Ethical will: Education

Internal obstacles to writing this entry

I’ve been thinking of writing an ethical will entry on education for some time now, but it’s been challenging for me to begin. For me, there are three obstacles:

  1. The strong personal association I draw between Judaism and placing a high value on education, which I worry may come across as off-putting to some;
  2. Not relating to many of the traditional Jewish source texts on education;
  3. My personal experiences with [higher] education, which did not [ultimately] serve me well, as a result of my poor decision-making.

Fortuitously, I recently came across a short talk by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks zt”l on Animalizard’s blog, which gave me the language I needed to overcome that first internal barrier, and this, in turn, gave me the motivation to push through the others.

Jews and education

This is the part that makes me uncomfortable to share, but it will, in part, showing you where I am coming from.

Jews, as a religious group, really, really, really prioritize education, and this has been true throughout our history (as far as I know). The ‘People of the Book’ have long valued literacy. It feels haughty to me to make mention of this, but it’s simply true, even in the modern day. In 2016, the Pew Research Center published its study on ‘Religion and Education Around the World’, which found that:

When measured by years of formal schooling, Jews have the highest average educational attainment, while Muslims and Hindus have the lowest. Christians have the second highest average years of schooling, followed by religiously unaffiliated adults and then Buddhists.

Pew Research Center, 2016

This cultural emphasis on education played a major part in my upbringing. My father and mother were both highly educated, well read and sophisticated, as was most of our extended family on either side. I grew up fully expecting that college and graduate school awaited me after high school. In my mind, it was only a matter of deciding whether to be a doctor, lawyer, professor or engineer.

A joke to lighten [the/my] mood

This reminds me of a classic Jewish joke, which some of you may be already familiar with:

The First Jewish President

The first Jewish president calls up his mother and invites her over for Passover. Characteristically, his mother immediately begins complaining.

“Oy, I’ll need to book a flight and it’s going to cost so much – it is just too much of a bother.”
Her son counters, “Mom! I’m the President! I’ll hire a private jet for you!”
“Oy, I’ll need to catch a taxi and carry my luggage. It’s just too much!”
“Mom! I’m the President! I’ll pick you up in my limo! Then my guards will carry your luggage for you!”
“Oy, I’ll need to book a hotel.”
“Mom! Don’t be ridiculous! I’m the President! You can stay at the White House!”
“Okay, fine,” she finally acquiesces.

Two minutes later her friend Sophie calls.
“So, Miriam, what’s new?”
“Oy, I’m going to my son for Passover.”
“Who, the doctor?”
“No, the other one.”

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks zt”l on being Jewish

An important clarification

I am a Jew, not because I believe that Judaism contains all there is of the human story. I admire other traditions and their contributions to the world… Nor is it because I think that Jews are better than others, more intelligent, creative, generous, or successful…

These words can be heard spoken by Rabbi Sacks zt”l in the video below.

‘Why I am a Jew’ by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks zt”l

Education as a sacred task

Among the many reasons (and I do suggest that you watch the video in its entirety) that Rabbi Sacks zt”l gives for his being Jewish is this one, which resonates deeply with me:

Jews, though they lacked all else, never ceased to value education as a sacred task, endowing the individual with dignity and depth…

It’s not a matter of my people being better than another. It’s a matter, as Rabbi Sacks zt”l aptly puts it, of that which is uniquely my people’s:

I admire other civilizations and traditions; I believe each has brought something special into the world… but this is ours.

Jewish source texts

Some that don’t work for me…

As you may imagine, there are a lot of ancient Jewish sources that deal with education, particularly in relation to a father educating his son, and with a particular emphasis on discipline and ‘not sparing the rod’. For example, Proverb 13:24:

חוֹשֵׂךְ שִׁבְטוֹ, שׂוֹנֵא בְנוֹ; וְאֹהֲבוֹ, שִׁחֲרוֹ מוּסָר. He who spares the rod hates his son, But he who loves him disciplines him early.

Color me modern, but I would never lift a hand against any child of mine; and beyond that, I fundamentally reject the Bible’s expectations of a child, as stated quite plainly in Proverbs 29:15:

שֵׁבֶט וְתוֹכַחַת, יִתֵּן חָכְמָה; וְנַעַר מְשֻׁלָּח, מֵבִישׁ אִמּוֹ. The rod and reproof give wisdom; but a child left to himself causes his mother shame.


I cite these texts because pretending that they do not exist would be dishonest, as I want to ground my ‘ethical will’ in my tradition. However, the thrust of the approach above to education leaves me feeling cold, for such biblical sources are simply ancient and in no way reflect my thinking or perceptions. While I must, of course, allow for cultural and other historical developments, I nonetheless find this attitude towards pedagogy entirely unrelatable.

