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.

Seriously?

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.

Ethical will: Loving-kindness

In composing my ethical will, I usually find myself resistant to including entries that should, according to my sensibilities, be self-evident. That’s not to say that I personally exemplify any of these self-evidently positive traits; rather, it is to say that I wish I did.

On the other hand, my ethical will is, by default, a Jewish document, and it strikes me that no such ethical will would be complete without the traditional basics. In the ancient Jewish text called ‘Pirkei Avot’, which is known in English as ‘Ethics of the Fathers’ (but is more precisely translated as ‘Chapters of the Fathers’), the following text is broadly known among Jewish scholars and laypeople alike (Ch. 1:2):

… עַל שְׁלשָׁה דְבָרִים הָעוֹלָם עוֹמֵד, עַל הַתּוֹרָה וְעַל הָעֲבוֹדָה וְעַל גְּמִילוּת חֲסָדִים: … The world stands on three things: on the Torah, on the Service [to God], and on [deeds of] loving-kindness.

This is, of course, hardly the only ancient Jewish text to highlight loving-kindness, and today’s Jewish scholars and religious leaders have certainly not abandoned this most basic of religious tenets either. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks zt”l (1948-2020) wrote:

Acts of kindness never die. They linger in the memory, giving life to other acts in return.

‘From Optimism to Hope p. 130

‘Loving-kindness’ as the cornerstone of successful marriage

According to Rabbi Ismar Schorsch

I found a beautiful vort (Yiddish for ‘word’ of Torah) shared by Rabbi Schorsch (1935-), which highlights the degree to which Jewish tradition emphasizes ‘loving kindness’. It spoke to me in particular because it highlights the profound significance of ‘loving kindness’ in marriage, which is exactly what first came to my mind when I chose to include this Jewish value in my ethical will.

I encourage you to read the entire vort, but following are the salient sections:

We don’t pick spouses for our children anymore. But if we did, what trait would we single out as the best indicator of a happy marriage?

This is the task that Abraham, feeling the increasing weight of his years, gives to Eliezer, the steward of his household. Isaac, the son of his old age, is still without a helpmate…

Eliezer… devises a character test that will identify a suitable wife for Isaac… He will rest his caravan of ten camels and ask a young woman for water for himself. If she responds by giving him a drink and then spontaneously watering his camels as well, she will have marked herself as a person worthy of his master’s son.

The first woman Eliezer confronts is Rebekah, the granddaughter of Abraham’s brother, and she indeed reacts with rare magnanimity. “Drink, my lord…. I will also draw for your camels, until they finish drinking (Genesis 24:18-19).

The Torah regards this cameo portrait as so important that it indulges in an exceptional threefold repetition – first Eliezer’s own musings, then the description of the event itself and, finally, its retelling by Eliezer to Rebekah’s greedy brother, Laban. Such lavish attention should not go unnoticed by us.

Maimonides (1138-1204) went so far as to posit that cruelty is utterly alien to Judaism. No Jewish community was to be without a society devoted to the fostering of deeds of loving kindness, cheering bride and groom, visiting the sick, burying the dead or comforting mourners…

The Torah begins and ends with striking examples of acts of loving kindness. God clothes Adam and Eve and buries Moses personally. In between we are treated to an incomparable feast of striving for self-transcendence. Every Jew is called upon to add to the sum total of divine sparks in the world.

-Rabbi Ismar Schorsch (1935-)

My good luck

My wife

It would embarrass my wife to know that I’m writing the following, but here goes anyway:

That which most attracted me to my not-yet-wife at the start of our relationship was her kindness, which she glows with. In fact, in the years previous to meeting her, I had spent some time contemplating which character traits I would most like my potential spouse to have, and I came to the conclusion that kindness was the most important to me.

Papa & Mama

I would also like to add the following:

After Papa died in 2018, I thought a lot about what I had most appreciated about him, and I must say that it was certainly his kindness. I have listed many of Papa’s most positive traits, but – his loving-kindness remains the one that first comes to my mind. His kindness was of the most simple, natural kind – and it informed his general selflessness.

It is my belief that Mama, being incredibly kind herself, was drawn in large part to Papa’s gentle kindness – I have come to consider this one of the pillars of their marriage. (I haven’t asked Mama about this thought of mine, but it is my strong impression.)


Loving-kindness ≠ charity

In writing about kindness from a Jewish perspective, it’s important to draw a distinction between the Jewish understandings of ‘charity’ and ‘loving-kindness’. In fact, the word ‘charity’ is an inexact translation of the Jewish word ‘tzedakah’.

‘Tzedakah’ is a word derived from the Hebrew root dq (צדק), which means: ‘Justice’. In Jewish tradition, you see, ‘tzedakah’ is an obligatory 10% of one’s earnings, as a matter of social justice. Even the poorest Jew is religiously mandated to give away 10% of their earnings to others. ‘Charity’, on the other hand, is voluntary. Not so ‘tzedakah’.

