Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Never Too Late To Educate

It is a well-known fact that Judaism places tremendous emphasis on education. Thousands of years ago Rabbi Simon ben Shetach (75 B.C.E.) instituted compulsory school attendance. The earliest “public school system” was established less than a century later, in the era of the Talmud, when the great sage Joshua ben Gamala “came and ordained that teachers of young children should be appointed in each district and each town” (Talmud Baba Batra 21a).  “Resh Lakish also said to Rabbi Judah the Prince: I have this tradition from my fathers — others state, from your fathers: Every town in which there are no school children shall be destroyed” (Talmud Shabbat 119b).

For centuries, Jewish boys were sent to master basic Hebrew literacy. Familiarity with all of Jewish tradition was expected from a young age and continuing advanced education was seen as ideal. It should be noted that female education was mostly home-based, as was customary at that time in most of the world. Although there were always educated Jewish women, women’s education was not standardized until the early 20th century when Sarah Schenirer founded the Beth Jacob girls school movement.

In the last century, while Jews have continued to greatly revere education, the emphasis has shifted from Torah education to secular studies. For many Jews, learning Hebrew, if it was learned at all, was relegated to an after-school activity. Therefore, the ancient mission stated by Joshua ben Gamala has had to shift from children to adults.

Obviously, true education must extend beyond learning the aleph-bet. For some in the modern world, it means mastery of the rituals of Shabbat and Jewish holidays, as well as the fundamentals of Jewish law and community customs. For others, Jewish education needs to begin with simple Jewish pride. The onus to fulfill the obligation of teaching those Jews now falls upon every Jew who cares enough to share their knowledge with those who never had the opportunity to learn.

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