All over the editorial pages, from David Brooks, to Ruth Marcus, people are stunned by the candid admissions of Professor Amy Chua, the high priestess of the “Church of Excellence at all Costs”. The WSJ article that caused the stir was a chilling hybrid of incessant devotion implemented with heartless precision.
Part of me wants to call her a Jewish mother on steroids, but the differences are glaring enough that it would be unfair to Jewish mothers. Jewish comedian Joel Chasnoff once quipped that a bumper sticker from a Jewish mother might read, “If my son tried just a little harder, he, too, could be an honor student at Midwood Junior High”. The preoccupation of being first was not a compulsion that is part of our lore, but being good enough to qualify for the best institutions was certainly something to strive for.
For literally thousands of years all Jewish men were required to be literate. In the first century this mandate was undeniably more egalitarian than Greek and Roman societies where literacy was relegated to the elite. The inclusion of women came much later, but eventually literacy was mandated for them as well–even if the curriculum was different. The point of literacy was to not only know the material, but love it, and let it inform the way you lived your life.
Even the style of learning, which was profoundly social, made Torah the center of one’s life. Where everyone else’s books emanated from their culture, our culture was drawn primarily from our books. It is the living Talmud that created a manner of speaking, a set of values, and a host of quirky character traits that are immediately recognized as Jewish.
Once I led a “Birthright Israel” trip of students whose connection to being Jewish was primarily cultural, and a fairly thin cultural attachment at that. We were in Tel Aviv and the theme of the discussion was “Are we special,or are we Normal”. I asked the students if they felt more was expected of them, than was expected of their non-Jewish friends? To a person, they raised their hands in affirmation, and that they recognized it as a good thing. Having always been significantly smaller than my peers, I used to bemoan my diminutive stature to my mother. She would place her finger at my eyebrow level and trace a line to the top of my head and say, “You only have to be big from here to here.” The worship of the intellect was alive and well in Jewish culture, but in its original form, it served a bigger master than itself, it was the key to worshiping the Creator.
If we want to understand the centrality of education, Maimonides spells it out for us explicitly. In Laws of Gifts To the Poor” he teaches that every community is obliged to have a community fund, and he asserts that he never heard of a community in Israel that refused to have one. When he speaks of the obligation to build a synagogue and have a community Torah scroll, he says that citizens of a community can force each other to contribute to these communal necessities. In other words, people are less likely to do this willingly, so some communal pressure is necessary.
When it comes to a school, however, Maimonides, quoting the Talmud, says that it is the obligation of every community to hire a teacher whose job it is to teach the children. If a community refuses to do so, than all of Israel excommunicates that community. If they still refuse to do so, then that community should be destroyed.
Why is the most coercive language used for schools? Everyone knows people need food and shelter. They also know they may need a Torah and a building, but are happy for others to shoulder that burden. In times of stress and poverty, schools may seem like a luxury the community cannot afford, but Ayn Torah Ayn Kemach, if there is no Torah, there will be no bread. Seeing literacy and memory as essential as food and drink created the Jewish commitment to study. The adulation of seeing spiritual ideas as being as important as food and shelter is the secret to a thriving culture. We do it not only for individual achievement, but it is a commitment to advance the community as a whole.
The Beit Midrash is a social environment where we not only learn together, but sing, and dance as well. Learning, however, is always at the center, and is not only revered, but also adored. To see, the original sources of Maimonides, and “Why are Jews So Smart?” Click here.