|Is There An Ethical Aim in Education?
By Rabbi Aryeh Carmell
Rabbi Aryeh Carmell was born and educated in London, becoming a Fellow of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors. He gained Semichah in Israel. A noted disciple of Rabbi E. E. Dessler, zt”l, he co-edited the publication of his mussar writings as ‘Michtav MiEliyahu’, published in English as ‘Strive for Truth’. He helped to found the Jewish Scholarship Center in East London, the Association for Promoting Torah Education, and was a founding member of the British Association of Orthodox of Jewish scientists. He is also known for ‘Aiding Talmud Study’, ‘Masterplan’, ‘Challenge’, and ‘Encounter’. He is Vice-Principal, and lecturer in Talmud and Ethics at the Jerusalem Academy.
This has been a hotly debated question over the past century. In a secular society with plurality of religious beliefs, it is very difficult to lay down any specific aims, which could command general consent, as to what is the chief end of man? The Christians used to say, I believe (a statement derived no doubt in the first instance from Jewish source – Luzzato, Preface to Mesillat Yesharim), ‘To glorify G-d and enjoy Him forever’. But if this formula has become meaningless to many people, then the secular society must ask: what we can put in its place? What is the chief end of man, in secularist terms? Is it to ‘eat drink and be merry for tomorrow we die’? Is it to develop the intellect? What for? Is it to develop man’s potential to the full? But man has bad potential as well as good. We mean to develop only the good? But what is good? Surely this begs the question.
Problems in the Non-Jewish Education World
A British Committee on Higher Education wrestled with this problem and they came out with four basic aims:
(1) ‘The acquisition of skills enabling one to play a part in industrial society’
This is a practical aim, which I suppose would most accept – except of course ‘hippies’ and other dropouts from society.
(2) ‘Promotion of the powers of the mind.’
Yes, I suppose so, but again the question arises: what for?
(3) ‘The advancement of learning’
A pious aspiration, but again, for what purpose?
We must note that so far we have no mention of character, qualities of personality, human relationships. But yes, here it comes…
(4)’Transmission of a common culture and common standards of citizenship’.
We must admit that this is pretty vague. What is the common culture? Are there any common standards? I suppose this is where ethics is supposed to appear, but what happens if there are no recognized common standards? What do we aim at? The lowest common denominator? I am afraid we shall get no clear guide- lines for character or personality development here. And in a situation where there is no clear image of the ideal human being, this can hardly be otherwise.
During his long life (1859-1952), John Dewey, the American educationist who perhaps had the profoundest influence on modern education of all recent thinkers was franker. He clearly stated that in his view: “Education has no aims. There is no such thing to which education is subordinate save more education. The Educational process is its own end.”
At turn of the century, when these ideas were first propounded, it was still possible to believe that we knew what we were talking about when we spoke of developing the pupil’s power to the full – to the best advantage. It meant integrating him into economic life, making him an independent, upright, healthy, sensible human being, who would earn a honest living, found a family and generally spread goodness and light all around him. The fact that in a secular context no logical grounds could be given for these beliefs could be conveniently ignored. One could forget that the phrase ‘to the best advantage’ was again a question – begging one, leaving unanswered the question, ‘What is really best for human beings, and why?’
This was because a hundred years ago the atmosphere, the climate of opinion, was still permeated by religious ideas, emanating in the final instance from our Torah. One felt that one ‘knew in one’s bones’ what ‘best’ meant without needing to articulate it or spell it out on its logical grounds.
This is no longer the case. People have pursued the secularist ideas to their logical conclusions. If there are indeed no absolute standards, then why bother to integrate in society? Why bother to spread sweetness and light? If we are indeed animals then why not behave like animals? Why indeed bother to develop the powers of the mind at all? And since a person’s ‘powers and personality’ included aggressive urges and the desire to crush and destroy those one doesn’t like, maybe education should encourage these too, as it did under the Nazis? There is no ultimate and convincing answer to these questions on secularist terms.
