Two models of education
by Jonathan Rosenblum
August 2, 2004
"One of the ends of education is to make children unlike their parents." So a leading secular writer describes the goal of a liberal education.
The contrast between the liberal model of education and the Torah model could not be starker. "Ve’shinantem l’vanecha – you shall transmit them [i.e., the commandments] to your children," is part of the basic affirmation of Jewish faith, the Shema, which we recite thrice daily. Hashem explains His special love for Avraham as an outgrowth of Avraham’s readiness to direct his children in very specific path: "Because he commands his children and his household after him that they keep the way of Hashem. . . " (Bereishis 18:19).
The educational goal of the Torah, then, is not to produce independent thinkers but to produce Torah observant Jews. A frum parent whose child goes "off the derech" will inevitably feel an overwhelming sense of failure. The loss of a child to mitzvah observance is viewed as a greater tragedy than the death of a child – or at least would be if the former were as irreversible as the latter.
The battle over the Israeli government’s efforts to impose a core curriculum on chareidi schools is not so much about the content of that curriculum but about who will control the education of our children. The chareidi world cannot abdicate control of our children’s education to those who have very different goals for that education – one of which is not to produce a new generation of Jews that rejoices in the performance of mitzvos.
No chareidi parent would ever pride himself that he gave his child the tools to be completely different from him, as secular parents try to console themselves over their children’s departure from parental norms. That does not mean, however, turning our children into unthinking automatons. To do so is self-defeating in Torah terms.
The ultimate goal of our chinuch is to produce good Jews. And a good Jew is a ba’al bechira, not a robot. Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler put the point most sharply when he wrote that one gets no reward for anything he does only because his parents or teachers taught him to do so. Only by making his actions or middos his own, through the exercise of his free will, do they become more than mitzvas anoshim m’lumada. That is a point mechanchim would do well to remember when confronted with challenging questions from their talmidim.
While we all pray that our children will grow to be shomrei Torah u’mitzvos, that does not mean that they will be carbon copies of ourselves. Children cannot be produced from molds. Rabbi Yaakov Kaminetsky used to tell Litvishe parents concerned when their children were attracted to Chassidus that each soul has its own needs and their child’s might be different from their own.
Nor does our chinuch system based on the transmission of a specific content from dor l’dor mean that nothing ever changes in the form of that transmission. Rav Yaakov Yitzchak Ruderman used to say that if he ever spoke to a bochur the way the Alter of Slabodka spoke to his charges, he would not have a single student left in his yeshiva. When Reb Yaakov Kaminetsky served as a cheder rebbe during his peregrinations during World War I, the parents complained to the rav of Tiktin that he had removed the whip from the cheder wall. How many frum parents today would tolerate a rebbe employing the flicks and ear-pulling of previous generations, much less a whip?
AS WE LOOK AROUND US, we have good cause to take pride in the degree to which our Torah education succeeds in linking the generations one to another. Generation gaps there will always be, but these are greatly minimized in the Torah community by what is shared by parents and children: above all the Torah. We sing at the Shabbos table the same zemiros that we sang at our parents’ table. Parents and children have a common language, they are joined by the study of common texts.
This past Shabbos, over a thousand Jews packed into an overflowing beis medrash in Har Nof to hear a drashah from one of the great Torah thinkers of our time. There were boys well below bar mitzvah, septuagenarians, and many fathers and sons together, each drinking in the words of Torah according to their level. Such intergenerational experiences characterize a Torah community.
In the Torah community, the young are eager to take their place among the adults: the boys in learning with their fathers; the girls in emulating their mothers. The ways of the older generation set the standard.
In the secular world, by contrast, youth is deified. Parents have lost the confidence that they have anything to teach their children. Rather than presenting models for emulation, they try to ape their children, wearing the same clothing, listening to the same music. Rather than being guides for their children, secular parents seek to be their friends, sending text messages to one another.
Even when they know their children are in danger, they feel helpless to protect them for fear of violating their autonomy. A recent article in Ha’aretz describes how secular parents deal with their well-founded fears of predators prowling Internet chat rooms. One mother considers hiring a computer hacker to check on her child’s Internet activity. But in the end, she knows she will do nothing, not even talk to her daughter. She is simply too afraid of getting into conflict with her daughter. Friends do not tell each other what to do.
No wonder that Israeli secular parents have found it impossible to transmit their values to their children. Within two generations the values of the Zionist founding fathers have almost disappeared. The communitarian goals that characterized Israel in 1948 have been replaced by the pursuit of private pleasure. Once one of the world’s most egalitarian societies, Israel today has one of the largest income gaps. One of the best educational systems in the industrial world has been transformed into one in which school violence and the lack of respect for teachers make learning almost impossible.
Looking at the societal breakdown around us, Torah parents rightly pride themselves on an educational system that gives them the confidence and authority to be parents.
Related Topics: Jewish Ethics
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