoans the fact that that students are rushed to cover ground and go from one level to the next without taking the time to ensure that they have acquired the proper foundation for the next stage in learning. After all that, they leave Yeshiva not having “acquired” the Torah – in the sense of a “kinyan,” connoting fluency and comprehension. The Maharal underscores the importance of a sequence that makes mastery of each step a prerequisite to the next, and this is the conceptual foundation of learning standards.
A few centuries later, the Alter Rebbe made a ruling along similar lines in Hilchos Talmud Torah. In today’s day and age, wrote the Alter Rebbe, it is more important for students to learn some Gemara deeply, than a lot of Gemara without the accompanying analysis. The reason for this is that educators need to equip students with the ability to learn in depth on their own, even after leaving Yeshiva.
Earlier in this monumental work, the Alter Rebbe compares two prototypes of a teacher. One is conscientious about accuracy and careful to check for student comprehension, but does not cover a lot of material (even out of negligence). The second teacher covers much more ground but does not pay careful attention to detail and comprehension. If there is a choice between two such candidates, the first teacher – the slower but more methodical one – is the one for the job.
The Zekelman Standards for Chumash reflect the Alter Rebbe’s definition of successful teaching, and assist teachers in fulfilling their task. The standards delineate benchmarks for comprehension (in Standard 4), and for the skills necessary for independent learning. They also make assessment and checks for understanding possible, by providing teachers with points of reference by which to set and evaluate learning goals for students.
Subsequent generations of Chabad Rebbeim have emphasized that this kind of Torah study is applicable to every student. The Lubavitcher Rebbe directed the following strong words of his predecessor, the Frierdiker Rebbe, to an educator:
A good teacher does not mean one who teaches concepts to his student, but one who teaches in such a way that [the student] himself can learn; and not only does he succeed with a diligent and conscientious student, but he is a proactive teacher, achieving success with a student who is slothful and lacking talent as well.
The systematic implementation of standards makes true success in learning possible for every student in every school. The Rebbe often emphasized that the tumultuous influences of today’s world require that schools take new levels of responsibility for the success of the whole child. We clearly see that a student’s success in learning, and resulting sense of confidence and self-worth, is often a pivotal factor in his or her choices for life after graduation.
In a Sicha on Parshas Mishpatim, the Rebbe asks why yeshivos do not teach the Klalei Hatalmud of Shmuel Hanagid, which present a systematic approach to the logic of Gemara. The Rebbe acknowledges that this has not been done before, and that he himself was not taught that way, but negates the possibility that this is a precedent that should be relied upon. In other words, if something is necessary and clearly beneficial for Chinuch (as the Rebbe illustrates in this Sicha with a systematic approach to Gemara learning), the fact that it has not been done before is no reason not to put it in practice! If the need is clear, then the time is now, and “this is not the way we were taught” is neither an excuse nor a justification why not to do it.
The Zekelman Standards for Chumash are presented to guide teachers in leading their students through sequential mastery of the different steps required for successful Torah study. Their aim is singular: to bolster Torah study in our schools and Yeshivos in order to strengthen our students’ connection to Torah and Hakadosh Baruch Hu. Let us accept the mandate that our heritage and our Rebbeim have given us, and teach our children Chumash in a way that enables and inspires them to continue to learn it and live it, for life.
 גור ארי-ה פרשת ואתחנן, פרק ו
 פרק ה, משנה כא
 פרק א, הלכה יא. See also תלמוד בבלי מסכת בבא בתרא דף כא עמוד א
 אגרות קדש, כ”ז טבת תשי”ב
 תורת מנחם page 1261