The result of the spread of these ideas has been a progressive weakening of the power of inner resistance to the evil in the human heart. The results of this have been manifold and widespread and there is no need to recount them all here. There is however one particular practical effect which it is worth- while discussing. This is the ‘battered baby syndrome’. There has been in recent years an increasing number of cases where police find babies battered to death in their homes. Although they are ostensibly accident cases, it is painfully clear in some cases that the parents caused the injuries themselves. Sociologists are at loss to explain this phenomenon. I will suggest that parents, particularly fathers, occasionally have murderous urges towards their infant children. These may derive from subconscious feelings of jealousy, or merely from subconscious resentment at the infant’s disturbance of the parents’ sleep or other comforts. In times when absolute standards of morality were accepted, such urges were vigorously repressed as soon as they obtruded into consciousness and in normal cases never came near expression in action. Fifty years of conditioning against absolute standards have lowered the threshold of resistance to irrational aggressive urges of this sort. These are therefore now acted on in a much higher proportion of cases than previously.
This is a consequence of his doctrine, which I am sure John Dewey never envisaged.
But to Dewey’s credit we can mark up the idea of child-centered education – the concept enshrined in Great Britain in the 1944 Education Act, and which is in operation in many schools today.
On this view the process of education is seen not as the transference of the subject matter to the passive mind of a child, but as a co-operative enterprise in which the child learns voluntarily by the stimulation of his own efforts and interests. This is an idea, which, as we shall see, strikes chords also in our own Jewish conception of education.
Some other problems
Other problems with which the non-Jewish educational worlds are having to grapple include the question of education for leisure, and the problem of relevance.
The proportion of leisure to work has vastly increased over the past eighty years and is likely to increase much more in the near future. One of the most serious problems the world has to face is whether our present system of education equips people with inner resources sufficient to cope with this great increase in leisure without becoming mentally unbalanced. As our Rabbis put it,
‘Idleness leads to the loosening of all moral restraints, and eventually to madness’ (Ketubot 59b).
But this is a problem, which is perhaps not so much before the public eye as the problem of relevance.
In the upper forms of many schools and particularly in the universities the cry is going up: what is the relevance of all that we are learning? In what way is it relevant to the realities of life, to the real problems of mankind? In this age of the apparent triumph of science and technology we are witnessing the amazing phenomenon of thousands of empty science places at our universities. In the more militant student groups, the relevance of all academic learning is being challenged. “Promotion of the mind” as an end is no longer self-evident.
To what extent do these problems apply to Jewish education?
The confusion in the definition of the aims of education which, as we saw, prevails in the secular world, can have no place in the sphere of Jewish education. We, at least, know what we are trying to achieve; and why. As the prophet says, ‘You have been told, O Man, what is good and what G-d, Your G-d, demands of you…’ (Micha 6:8)
In response to the demands of our G-d we want our children to be observant Jews, shomerey Mitzvot, fully conscious of their Jewish heritage and willing to live by it in their everyday lives. We will never be satisfied with ‘Jewish knowledge’ or ‘Hebraic culture’ (G-d preserve us!). We shall be satisfied only when our children become ovedey hashem, servants of the Almighty, identifying with all past and future generations of Jews. Our aims are thus precise and detailed and based on sound historical and religious foundations. There is a good deal of room for them, for they are what they have always been, please G-d, until the coming of Mashiach and after.
The problem of education for proper use of leisure is also not a pressing one in the world of Judaism. There can be no leisure problem for the Torah conscious Jew. For us the problem is not how to kill time (chas ve-shalom) but how to make the day and week long enough to get through all that we want to do. Moshe Rabbenu solved this problem for us once and for all when he advised us to talk of Mitzvot’ when you sit at home and when you go on a journey, when you go to bed and when you get up.’
When we come to the question of relevance however I feel that the picture is somewhat different. Here we have a problem, which is present in very similar form in the sphere of Jewish education and most particularly in the field of ethics, to which we shall have to give most careful consider- ation.
What are the pressing problems in Jewish ethical education?
The problem of orthodox Jewish education is twofold. Towards the non-observant – we are failing to communicate the relevance to them of Torah-life, as we know it.
Towards ourselves – we are not ‘getting over’, or not giving over sufficiently, the ethical values of Judaism to the hearts and minds of our pupils. And it may well be that these two are inter-related.
It is true that in our own ranks we do not have so many delinquents, dropouts, hippies, or drug addicts – which can be seen as some achievement when measured against the supreme tasks set us by the Torah. The aim set before us is no less than the re-making of the personality, the molding of an ethical personality capable of using his human potential to the full. In short it is the making of a personality who will change from being an ‘oved atzmo to an oved hashem’ – from one who serves himself to one who serves the Almighty.