There are, of course, other Jewish texts on education, many of which focus on the study of particular religious texts and the performance of particular religious rituals at particular ages, but these are not so relevant to my thoughts on education in general.

… and some that do

I have already written my ‘ethical will’ entry on the importance of raising individuals, which includes a traditional Jewish text on pedagogy, also from the Book of Proverbs (22:6), which strongly speaks to me:

חֲנֹ֣ךְ לַ֭נַּעַר עַל־פִּ֣י דַרְכּ֑וֹ גַּ֥ם כִּֽי־יַ֝זְקִ֗ין לֹֽא־יָס֥וּר מִמֶּֽנָּה׃ Educate a youth according to his way; he will not swerve from it even in old age.

Now, while every child has their individual strengths and weaknesses, the Jewish sages thought it necessary to suggest four models of learners. The following source comes to us from a text known as the ‘Ethics of the Fathers’ (5:15), which is more precisely translated as ‘Chapters of the Fathers’:

אַרְבַּע מִדּוֹת בְּיוֹשְׁבִים לִפְנֵי חֲכָמִים: סְפוֹג, וּמַשְׁפֵּךְ, מְשַׁמֶּֽרֶת, וְנָפָה. סְפוֹג, שֶׁהוּא סוֹפֵג אֶת הַכֹּל. וּמַשְׁפֵּךְ, שֶׁמַּכְנִיס בְּזוֹ וּמוֹצִיא בְזוֹ. מְשַׁמֶּֽרֶת, שֶׁמּוֹצִיאָה אֶת הַיַּֽיִן וְקוֹלֶֽטֶת אֶת הַשְּׁמָרִים. וְנָפָה, שֶׁמּוֹצִיאָה אֶת הַקֶּֽמַח וְקוֹלֶֽטֶת אֶת הַסּֽוֹלֶת: There are four types among those who sit before the sages: the sponge, the funnel, the strainer and the sieve. The sponge absorbs all. The funnel takes in at one end and lets it out the other. The strainer lets out the wine and retains the sediment. The sieve lets out the coarse flour and retains the fine flour.

What I particularly appreciate about this 2nd source is that it feels to me like the early stages (200 CE) of an attempt to develop an inclusive pedagogic program that takes different learning styles into account. One may dismiss the categories as overly simplistic, perhaps, but the rabbis’ articulation of their collective concern and consideration is important.

While the Jewish tradition’s sources on education are rather a mixed bag, I find these last two very gratifying and relatable.

The sponge

In 7th grade I had an especially fantastic English teacher (Mrs. Stephanie Margolies) who metaphorically “gifted” each of her students an object from her classroom at the end of the year and explained the symbolism behind each of her personal “gifts” to us. She bequeathed upon me the large sponge that she used for washing the blackboard because, as she explained, I was endlessly asking questions during class.

The text above from the ‘Ethics of our Fathers’ has made me think about being a sponge in another way that I also find myself relating to. It’s the idea that the sponge absorbs everything – both good and bad – with no filter. Everything goes in and gets mixed around with everything else.

This trait is something that I find myself continuing to struggle with – I’m constantly absorbing bits of information from everywhere and everyone, and I’m always curious about everything at once, seeking clarification of even the most minor details. It makes focusing on any one thing for an extended period of time very difficult for me, and when I manage to focus on something, I get very annoyed with anyone or anything that distracts me (although I have gotten much better at not expressing my frustration).

I get bored of doing one thing for too long because everything else around me is interesting all the time. In fact, I have subconsciously taught myself to entirely avoid exploring certain things because I would never get anything done otherwise. This is essentially a defense mechanism for me – the choice to ignore certain aspects of the world entirely.

It was a terrible mistake for me to pursue my undergraduate degree in engineering because I was never interested in it; the world around me was much more fascinating. My graduate degree in public policy was a step in the right direction because it broadened my understanding and appreciation of how my society operated, but ending up behind a desk at the U.S. Department of Energy sent me towards depression – it was not long before I became bored out of my mind.

Even now, I’m not sure what choices I should have made as a young man, in terms of my higher education, but taking off some time before entering college would have been a wise move for me. I think that it’s not only on our parents to treat us as individuals, but also on us to actively seek to better understand ourselves. Education remains, unquestionably, a top priority for me; but it must not be embarked upon merely for the sake of diplomas and credentials, as I did.

