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The Ethics of Jewish Education

Traditional Jewish education is frozen because of a fear of its strict atmosphere and lack of creativity
Dr. Ariel Picard is a Research Fellow at Shalom Hartman Institute. He previously served as the Director of the Kogod Research Center for Contemporary Jewish Thought and the Educational Director of the Institute’s Be’eri program. Ariel has a PhD in philosophy from Bar-Ilan University and conducts research in contemporary Jewish law. He was ordained as a rabbi by the Israeli Chief Rabbinate and formerly served as the rabbi of Kibbutz Shluchot. Ariel has published widely

It is well known that at a bar or bat mitzvah, the parents say the blessing, "Blessed is he who has now freed me from responsibility for this child." At first glance, this looks to be a very awkward thing to say to a 12- or 13-year old child, that we want to rid ourselves of our responsibility. But if we go more deeply into the idea behind this blessing, there is an important educational philosophy behind it.
We want to educate our children to take responsibility, and there is no responsibility without authority. By saying to our children that we are free from "our" responsibility, we are actually passing our responsibility over to them, and that is a great educational moment. The source of this blessing is from a midrashic text that tries to give an account as to how and why a child such as Esau could have grown up in the house of Yitzhak and Rivka. The Midrash says that the two boys were like a myrtle and a rose bush growing side-by-side. When they attained maturity, one yielded its fragrance, and the other its thorns. For 13 years, each went to school and came home. After that point, one went to the house of study and the other to idolatrous shrines. Rabbi Eleazar said the lesson is that a parent is responsible for his son until the age of 13. Thereafter, the parent must say the blessing mentioned above (Genesis Rabbah 63:14).
The duty of Yitzhak was to educate his children until puberty. But then he had to let them go free. Now, if you want a child such as Yaakov, you must accept the possibility that you will also have a child such as Esau. Why is Yaakov such a great person? He is a self-made man and not a copy of his father. He received the full freedom to become Yaakov. If Esau could not have had the freedom to become Esau, then Yaakov could not have become Yaakov. So, if you want to educate a responsible person, you must give them the freedom and authority to take responsibility onto themselves by their own will.
Our Sages continue with another important lesson: lo habayshan lamed, v’lo ha kapdan l’lamed. (A bashful person cannot learn, nor can an impatient (strict) person teach. Pirkei Avot 2:6) A strict teacher creates a frightened or terrorized student who cannot express his views or argue. So, by saying to us that a teacher should not be strict, the intent is to create an atmosphere of openness or freedom in a classroom that will enable your students to become creative and knowledgeable and to take responsibility for their own learning and identity.
A strict teacher will cause a student to be terrorized, indifferent, or a copycat who just parrots back what he is told without even internalizing the lesson and therefore not being creative about it. This is why a beit midrash should be a place of struggle, argument, and even disagreement, because only in a place where you can hear many voices can you create great music.
Unfortunately, traditional Jewish education as it is today has not continued that marvelous educational philosophy, and that is one explanation for why Judaism is becoming frozen or paralyzed and in defensive mode, because of this fear of the strict atmosphere and a lack of freedom and creativity.
Originally published on the Hartman Institute’s Ethical Imperatives column in the Los Angeles Jewish Journal .

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