Rekindling the revolutionary spirit of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Gamla
Which is the most important cabinet appointment that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will make? As coalition bargaining begins for cabinet appointments, many focus on the crucial Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Finance, Defence and those directly impacting the security or the political and economic standing of Israel. However, probably the most important Ministry for the long term interests of Israel is that of Education, which not only has the power to raise the standard of general education in Israel but, more specifically and significantly, the capability to radically improve the nature and quality of Torah education for Israeli children, thereby creating the society of the future.
Jewish history has proven that Torah education is the life blood of our people. There was one historic decision, in particular, that made this principle absolutely clear for all generations. It was a decision that had to be made on the spur of the moment but that changed everything, and its consequences are still being felt almost 2,000 years later. The Roman Empire had invaded the Land of Israel and surrounded Jerusalem. Vespasian, the Roman military commander in Judea, had just been appointed emperor. He had deep respect for Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, the great Talmudic scholar and leader of the Jewish people, and so granted him one request, including the possibility of saving Jerusalem and the Temple. Contrary to conventional wisdom, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai boldly requested, “Give me Yavneh and its sages.” (Gemara Gittin 56b). With Yavneh being the epicentre of Jewish learning at the time, Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakkai expressed his belief that Torah learning is vital to the Jewish future, that it is our life force and the secret to our continuity.
Jewish history has vindicated the seemingly controversial decision of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai. It is self-evident that throughout the centuries the communities and individuals that have thrived, have been those for whom Torah learning – and specifically the Torah education of children – has been a central value and way of life; such communities and individuals have been beacons of vitality, growth and inspiration. It is the Diaspora communities that have prioritized and invested wholeheartedly in schools dedicated to Torah education, that have the highest levels of commitment to Jewish values and the lowest rates of inter-marriage and assimilation. And therein lies the crucial influence of the Israeli Minister of Education; his or her decisions and undertakings will impact generations of Israelis to come and, hence, the very continuity of the Jewish people.
We need a revolution. For the sake of the long term future of the Jewish people, the new Education Minister, and indeed Jewish communal leaders around the world, need to act in the spirit of a great Jewish educational revolutionary from two thousand years ago: Rabbi Yehoshua ben Gamla, whom the Talmud (Bava Batra 21a) singles out for special and unusual praise as the founder of our first national Torah educational system. Education until then was home-based and overseen by parents motivated by the mitzvah to teach one’s children Torah. The quality of education was haphazard as it depended on the individual circumstances of each family. Subsequently, with the support of the great sages of the Talmud, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Gamla, established the halachic system whereby every city established its own school for children from the age of six upwards. And thus, probably the world’s first, broad-based comprehensive schooling became an integral part of Jewish life. The duty of every Jewish community across the world to provide a school dedicated to Torah education, is so rudimentary and crucial that the Rambam (Hilchot Talmud Torah 2:1) rules, based on the Talmud, that any community that neglects to do so is liable to be severely sanctioned even by excommunication.
Our great sages of the Talmud (Shabbat 119b) teach that “the world exists in the merit of the breath of young children learning Torah.” They state that even the awesome project of building the Beit HaMikdash is secondary in importance. Practically, this means that Torah classes should not be interrupted to conscript the children into assisting with the building of Beit HaMikdash, which ostensibly seems by far more significant. The building of the Beit HaMikdash represents the grandest and holiest national enterprise of the Jewish people but is, nonetheless, secondary to teaching children Torah. So often Jewish communities give greater priority to endeavours other than Torah schooling when, in reality, there is nothing greater – not even the construction of the Beit Hamikdash.
The Jewish world needs modern-day revolutionaries like Rabbi Yehoshua ben Gamla. We need revolutionaries dedicated to raising a new generation of literate Jews, who are familiar with the awesome intellectual and spiritual heritage of the Tanach, Talmud and other great works of Judaism; revolutionaries who will move beyond the vagaries of the term “Jewish education” and define our objectives more specifically. For example, at a very minimum, every Jewish child must learn the entire Chumash while at school. And what about Pirkei Avot – the classic of Torah philosophy and ethics that has guided our thinking and actions for generations? These and other great Torah works need to become part of the furniture of the minds of Jewish children.
We need educational revolutionaries who understand that beyond basic Jewish literacy, a proper Torah education provides the raison d’etre for Jewish life and gives the new generation the moral vision and motivation to want to be Jewish and continue the Jewish people and fight for the Jewish state. Torah learning is spiritually, intellectually and emotionally refreshing. The Mishnah in Pirkei Avot (6:1) says that a Torah scholar is like a ma’ayan hamitgaber, a spring which flows stronger and stronger. Rav Chaim Volozhiner explains the analogy: even if there is mud covering the spring, the waters will burst forth and wash away the mud until the spring returns to flow as it did before. Like an overflowing spring the life-giving waters of Torah give us increasing strength. As long as the fresh waters of pure Torah are pumping, they will cleanse all impurities, uplift us, and bring renewed vitality. Thus, according to the Midrash (Eichah Rabbah), G-d says, “Even if they were to leave Me but would learn my Torah, the light within it will return them to the good.” Torah learning changes our perspective on life and enables us to understand Hashem’s worldview, thus bringing us closer to Him. A proper Torah education instils in children an understanding of where we come from, what our mission is, and why we believe in the Jewish future.
Israel’s new education minister, and Jewish leaders in diaspora communities across the world, must embrace the daunting responsibility, as well as the privilege to drastically improve our children’s Torah education. There is no margin for error. Success in this revolution is the only guarantee of a long term, vibrant and inspired Jewish future.