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Who is Afraid of Education?

by Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen
Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

Education has been a core value in Judaism from the very start. Several times every day, those of us who pray, repeat the obligation to teach our children. We are people of the study hall, if not the book.

The Talmud has quite a lot to say about education and Maimonides, a thousand years ago, has chapters on the subject! From class sizes, locations, corporal punishment, teacher responsibility, and conduct, how to win over recalcitrant children, and the fault of the teacher if a child does not do well. Of course, they were talking only about Torah education.

But here are some of my favorite Talmudic passages concerning education.

“King Hezekiah made it compulsory for everyone to study Torah and they searched from Dan in the north to Beersheba in the south, and they did not find one male child, or a female child, or a man, or a woman who was not expert in Jewish law (Sanhedrin 94b).

It sounds unlikely that King Hezekiah who ruled (716-687 BCE ) long before Greek education or women studying, could even think of a national compulsory system of education that included children and adults of both sexes. The very idea is revolutionary. But remarkable that the rabbis of the Talmud could think it. More likely but just as amazing is a quote from the Roman era.

”If not for Yehoshua ben Gamla ( 1st Century CE) the Torah would have been forgotten by the Jewish people. He instituted that teachers should be established in every province and in every town, and they would bring the children in to learn at the age of six and the age of seven (Bava Batra 21a).

Here’s another favorite.

“Rav visited a place where they decreed a fast for rains and he prayed but rains did not come. The local teacher then got up to pray to God “He Who makes the wind blow,” and the wind blew. “Who makes the rain fall,” and the rain came. Rav said to him: What have you done that you deserve such a Divine response? He replied I teach the Bible to the children of the poor as to the children of the rich, and if there is anyone who cannot pay, I do not take any money. And I have a fishpond, and any child who neglects his studies, I bribe him with the fish and calm him, and soothe him until he comes and reads” (Taanit 24a). I just love this example of sensitivity.

I know that bribery in education is frowned upon these days ( I once got into trouble for giving some chocolate to a young man who did better than expected). Education has always been the cornerstone of Jewish survival. Once upon a time, education was the responsibility and obligation of parents and priests. Then the Greeks invented schools and we followed with academies. And yet despite the myth, only a minority of Jews have ever been well-educated, or truly committed to the Torah. Until recently anyway, only a minority of any nation or people were well educated. Most relied on being told what to do, rather than learning enough to know how or what to do themselves. Universal education on any level is a phenomenon of the past two hundred years. Systems of education, like the English Public Schools, were institutions of torture, bullying and poor teaching with pupils (victims) kept in order by corporal punishment, until the latter half of the twentieth century. Just read “Tom Brown’s Schooldays.” Even now corporal punishment persists in many traditional communities.

Nevertheless, methods of education have constantly changed and evolved over the millennia from oral to written, from scrolls to volumes, to books. From abacus to slide rules, calculators, laptops, and phones. At each innovation, it was declared the new would ruin education and cause brains to atrophy. And now we seem happy to ignore plagiarism and cheating even at Harvard. I still think traditional schools are far from ideal and I sense significant change is on the way. I was enormously impressed by Ivan Illich’s “De-Schooling Society” in which he argued against the educational systems that forced children of different abilities and interests into rigid schools and curricula. Universal education might have some benefits, but it has atrophied. This is why so many who can, are leaving formal state education either for religious or independent schools.

There needs to be much more freedom of choice. And the rigid control that Teachers Unions exercise over politicians to protect their agendas against the interests of poorer pupils must be dealt with. Education and indoctrination have now merged across much of the so-called civilized world. Once dogma was confined to Marxist societies, now it has infected the West with deleterious effects on open multifaceted societies, which is why homeschooling has increased exponentially. And one can tap into the best teachers from all over the world for personal instruction in the latest methods and innovations.

We are living in a brave new world. There are now so many amazing new opportunities. Even in the most fundamentalist reaches of Jewish religious life today technology has changed life.

Who would have believed that every day hundreds of thousands of students of all ages would be listening to classes, podcasts, audio, and video classes in Talmud and every area of Jewish traditional scholarship, of at least the past two thousand years? And thanks to Artificial Intelligence a whole new plethora of tools have exploded into our world. Some of which will expand corruption, pornography, deceit, and crime. Others will enhance learning, medicine, health, and positive human interaction. As with all tools it will be used and abused. And we must teach our children to know what to avoid.

But in the end, the personal interaction and influence of a good, sensitive teacher will remain crucial in adding charisma and inspiration, not just information, to generations of those who come after us. This is why however ancient are our Talmudic sources, the idea, and the spirit remain as valid and vital as ever.

Jeremy Rosen

February 2024


Jeremy Rosen was born in Manchester, England, the eldest son of Rabbi Kopul Rosen and Bella Rosen. Rosen's thinking was strongly influenced by his father, who rejected fundamentalist and obscurantist approaches in favour of being open to the best the secular world has to offer while remaining committed to religious life. He was first educated at Carmel College, the school his father had founded based on this philosophical orientation. At his father's direction, Rosen also studied at Be'er Yaakov Yeshiva in Israel (1957–1958 and 1960). He then went on to Merkaz Harav Kook (1961), and Mir Yeshiva (1965–1968) in Jerusalem, where he received semicha from Rabbi Chaim Leib Shmuelevitz in addition to Rabbi Dovid Povarsky of Ponevezh and Rabbi Moshe Shmuel Shapiro of Yeshivat Be'er Ya'akov. In between Rosen attended Cambridge University (1962–1965), graduating with a degree in Moral Sciences.


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