Do not misunderstand me here; I am talking of one who accepts Torah and practices Mitzvot. But we nevertheless have an excellent barometer for guaging the change referred to above. We can measure the degree to which his observance of Mitzvot is selective. To what extent does he choose the Mitzvoth which come easy to him, which are done by those around him, by doing which he is enabled to fit into his social background. By the same token, to what extent does he neglect the ‘hard’ ones – the Mitzvoth which, if he looks around he does not see other people doing. They are the ones which earn no immediate social approval; on the contrary they usually need some encouragement to perform, some facing up to the cold douche of social disapproval, if persisted in. These are, for example, the actions which flow from Middot of complete honesty, frankness, courage and moral alertness; and issurim of quarrelsome strife, gossip, denigration of others, jealousy, dishonesty, selfishness, acquiescence in wrong doing, inattention to prayer, and many others which Rabbi Bahya called ‘the duties of the heart’. Of course we can never expect perfection. This work is something, which must continue throughout life. But the foundation must be laid in the educative years; and the main foundation is simply: that there is something to learn. How often do we find that a person can pass through the whole of our educational system without ever having come up against the revolutionary challenge of Judaism – the demand of Torah: change thyself! As he came in, so he goes out – lazy or selfish, self indulgent, or aggressive. And so he continues throughout life: doing those Mitzvot which ‘suit him’ but never coming truly to grips with the full rigor of the task the Torah imposes on him: to change himself – to become an ‘oved Hashem’.
This is the problem our educational system has to tackle – and how different Jewish life would look, far beyond our own confines, if we did tackle it!
How do we know this is the task of the Jewish school system? Perhaps its task is only to impart knowledge, to teach the children Chumash, Mishnayot, Gemara, dinim? Perhaps ethical training is something to be acquired elsewhere?
Chazal tell us differently.
The Gemara in Bava Bathra (8b) quotes the verse in Daniel (12:3) ‘The wise shall shine like the radiance of firmament and those who bring many to righteousness shall shine like those stars for ever and ever’. On the latter part of this verse the Gemara remarks: ‘This refers to those who teach children’. Rashi obviously finds some difficulty in this remark. Why does the Gemara identify ‘those who bring many to righteousness; because they train and educate them in ways of goodness’? Here we see ethical training placed squarely in the forefront of the teacher’s task.
Then, in the Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni, Bamidbar, sect, 771), on the words ‘like gardens by the river’ (Num. 24: 6). The comment is made:
‘Like gardens by the river. This refers to the teachers of children, who draw out of their hearts wisdom, understanding, knowledge, and good sense and teach them to do the will of their father in heaven.’
Note that the Midrash says, ‘to draw out of their hearts‘.
We do not need Herbert, Dewey, or Draw to tell us that education – and above all, ethical education – is not something that can be administered to the child like a dose of medicine.
It demands the active co-operation and participation of the child; it is an ongoing process, by which the truths of the ethical life must be elicited from the children’s own feelings and experience. The supreme task of the Jewish teacher is clearly stated here.
There are three ways open to us by which to increase the effectiveness of our ethical education. (1) We can teach our subject matter in such a way that it is indirectly conducive to ethical growth; in other words, we can interweave ethical themes with the various subjects we are teaching. (2) We can introduce ethical education as a subject in its own right. (3) We can teach practical ethics in the context of the school as a living Torah community.
(1) Ethics interwoven with subject matter
There is nothing that lends itself more to ethical teaching by the direct method than our subject matter, whether it is Chumash, Nach, Mishnah or Gemara. There is no greater crime, to my mind, than to treat it as a common place recital of facts or information. But how many books written by so-called leading educationalists do just that. If a book purporting to be a presentation of the weekly Sidrot and Haftarot gives nothing more than a dry resume of the factual content of the Sidra, then its youthful readers are entitled to make one brief and pungent comment: ‘So what?’ So Abraham journeyed here or journeyed there, the children of Israel did this or that, there is this law or that law. The child is entitled to ask – we should encourage him to ask – ‘What difference does it make to me’?
How different was the approach of Chazal!
They do not consider that we have learnt Torah at all unless we have applied it to our selves, unless we have probed its relevance to our own life and times.
This is the very point of Rashi’s first comment on the first verse of the Torah, in which he sets out clearly, once and for all, what our attitude to Torah should be. “Rabbi Yitzchak said: ‘The Torah should be for you the beginning of months…’ (Exodus, ch.12), which is the first Mitzva Israel were commanded.”