53 thoughts on “Ethical will: Education”

  1. What a great post David!
    Education is the very best gift that we can gift our children. Both my husband I came from families that didn’t honor education since it was not something that was afforded to them. We fortunately paid for our college and went. I love the the family values and traditions insitilled in being a Jew!
    I also love your pointing out the places that you have carved out your own truths and values honoring your children and draw a line in the sand. Love the story and great video.

    1. Cindy – thank you so much for your kind comment. I really do try to create a balance between honoring my tradition, which I don’t like to simply reject out of hand, and my own truth (as you put it). It’s an ongoing struggle for me 🙂

      Much love,

  2. Very good post. I agree about Proverbs’ pedagogy. I prefer the story in the Talmud about the rabbi who patiently explained every lesson 400 times for a student who could not understand.

  3. I loved the four types of learners. Your sponge model is quite obvious from your writings. A good informative and thought provoking post.

  4. Interesting, these days I muse on the thought that I should’ve become an ICU nurse. The field of nursing, care and rehabilitation fascinates me. Or maybe I have grown an intense love for people in the health sector. The relationship between doctor and patient is truly a love affair. If both don’t win each other’s hearts the course is lost, particularly in the time of covid.
    Education is vital and ironically Muslim and Hindus are a minority in my country but I find them all over in the academic stream of health, technology, science, education and research compared to the Christian minority of people of colour.

    Fascinating read. And yes in business and education, in developing towns the Jewish People are on top of things.

    1. Abi,

      When my passion for Judaism and Jewish community blossomed, I fantasized about becoming a rabbi, and then when I left my job in Washington, DC, I thought again about becoming a rabbi… but, for various practical reasons, it never happened. I wrote a bit about that here –

      Now I just blog about Judaism instead 😀

      I really appreciate your honest and sensitive comments, Abi.

      Thank you,

  5. Well you clinched it for me with that last sentence! It’s an interesting topic and it has certainly given rise to a great conversation. I for one would make a clear definition between formal education and spiritual education, as I’m sure many Buddhists for example make up in the latter what they lack in the former. I always followed my heart in my educational choices even though there was no clear career path, and now I’m pleased I did because ultimately it enriched my life. I feel very strongly that education should not be about targets and league tables but about expanding our minds and fostering a love of learning 😅 unfortunately many governments feel differently. As for the Jewish educational tradition, I’d be interested to know what education girls received in the past, and how that differs now. Sorry long comment, but it was a thought-provoking post!

    1. Ingrid,

      I always followed my heart in my educational choices even though there was no clear career path, and now I’m pleased I did because ultimately it enriched my life.

      You possessed a wisdom that I lacked. I wish I had done the same as you.

      As for the Jewish educational tradition, I’d be interested to know what education girls received in the past, and how that differs now.

      Well, let me start with the past because that’s easier – in the past, boys were taught Torah, and especially Talmud, and girls were generally not. This began to change in the early 20th century in Poland (although not in regards to Talmud), as you can read here:

      Mind you, what I’m describing here is specific to the ultra-Orthodox community, which is the least modern (and the school in Poland that I linked to above is of the non-Hasidic ultra-Orthodox community, just to be clear).

      There is an ironic dynamic that has developed, particularly among ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel, which is that because men are expected to and pressured to study Talmud full-time, and because they are not taught basic core curricular subjects in most ultra-Orthodox schools, it’s actually the ultra-Orthodox women who are better educated and more employable.

      In pretty much all other modern communities, when it comes to general education, I’d say that men and women are on equal footing.


      1. That’s interesting David, thanks for this perspective.

        I still spent years doing jobs I hated, but I always had this rich intellectual life for which I’m so grateful. I’m putting it to more ‘practical’ use these days…

        1. Ingrid – I just found this:

          From that link:

          Globally, the youngest Jewish women ages 25 and older are more highly educated than their male peers due to larger gains among women than men in nearly every region of the world. Jewish women have gained one more year of schooling, on average, across the three generations in the study; the oldest cohort has an average of 13.2 years of schooling, and the youngest has 14.2 years. Men’s attainment, meanwhile, has remained relatively stable across generations (the oldest Jewish men have 13.6 years of schooling while the youngest have 13.4 years). As a result, the youngest Jewish women now have nearly a full year more of schooling (0.8 years, on average) than the youngest Jewish men.

