Yeshiva administrators have a very difficult job. They first have to decide whom to accept to their schools. Subsequently they must decide how to divide students into classes. If problems arise, administrators must make critical decisions that can have long-term consequences. One of the their most difficult decisions is whether a student should be expelled from a Yeshiva. In this essay we shall explore this extremely sensitive issue based on an article on this topic written by Rav Yehuda Zoldan, which was printed in Techumin volume 17 (pp. 145-156).
Background: The Establishment of Yeshivot
Bava Batra (21a) presents the situation that led to the establishment of schools. It states that originally fathers would teach Torah to their children, because the Pasuk states, ולמדתם אתם את בניכם (Devarim 11:19). Chazal assert that the word אותם can be read as אתם, meaning “you [the fathers] should teach them,” because this word is written without a ו. Under this system, children without fathers did not learn. Therefore, the rabbis decreed that educators should be installed in Jerusalem.
This did not solve the problem. If someone had a father, his father would take him to Jerusalem and have him taught there. But a child without a father still did not receive an education. The rabbis attempted to ameliorate this problem by establishing schools in every district for students of ages 16 and 17. This too proved ineffective. This is the age when some children rebel. So, if a teacher angered a rebellious youngster, the student left the Yeshiva. Therefore, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Gamla decreed that every local authority must install teachers for children at the age of six or seven.
This obligation to establish schools in each locale is so important that the Rambam (Hilchot Talmud Torah 2:1) states that “any community that does not set up schools for children should be excommunicated until they do so.” The Gemara in Shabbat (119b), which the Rambam is based on, even states that a community without a school should be destroyed by Hashem. Although there is a great importance to set up schools, the obligation still fundamentally applies to the father because of the Pasuk ולמדתם אתם את בניכם. The Rambam (ibid. 1:1), Tur (Yoreh Deah 245) and Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah 245:1) all view the father’s role as a partnership with the schools. Rav Aharon Lichtenstein and Rav Hershel Schachter strongly urge parents to study Torah with their children. It is especially important to do so on Shabbat.
Who Is One Supposed To Teach?
The Gemara (Makkot 10a and Chullin 133a) teaches that a teacher who teaches a תלמיד שאינו הגין, an unworthy student, is comparable to one who throws a stone into a pit. Rashi explains תלמוד שאינו הגין as תלמוד רע (a bad student), but this is somewhat vague. The Maharsha in turn, explains Rashi as referring to a student who has bad thoughts when learning Torah. This is quite a strict explanation. The Rambam presents an alternate explanation that one should teach only a student who acts well or a תם. The Lechem Mishna explains that a תם is one whom we are uncertain if he is good or bad.
How Should One Divide Classes?
The Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah 245:9) states that even if a child does not understand the class he should not be removed. Rather, he should stay in the class because he may pick up something. This ruling is based on the Gemara (Bava Batra 21a), which states that a child who is difficult should not be removed from the school; rather, he should sit with the other students, and he will follow their example and learn.
There are two theories of education. One theory is that there should be different tracks for students of different abilities. The other theory is that students of all abilities should be put in the same track so that the weaker students will be affected by the stronger ones. The Shulchan Aruch might subscribe to the latter opinion in certain circumstances. The Teshuvot Tzafnat Paneach (2:17) even goes so far as to say that one cannot replace an intellectually weaker student with a stronger one. Rav Moshe Feinstein (Igrot Moshe Yoreh Deah 71) agrees with the Tzafnat Paneach but stipulates that one should only keep the weaker student in the school if he does not influence others. He should be expelled if he does influence others. However, Rav Moshe cautions that this should not be dealt with lightly because it is like דיני נפשות, judging a matter of life and death. Rav Yitzchak Hutner (cited by Rav Avraham Yitzchak Neriah, Afik Banegev p. 241) agrees with Rav Moshe that a student with problems who disturbs others should be expelled from the Yeshiva.
The Kli Yakar on Devarim 21:18 asks why the Torah discusses the punishments for a wayward son if there has never been one and never will be one. He answers that it is only to scare children out of going down the wrong path. Perhaps this constitutes a precedent to establish very strict rules in a school as a bluff merely to scare students but not with the intent to enforce these rules. Of course, such an approach can potentially have negative consequences and might not be prudent.
The Gemara (Bava Batra 21a) records that Rav stated that when one hits a child for disciplinary purposes, one should hit him only with a shoelace. If he studies, he studies, if not, let him stay in the company of his friends. This shows that in reality, a teacher should deal lightly with a student who makes trouble. Rashi comments on this that “it is inappropriate to rebuke him more than necessary or remove him. Rather, he should stay among others and in the end he will pay attention.” Since Rashi uses the words, “it is inappropriate,” it appears that he is just giving a recommendation. The Nemukei Yosef, on the other hand, says that “you are not allowed to remove him from school. Rather, he should sit among his friends, and maybe in the end he will pay attention.” Since he uses the words “not allowed,” it appears that he is not merely giving a suggestion but rather a command.
The Rambam did not incorporate the words of Rav into his Halachic works. This apparently demonstrates that the Rambam agrees with Rashi that Rav’s statement constitutes a mere suggestion. Since Rav’s statement is only a suggestion, the Rambam was not compelled to incorporate it into his works. Rav Zoldan says that it is possible that Rashi and the Nemukei Yosef are not arguing at all. Rashi says that it is a recommendation not to remove a student “from before you,” i.e. out of the immediate class. On the other hand, the Nemukei Yosef is discussing removing a child “from the school,” and that is forbidden.
Perhaps one can suggest an alternate explanation to Rav Zoldan, that Rashi and the Nemukei Yosef are arguing about what to do with the troublemaker if he stays in school. Since Rashi says that one should keep him “among others,” he feels that the troublemaker should stay in a regular track and hopefully the good students will influence him to choose the right path. The Nemukei Yosef, on the other hand, feels that one should keep the troublemaker “among his friends,” i.e. in a special class or school of troublemakers; maybe the whole group will decide to change their bad ways, but at least they will not be a bad influence on others.
The Rambam (Hilchot Talmud Torah 4:1) states that if one behaves poorly the teachers should work to return him to his good ways, make sure that he will act appropriately, and only then return him to class. This might be a source for the practice of suspensions. However, suspension should not be merely keeping a child out of school. Rather, the student should be guided to do something positive to refine his character, which may help him reenter the class.
Rav Zoldan adds that these rules apply only for local community, elementary, or high schools. In a more specialized environment such as a post-high school Yeshiva or a special high school, administrators should be less restrained in expelling troubled students. Only schools that are established to fulfill Rav Yehoshua ben Gamla’s decree are obligated to do everything possible to accommodate virtually all students. Specialized educational institutions are not subject to the same obligations and should act in accordance with what benefits the majority of the student body.
It appears that the guidelines for schools should be as follows:
1) One should only accept students with good character or questionable character to schools. Students with bad character should not be accepted with the expectation that they will turn around. Weaker students, though, should not be rejected from schools if they have good character.
2) If a student makes trouble, suspend him from class and actively work on his character. Allow him back into class when he is ready.
3) If the child continues to make trouble, decide whether he is influencing others.
a) If he is influencing others, put him into a special class or school for behaviorally challenged students.
b) If he is not influencing others, decide whether it will be more advantageous to keep him in a regular class or put him in a special class for challenged students.
4) If the student continues to make trouble in the special class, remove him, but think long and hard before doing so because it is דיני נפשות, a question of the [spiritual] life and death of the student and those whom he affects negatively.