Last week’s update brought readers’ attention to the insights of Rabbi Marc D. Angel, who, in his commentary on the weekly Torah portion, urges us never to succumb to frustration or despair when the task at hand is so very difficult and complicated that is seems insurmountable.
GAJE would be unfaithful to its mission if we did not also share the insights of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in his commentary on the same Torah portion last week, Matot-Masei. Rabbi Sacks shines a blazingly illuminative light on the uniquely distinguishing importance of education to the Jewish people.
Where Rabbi Angel bids us not to despair at the enormity of our work – making Jewish education affordable, Rabbi Sacks reminds us why that work is essential to our sense of peoplehood, indeed to the very future of our people.
We provide some quotations from Rabbi Sacks’ commentary.
“The fate of Jewish communities, for the most part, was determined by a single factor: their decision, or lack of decision, to put children and their education first. Already in the first century, Josephus was able to write: “The result of our thorough education in our laws, from the very dawn of intelligence, is that they are, as it were, engraved on our souls.” The Rabbis ruled that “any town that lacks children at school is to be excommunicated” (Shabbat 119b). Already in the first century, the Jewish community in Israel had established a network of schools at which attendance was compulsory (Bava Batra 21a) – the first such system in history.
“The pattern persisted throughout the Middle Ages. In twelfth-century France a Christian scholar noted: “A Jew, however poor, if he has ten sons, will put them all to letters, not for gain as the Christians do, but for the understanding of God’s law – and not only his sons but his daughters too.”
“In 1432, at the height of Christian persecution of Jews in Spain, a council was convened at Valladolid to institute a system of taxation to fund Jewish education for all. In 1648, at the end of the Thirty Years’ War, the first thing Jewish communities in Europe did to re-establish Jewish life was to reorganise the educational system.
“In 1849, when Samson Raphael Hirsch became Rabbi in Frankfurt, he insisted that the community create a school before building a synagogue.
“It is hard to think of any other religion or civilisation that has so predicated its very existence on putting children and their education first. There have been Jewish communities in the past that were affluent and built magnificent synagogues – Alexandria in the first centuries of the Common Era is an example. Yet because they did not put children first, they contributed little to the Jewish story. They flourished briefly, then disappeared.
“For Jews, education is not just what we know. It’s who we are. No people ever cared for education more. Our ancestors were the first to make education a religious command, and the first to create a compulsory universal system of schooling – eighteen centuries before Britain. The Rabbis valued study as higher even than prayer. Almost 2,000 years ago, Josephus wrote: “Should anyone of our nation be asked about our laws, he will repeat them as readily as his own name. The result of our thorough education in our laws from the very dawn of intelligence is that they are, as it were, engraved on our souls.”
The Egyptians built pyramids, the Greeks built temples, the Romans built amphitheatres. Jews built schools. They knew that to defend a country you need an army, but to defend a civilisation you need education. So Jews became the people whose heroes were teachers, whose citadels were schools, and whose passion was study and the life of the mind. How can we deprive our children of that heritage?
“The world is changing ever faster. In a single generation, nowadays, there is more scientific and technological advance than in all previous centuries since human beings first set foot on earth. In uncharted territory, you need a compass. That’s what Judaism is. It guided our ancestors through good times and bad. It gave them identity, security, and a sense of direction. It enabled them to cope with circumstances more varied than any other people have ever known. It lifted them, often, to heights of greatness. Why? Because Judaism is about learning. Education counts for more in the long run than wealth or power or privilege. Those who know, grow.”
Rabbi Sacks’ commentary can be found at: http://rabbisacks.org/cc-family-edition-matot-masei-5779/
We commend it to your reading and to sharing with others.
If, as Rabbi Sacks states, education counts for more in the long run, we must do everything within our power and use every reasonable tool at our disposal to make that education within the reach of the families that seek it for their children.
GAJE August 9, 2019