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.

Vaccine nation

Did you know? Israel leads the world in percentage of population vaccinated against COVID-19

You know, to be honest, I’ve known this fact about Israel for some time, but I didn’t really appreciate the extent to which it is true until today – when I looked at the data online.

Like many of you, I’m sick and tired of hearing about and reading about COVID-19. To a large extent, I’ve tuned out from COVID-19 news. It’s simply too endless and too depressing. Of course, broadly speaking, I have been following the lock-down and quarantine rules imposed upon my family over the last year, but otherwise I have mostly been trying to live my life as normally as possible. Actual normalcy often seems like no more than a fantasy to me these days, but obsessing over the pandemic is no help – following the news doesn’t grant one any control over the uncontrollable.

This is the first time I have actually written a post about COVID-19. I have been through three lock-downs and two separate quarantines here in Israel, but I have never before been moved to write about any of those experiences. Quite the opposite – I’ve been grimly hoping to simply push through this horrid global insanity.

Anyway, I’m going to write something about it for several reasons.

  1. It turns out that I live in the country, which has, by far, vaccinated the highest percentage of its population against COVID-19, and that deserves my recognition and appreciation.
  2. There are people who oppose vaccination, and I feel that I must take a stand on this, albeit a toothless one.
  3. My fellow local Jerusalemite and friend Dave wrote about it on his blog, leading me to consider doing so myself. (BTW, I agree entirely with everything he wrote on the subject)
  4. I received the first of my two vaccine shots yesterday.

My lived experience

In terms of my lived experience of receiving the first vaccination shot, there’s not much to write, but it goes like this:

Israel has socialized healthcare, and every citizen is a member of one of several major HMO’s. The HMO’s are largely why Israel has been so efficient at distributing vaccines and vaccinating its public. They first began vaccinating the elderly, the sick, healthcare workers, etc., and gradually started reaching out to more and more Israelis.

As a healthy 41-year-old, I received an automated phone call and text message on Tuesday of this week to set up an appointment for COVID-19 vaccination. When I called the following day, they also allowed me to make an appointment for my wife who is five years my junior. Yesterday, we arrived on time, waited in line for half-an-hour or so (maybe more), got vaccinated, waited (as instructed) for 15 minutes, and went home.

Our arms feel slightly sore, but otherwise we are totally fine. Our second vaccination shot has been scheduled for February 11th.

None of this is very interesting, but it shouldn’t be. It should be exactly this mundane and normal to get vaccinated.


A Jewish perspective on getting vaccinated

Since I stand by everything my friend Dave already wrote about why everyone should get vaccinated, I do not feel inclined to rehash any of his thoughts; I think his post on the subject was very excellent. What I would like to do instead is offer a couple of traditional Jewish text sources that inform my thinking on vaccinations in general.

Usually, I include traditional Jewish texts in my ‘ethical will’ entries, but this particular post on vaccination doesn’t quite seem to fit that mold so I’m categorizing it as a regular blog post. Still, I would like to share some very simple thoughts from the perspective of my faith tradition.

Maintaining one’s health

Maimonides (1138-1204) was not only a rabbi, but also a physician; and he wrote the following in his seminal halakhic work, which could not be more clear (‘Mishneh Torah’, ‘Hilchot Deot’ 4:1):

הוֹאִיל וֶהֱיוֹת הַגּוּף בָּרִיא וְשָׁלֵם מִדַּרְכֵי הַשֵּׁם הוּא. שֶׁהֲרֵי אִי אֶפְשָׁר שֶׁיָּבִין אוֹ יֵדַע דָּבָר מִידִיעַת הַבּוֹרֵא וְהוּא חוֹלֶה. לְפִיכָךְ צָרִיךְ לְהַרְחִיק אָדָם עַצְמוֹ מִדְּבָרִים הַמְאַבְּדִין אֶת הַגּוּף. וּלְהַנְהִיג עַצְמוֹ בִּדְבָרִים הַמַּבְרִין וְהַמַּחֲלִימִים. Since maintaining a healthy and sound body is among the ways of God – for one cannot understand or have any knowledge of the Creator, if he is ill – therefore, he must avoid that which harms the body and accustom himself to that which is healthful and helps the body become stronger.

Responsibility to community

Vaccination is not only a matter of guarding one’s personal health. It is only effective if the general public is vaccinated.

This following Jewish text, which speaks to that consideration, is such a classic. It comes from Pirkei Avot, which is often called ‘Ethics of the Fathers’ in English, or, more accurately: ‘Chapters of the Fathers’ (2:4):

אַל תִּפְרוֹשׁ מִן הַצִּבּוּר… Do not separate yourself from the community…

Simply put

I know as well as anyone that one can cherry pick religious texts to make their point. That’s one of the reasons that I have come to be so skeptical about religion and religious leaders in particular. However, my point here is simple – traditional Jewish sources to support getting vaccinated exist. In fact, scholars and rabbis have written about this quite extensively and brought many more sources than I have.

Tolerance of competing ideas is an aspiration of mine, but I confess that I have very little patience for antivaxxers… I consider anti-vaccination to be fundamentally irresponsible – not only for one’s own health, but also for everyone else’s.

If you have the opportunity to get vaccinated against COVID-19, DO IT.

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.