And you shall teach them to your sons to speak with them, when you sit in your house and when you walk on the way and when you lie down and when you rise. Devarim 11:19
As has been constantly stressed by our sages, the contents of the Torah are not subject to change so as to make it appear more progressive. While progress is, no doubt, a matter of great value without which society cannot function, one is reminded of G.K. Chesterton’s famous observation that many people believe that progress is “leaving things behind us, which has utterly obscured the real idea of growth, which means leaving things inside us.” (1)
The general view among the Sages is not that Torah needs to be changed by the spirit of modern times, but it is modern times which have to accommodate themselves to the spirit of the Torah. While such an observation is much more complex than many believe it to be, it is definitely true that throughout history, since the time of Moshe Rabbenu till our own days, there has never been controversy over how a) tefillin need to be updated, b) mezuzot need to be upgraded, or c) how tzitzit need to look more progressive. While theoretical disputes appear in the Talmud concerning some of these issues, the practical Halacha has always remained the same. This can be said about many halakhic cases, although definitely not of all of them. (2)
Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Gamla's Courage
There is one outstanding and definitive exception to this rule of the constancy of Halacha, and that is Jewish education. The Talmud (3) informs us:
“First, if a child had a father, his father taught him [Torah], and if he had no father, he did not learn at all.” This was based on the verse, “And you shall teach your sons…” (4) Later on, the prophets or sages “made an ordinance that teachers of children should be appointed in Jerusalem,” and children from the outlying areas of Israel should be brought to the Holy City. The verse to support this was “For from Tzion the Torah shall go out.” (5) When this ordinance lost its effectiveness, and too many children were lacking a Jewish education, it became mandatory to have teachers stationed in all towns and provinces. Once it became clear that this too would be ineffective, and many young children under the age of 16 would still not receive any elementary instruction, “Rabbi Yehoshua ben Gamla came and ordained that teachers of young children should be appointed in each district and town, and that children should enter school at age six or seven…” (6)
This Talmudic observation holds great meaning. While sages considered “new rulings” as illegitimate, even “when times may have asked for it,” such opinions were absolutely rejected when it came to the question of how to instruct Jewish children. Nowhere do we see more innovative strategies in Judaism than in the area of Jewish education. As times changed, the methods of teaching Judaism changed. Although the Talmud does not discuss the actual syllabus, it is clear that it had this in mind when it made the above observations. (7)
Presburg's Former Success Is Today's Disaster
Jewish education has only one goal, and that is to inspire students to reach for Heaven (Yirat Shamayim) – to transform them into outstanding human beings, who demonstrate concern for their fellowmen and dedication towards the Jewish people and the notion to serve mankind as its ultimate mission , according to the commandments of the Torah. The moment any educational system is no longer able to achieve that goal, it becomes outdated and dangerous, however much it may have succeeded in previous generations. The oft-repeated slogan in certain Orthodox circles, “This is the way our forefathers taught Torah in Presburg or Istanbul, so it must work today as well, and what could be wrong with it?” is of no value unless it is abundantly clear that such a system indeed works in the twenty-first century. The heavy bombardment of modern influences on society, from which even the most Orthodox cannot escape, requires constant contemplation and innovation by highly competent Jewish educators. When this new reality demands totally different approaches or drastic changes in the syllabi in schools or yeshivot, nothing should hold back those who are responsible from making these changes. No doubt this requires courage. “But courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear – not absence of fear.” (8)
Part of the religious world today has fallen prey to a kind of religious behaviorism, that believes that Judaism glorifies the deed without proper motivation and inspiration. We are blessed with synagogues and educational institutions, but how many of the worshipers are still connected with “inner life”? and the Jewish mission towards humankind Many religious children receive an excellent Jewish education, but to what degree are they taught the art of appreciation and universal calling?
Failure to grasp this reality will ultimately lead to the vulgarization of Judaism, of which there is already much evidence today. What a man does is only the minimum of what a man is. Deeds are outpourings; they are not the essence of the self. (9) This does not, in any way, minimize the importance of the Jewish belief that outer deeds create inner feelings and mentalities. The heart is, after all, a lonely voice in the busy marketplace of the living. But without constantly emphasizing the fact that all observance is ultimately for the sake of transformation of the whole person, Judaism will not be a beloved friend of the child and student. This is the holy task of Jewish education which confronted sages in each generation: to consider the need to change the rules of Jewish study programs so as to accomplish the maximum.
(1) G. K. Chesterton, Fancies Versus Fads (New York: Dodd Mead, 1923), 3.
(2) See Nathan Lopes Cardozo. Jewish Law as Rebellion, A Plea for Religious Authenticity and Halachic Courage, Jerusalem, NY, Urim Publications, 2018 and Louis Jacobs, A Tree of Life: Diversity, Flexibility, and Creativity in Jewish Law (London: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2000).
(3) Bava Batra 21a.
(4) Devarim 11:19.
(5) Yeshayahu 2:3.
(6) Bava Batra 21a.
(7) See Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky’s commentary ‘Emet Le-Ya’akov’ on Shemot 24:18, where he deals with the question of why Jewish children today are no longer taught by the method suggested in Pirkei Avot 5:21.
(8) Mark Twain, Pudd'nhead Wilson (Cambridge: John Harvard Library, 2015), 91.
(9) Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism (NY: Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1955), 311.