          1. That makes sense, wherever women have the same opportunities as men they are excelling. Good news for your daughter!

  6. Very intersting David! On the ways of education bit in the scriptures, I think all systems started in similar ways, but we have hopefully learnt to “spare the rod” by now, at least partially and literally. But the aspect of “disciplining” the child by thought forcing and thought manipulation as part of education is still prevalent, I see it at least around me.
    The four categorisation is very interesting too. I find my approach to be the absorb all kind, I have a lot of problems with distractions, which are very frequent in digital media. I think printed media was more helpful in this aspect, it helped to focus on one subject. I am still to build my defense against this, as I waft away from one subject to another frequently while reading. I often visualize this as wandering deeper and deeper into the ocean till I am at risk of losing my track.
    Great post again on an interesting topic!

    1. the aspect of “disciplining” the child by thought forcing and thought manipulation as part of education is still prevalent, I see it at least around me.

      I see it too, Deb, and I reject it. Our approach to parenting is entirely the opposite – to let our child discover herself.

      I often visualize this as wandering deeper and deeper into the ocean till I am at risk of losing my track.

      That is something that I can definitely relate to! Well written!

      Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment, Deb.


  7. mmh – it’s past my bed time here, so maybe I am getting the wrong end of the stick here David, but it seems to me like you are trying to work out the Einstein-in-you: meaning the eccentric genius = systemic thinker? Best -,

    1. Barbara, that’s sweet, but I can promise you that I’m no genius of any sort. I am intelligent, sure, and I’m proud of that, but I have met people who are truly brilliant – I have no idea if they’re technically geniuses, absent IQ tests, but I am not in their category by any stretch of the imagination. I’m just a regular person 🙃


      1. haha – you might as well turn your smile upside down at that 🙂 – how about: you have simply not found your inner Einstein yet. 😉

  8. So well written, and intriguing, David. And concludes just as I would wish it to. As a college teacher, whose employers are obviously concerned with fiscal and legislative matters (which are intricately entwined), it should matter to me that as many people as possible attend school. And yet, when I was a twenty year old in university, it seemed to me the wisest students were those who had indeed taken time away, working, raising families, perhaps, only coming back to school when it really mattered to them for, let’s say, other reasons. They were in their forties, fifties–and I admired the hell out of them. In my 40s, I returned to university–here in Utah–and was finally ready to really learn. Majored in Middle Eastern history and cultures, and it never became a new job for me–but I loved learning then! … Anyway, mate, thank you for sharing all of this and for getting me thinking.

    1. Majored in Middle Eastern history and cultures

      Hey, that’s so cool, George! I didn’t know that about you 😁 – that explains the class you took on Jewish mysticism!


  9. My late husband, who had a degree from Harvard Law School and a Master’s in Health Services Research from Stanford Medical School, once said to me, “I think you are getting a wonderful education at UDC!” I thought surely he was joking, but he wasn’t. He went on to say he had missed out on the liberal arts courses I was taking in preparation for a teaching career.

    While we lived in DC for seven years, we haunted the Smithsonian and bought season tickets to ballet. classical music, and folk performances at the Kennedy Center. We hung out in art museums, street festivals, Marine Band concerts, and ethnic restaurants. We did quite a lot of travel also. We soaked up “culture” for seven years! It was wonderful! I learned more from living in DC than from the degrees I got from two DC universities. Although I never made it to Jerusalem, it seems to be a very cosmopolitan city with cultural opportunities. It certainly has a wealth of historical sites to explore.

    I am a strong believer in education, both formal and informal, and found your post fascinating! I think the generalization that Jewish people value education is accurate. That has also been said about Asian students in the US.

    Take care, David! ❤

    1. Cheryl, I agree with all of this. And, BTW, regarding Asian students in the USA – I have an anecdote.

      My brother is younger than me by nearly 20 years. He attended the same public school system that I did. When I was in high school, taking the high level honors and AP classes, the students in those classes were fairly diverse- Jews, East Asians, Indians, Europeans, etc., etc. 20 years later, when my brother was taking those same classes, almost all of the students in them were East Asians. My brother’s friends from school were all Korean, Chinese, Taiwanese, etc.

      That’s the difference a generation makes.


  10. It’s really cool how such inclusive ideas existed such a long time ago about learner types!
    I went through university, and did a masters mainly because I didn’t want to leave university and face the real world. Also I had no idea what I wanted to do, and realistically still don’t. I agree education is important but not for the sake of qualifications like you say. But it’s a really inspiring thing when I start studying something that’s so interesting I’m studying for enjoyment rather than need!

    1. it’s a really inspiring thing when I start studying something that’s so interesting I’m studying for enjoyment rather than need!

      Emine, this is exactly what I think. It’s seems obvious, but so many of us seem to take the other route through education. I would not want my child[ren] to make that mistake, which is why I included this in my ‘ethical will’.

      Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment.


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