On the face of it this is a most extraordinary statement.
Are all the great and resounding truths proclaimed in the first chapters of Genesis, not to speak of the narratives of the Flood, the Patriarchs, the Egyptian exile and redemption – are all these to be excluded from the Torah? By simply what grounds does he justify this amazing suggestion? Simply because Torah is a ‘Mitzva’, i.e. the obligations the Almighty imposes on us. If we are to take the attitude that all these great narratives, even maasey bereshit, the act of creation itself, are to be learnt merely because ‘that was how it happened’, and then the commentary of Rashi upon it, we are not learning Torah at all. Torah learning takes place when what we have learnt has a bearing on our lives here and now.
Rabbi Yitzchak’s answer to his own question is that part of the creation story has a bearing; it provides a ethical justification for our claim to Eretz Yisroel – a matter which has certainly not lost its topicality, even after three millennia.
Every other portion of the so-called historical parts of Tanach must be learnt in such a way as to bring out their ethical relevance and topicality if our learning is to be considered Torah learning. One Rabbi in the Gemara (Berachot 61a) considers Manoach the father of Samson to be an am haaretz (a person ignorant of the Torah) because it is written (Judges 13:11) ‘and Manoach arose and walked after his wife’. According to this Rabbi, he did not even know as much Chumash as a cheder boy. If he had, reasons the Rabbi, he would certainly have come across the verse in Genesis (24:61) dealing with the departure of Rebecca to accompany Abraham’s servant to her new home: ‘and Rebecca and her maidens arose… and went after man’ (implying, not in front of the man). If the Torah were concerned merely to tell us what happened this reasoning would simply not make sense. But this means that we are just not asking the right questions. If this statement is included in the Torah, then we must ask what relevance has it to me, here and now? And the answer is, we learn from here that ‘Torah etiquette’ demands – for very good reasons which, by the way, have nothing whatsoever to do with questions of male or female status – that a man should not walk behind a woman. Manoach may have learnt this verse fifty times but if he did not learn this from it, then he was still ignorant of the Torah’s teaching from the verse and was consequently an am haaretz.
We are faced with the startling conclusion that a Torah educator may think he has succeed beyond his wildest dreams, when it may be that all he has done is produce a generation of word-perfect am-horatzim. A sobering reflection, even for the most hardened educator!
There are innumerable opportunities for allowing the pupils to discover themselves – under the guidance of chazal – the ethical relevance of Tenach, in the course of their learning. This will also give us opportunities to dramatize our teachings. Ethics is after all basically a drama – the fundamental human drama. All the most gripping masterpieces of world literature – Hamlet, War and Peace, The Brothers Karamazov – revolve around ethical problems. In Tenach, lehavdil, there is an enormously rich field for projecting the most dramatic of ethical struggles.
As an aid to the teacher in this sphere, some very valuable Tanach Workbooks have recently been published in America by the late Rabbi Ch.D. Rabbinovitz, the author of Daat Soferim, and late lecturer at the Teachers’ Seminary under the aegis of Telz Yeshiva, Cleveland, Ohio. They consist of verbatim reports of actual lessons he had given, covering Judges to Kings inclusive, and show how he met the pupils’ actual objections and demonstrate the ethical relevance of all the incidents covered.
And what of the Gemara? What possible ethical plants (you may ask) can flourish in this rarefied intellectual atmosphere? Whoever can ask this does not know the Gemara. What is that whole, that vast enterprise that fills the pages of Gemara and dominates the personalities, who live act and argue in them? It is the endeavor to determine, as accurately and consistently as possible, precisely what G-d demands from us in any given situation – surely the greatest ethical enterprise of them all. And there is hardly a page of Gemara – even in the most difficult and intricate sugya of Gemara – in which we do not find something which Chazal say or do which shows them to us as living, vivid personalities consumed by an overwhelming passion to discover and apply the will of G-d in its bearing on Jewish life. They were anything but cloistered individuals. We see them in the midst of life, suffering and enjoying, being annoyed and asking pardon, nodding off to sleep and waking up with a jerk, buying meat in the market place and shipping barrels of beer down the river – and always, always, learning, discussing, arguing, centering their lives round Torah and Mitzvos, molding their actions and their character on ethics of Torah, while living life to the full. We are told that every sage in the Talmud has the power to bring the dead back to life. I say they still retain that power if we are prepared to open ethically dead hearts of our pupils to their life giving influence.