The rabbis of the Talmud drew a sharp distinction between ‘tzedakah’ and ‘loving-kindness’ (‘gemilut ḥasadim’), ultimately concluding that ‘loving-kindness’ is the superior act (Tractate Sukkah 49b):

ת”ר בשלשה דברים גדולה גמילות חסדים יותר מן הצדקה צדקה בממונו גמילות חסדים בין בגופו בין בממונו צדקה לעניים גמילות חסדים בין לעניים בין לעשירים צדקה לחיים גמילות חסדים בין לחיים בין למתים Our Rabbis taught, In three respects is gemilut ḥasadim superior to tzedakah: tzedakah can be done only with one’s money, but gemilut ḥasadim can be done with one’s person and one’s money. Tzedakah can be given only to the poor, gemilut ḥasadim both to the rich and the poor. Tzedakah can be given to the living only, gemilut ḥasadim can be done both to the living and to the dead.

It’s important to understand this fundamental point if we’re going to expound upon ‘loving-kindness’ from a Jewish perspective: this is not an entry about ‘charity’.


My daughter

As I watch my six-year-old daughter grow up, I am moved by her constant acts of kindness. Even when she was younger and less articulate than she is now, she was constantly warming the hearts of others will her love and sweet affection.

When we used to visit my Babushka (mother’s mother), for example, my daughter would climb up unto the couch next to her and smother the old woman with hugs and kisses; and this was at a stage in Babushka’s life when she was blind, weak, and generally unable to entertain her youngest great grandchild. Once, when Babushka felt her way down the hall to the bathroom, our little girl took her by the hand so that she wouldn’t bump into the walls.

I suppose that it’s actually an odd thing for me to be waxing didactic about ‘loving-kindness’ in my ethical will, which is ostensibly for my very kind & loving child… Really, I should be learning about it from her.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks on difference

The test of faith is whether I can make space for difference. Can I recognize God’s image in someone who is not in my image, whose language, faith, ideal, are different from mine? If I cannot, then I have made God in my image

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks zt”l, 1948-2020

The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 10

My father z”l identified as a non-religious Jew, à la the Israeli paradigm of religious identity (as does my mother), but this bears clarification.

Babushka z”l (my mother’s mother) described my parents as “religious,” which both would consider amusing. I spoke with my Babushka nearly every day for years, and she often voiced this. According to her, my wife and I were “quite kosher” (совсем кошерные), and my parents were simply religious (просто религиозные). Granted, her familiarity with Judaism was limited, still Babushka was the most intuitive woman I’ve ever known.

* * *

An anecdote:

After years of celebrating the Jewish holidays in America away from family, my parents and I flew to Israel for Pesach when I was yet in my teens. Our previous visits had been during summer vacations, but that year we made an intentional decision to share Passover with our family. One memory pierces through the fog: the shock when everyone began to eat without delving into the Hagaddah. Now, my parents and I certainly had no sense of obligation to read the Haggadah in its entirety (and we never did), but our concept of Pesach was grounded in tradition; our seder went beyond simply putting a seder plate on the table. I recall my mother’s reflection later: “We’re never doing that again.”

* * *

For my father, intellectually curious as he was, Pesach was a pleasure. He enjoyed the text of the Hagaddah, and he took pleasure in riffing on it (…אני כבן שבעים שנה). Also, the seder is a private affair, his comfort zone. Thinking back, I recall my father challenging me to share my insights at our seder, but I was never inclined to be decoded and unriddled by him.

In any case, was he non-religious?

* * *

In Israel, there are popularly accepted categories of Jewish religious identity.  Haredi (ultra-Orthodox), Dati Leumi (Religious Zionist), Masorti (Traditional), and Hiloni (Secular). One may well submit that my father was Masorti.

A ~dozen years ago, Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics officially split the “Masorti” category into two subcategories: “Traditional – Close to Religion” (מסורתי – קרוב לדת) and “Traditional – Not so Close to Religion” (מסורתי – לא כל כך קרוב לדת). The Bureau did not see fit to divide any of the other major demographic categories. Given the new subcategories, perhaps my father was “Close to Religion,” at least in spirit.

graph

* * *

Upon first coming into contact with Orthodox Jews when I was eighteen, I was struck by their model of cohesive Jewish community. I was drawn to their warmth and to the traditions and institutions that united them.

Having never experienced a non-Orthodox approach to Judaism that inspired me, I eagerly absorbed the messages I received from rabbis, educators, and community members regarding Orthodox Judaism’s exclusive claim to Jewish authenticity. Even as my religious practices fluctuated throughout the years, I judged myself and everybody else by the theological and cultural norms of Orthodoxy.

By the time I came to Israel to study Torah more than ten years later, I had gained exposure to a wider range of compelling and empowering Jewish perspectives. Enamorment had faded, and many of Orthodoxy’s claims no longer rang true. Still, the traditional and unshakable commitment to Jewish religious life and peoplehood remained alluring; and I had picked up on hints of a freethinking, intellectual strain of Orthodoxy, which gave me hope.

I will forever admire my teachers in Jerusalem for their commitments to Torah and masorah on the one hand, and to reason and modernity on the other. For some years, learning at their feet, I thought I’d found a home in Orthodoxy; I thought I could belong.

But knowledge.

* * *

In his work The Jewish Religion: A Companion theologian Rabbi Louis Jacobs z”l (1920-2006) describes the popular understanding of ‘Orthodoxy’ as follows:

[at the beginning of the nineteenth century] the term [came to be] used… as a convenient shorthand for the attitude of complete loyalty to the Jewish past… faithfulness to the practices of Judaism, to the halakhah (Jewish law) in its traditional formulation.

The term once described a theological response to the Jewish Enlightenment and the Jewish Emancipation. Today, faithfulness to traditional halakhah no longer defines Orthodoxy, as Popchassid.com explains cuttingly:

Rather than truly being a defining word… ‘orthodox’ has been an attempt by Jews to force people into a… reality in which they must adhere to certain culturally-defined strictures in order to be considered that word.

Thus, a person could keep Shabbat and kashrut, but also lie, steal, not pay back debts… and still be considered orthodox.

Or a person could start to have doubts about their beliefs, start to look in different areas for enlightenment, perhaps even stop keeping certain things, like Shabbat… and they are defined as ‘off the derech’

Why are defrauders and sex offenders still accepted as Orthodox?

* * *

What’s not ‘Orthodox’?

Partnership with Reform and Conservative rabbis and synagogues is stigmatized. Tacit validation of non-Orthodox Judaism’s authenticity tarnishes an Orthodox leader’s standing in Orthodox society.

This hearkens back to the theological disputes during the period of the Jewish Emancipation some two hundred years ago when the Jewish denominations (including Orthodoxy!) were born. Within Orthodoxy, there were different approaches. Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch z”l (1808-1888) asserted that Orthodox Jews should secede from communities that maintained Reform institutions, while Rabbi Márkus Horovitz z”l (1844-1910) served with the conviction that differing religious approaches could coexist.

Today’s mainstream Orthodox view, expressed by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks below, rejects pluralism. This is at odds with those who assert that any Judaism that doesn’t recognize the validity of non-Orthodox Judaism is itself invalid, as Rabbi Emil Fackenheim z”l expressed:

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks
(1948-)
Orthodox
Rabbi Emil Fackenheim, z”l
(1916-2003)
Reform
“Within Judaism… Orthodoxy, Conservatism, Reform, and Reconstructionism are regularly portrayed as the four Jewish denominations. Those who think in these terms see such a description as just that: neutrally descriptive. But it contains a momentous hidden premise. It imports pluralism into Judaism… Orthodoxy… does not validate, in the modern sense, a plurality of denominations. Orthodox Judaism remains a modern-minded possibility – if it is open-minded regarding the possible validity of other, non-Orthodox forms of Judaism as well. This line of thought, to be sure, produces the specter of an all-encompassing relativism. But however one may cope with that specter, the fear of it does not justify resort to a medieval-style authoritarianism that can no longer be honestly maintained.”
One People
p. 31
What is Judaism?
pp. 28-29

 

Opposition to granting any validation to the non-Orthodox streams manifests in religious edicts issued by Orthodox rabbis and rabbinic associations, aimed at setting their society apart from Reform and Conservative Judaism. Such edicts are couched in halakhic language, but are ultimately sociocultural.

For example, Rabbi Hershel Schacter, a prominent rosh yeshiva at Yeshiva University, declared the ordination of women to be a threat to the fabric of the Orthodox community. His YU colleague Rabbi Brander explained: “such an initiative, if institutionalized, challenges the… Orthodox community vis-à-vis the Conservative and Reform.” It’s not that halakha forbids women’s ordination. Rather it’s that Orthodox religious leaders don’t want to be perceived as Reform or Conservative.

Sex offenders may be Orthodox. Female rabbis may not. In a brilliant and scholarly article called The Novelty of Orthodoxy, Rabbi Natan Slifkin (I simply cannot recommend his article enough) provides the historic context and explanation for incongruities like this one (p.6):

It was not actually the case that Orthodoxy opposed all change… Rather, Orthodoxy’s overriding concern was to oppose changes that appeared to be changes; changes that came from without, rather than from within.

Female rabbis, you see, come from without. Criminals may come from within.

* * *

I had been pushing my doubts aside, dreaming of and hoping for an inspiring, modern-minded Orthodoxy. I had found an ugly, modern political battle over a hollow identity construct. The walls (whose foundations had been set in college) crumbled; I stopped caring about Orthodoxy qua Orthodoxy.

A yearning for belonging remains; it would be easier, of course. It would be less lonely. (Just leave your conscience at the door.)

I am not Orthodox. I am not Reform. I am not Conservative. I am Jewish and done with sociopolitical nonsense. I am “Traditional – Close to Religion,” and I am motivated by love of my People and my heritage. My Jewish identity is my own, just as my father’s Jewish identity belonged to nobody but himself.