In our ethical and chassidic literature we are advised that when we learn, e.g., the words of Abaye and Rava, we should have a mental picture of Abaye and Rava before our eyes. This is hard, but of immense educational value, if we take it to mean that we should have before the eyes a vivid image of the personalities of the Talmudic sages whose words we happen to be learning.
It is a crime if the teacher allows these great neshamot to remain for the children dry, meaningless names on the paper. When a pupil is first introduced to Rabbi Yochanan and Resh Lakish, it is a crime (in my calendar of educational crimes) if the teacher does not tell him the dramatic and amusing story of their first meeting (see Bava Matzia 84a).
Whenever afterwards he learns their words and their disputes, the association with their brilliant personalities will be awakened, and the ethical sources of his being will be refreshed. Again, the name Rabbi Yochanan should be able to evoke in the child’s mind the episode in his early life when he went back to learn Torah in poverty because he heard the mysterious voice behind the wall (Ta’anit 21b). And who would dare mention Rabbi Elazar ben Pedath (the Amora Rabbi Elazar who occurs so frequently throughout the Talmud) without recalling his dramatic dream conversation with the Almighty Himself (Ta’anit, 25b). When he complained to G-d about his terrible existence, the whole world hung in the balance, waiting on his reply to G-d’s question.
The subconscious store of memories of these and many other illuminating episodes in the lives of Chazal will be activated every time we mention their names. This is how Torah can work fruitfully within the human being, and Torah knowledge and Torah ethics can grow together.
(2) Ethics as a subject
The snags and difficulties that might be anticipated in undertaking this are obvious. All the more credit is due to the Samuel Fryer Institute Of Torah Umesorah, New York, for producing the first ever Moral Sensitivity program, designed for Torah schools, of which there are nearly 400 in the USA and Canada. The course is based on seventy-two stories relating incidents in the lives of Gedoley Yisroel of the last two centuries. These are used as vehicles which, in the hands of a skillful teacher, can be used to elicit response and participation from the children and start discussions leading to a sharpening of the children’s sense of ethical understanding. The stories, available in both Hebrew and English, are carefully selected and grouped to illustrate various middot, such as love of Torah, sincerity, love of Israel, compassion, humility, trust in G-d, etc. The ‘Middot Kit’ comprises also a ‘Teachers’ Guide, leading questions on each story’s moral lesson tape.
Knowing that the key to the enterprise is, of course, the teacher’s ability and commitment, Torah Umesorah are running a special Master’s Teachers’ course in connection with this program.
Of course, nothing is easier than to criticize at one’s leisure something, which someone has obviously put his whole heart and soul into, and one stands in humility before the creative inspiration, drive and enthusiasm, which lie behind this truly pioneering enterprise. Yet if one were permitted to criticise constructively, I would say that in my opinion the stories mostly lack dramatic impact and are in many instances too remote from the pupils’ own everyday lives. I would like to see a second, supplementary series based on incidents, which could conceivably happen to children themselves, or to people in their immediate environment. Each would be in the form of a dramatic episode, posing a moral problem, on the lines of the radio program in the thirties: ‘What Would You Do, Chum?’ It would be up to the children to solve these in light of the principles learnt earlier in the course.
At all events this pioneering effort breaks new ground and if properly developed has the power to change completely the whole teaching of religion.
(3) The school as a living Torah community
When all is said and done, in this region teaching is not enough. Middot must become part of the pupil’s life experience if the force of the Torah’s ethical teaching is to be felt. Life and education are indivisible.
Perhaps we neglect the opportunities provided by the school community itself. A child learns ethical behavior, if at all, by what he experiences in his own life and school is life. We adults tend to think of it as a preparation for life, but we must not forget that for the child, it is life itself.
The school situation offers innumerable opportunities for the child to learn about ethical living – to practice the ‘harder Mitzvot’ of the Torah.
Every opportunity, which presents itself, should be exploited to the full for the ethical content – the Mitzvah content – that can be extracted from it. No chance should be lost to hammer into our pupils the neglected but all important fact that Mitzvot govern every facet of life and behavior, and that to confine them to ‘ritual’ or ‘religious’ contexts is blasphemy against the Giver of the Torah.
I will cite here two examples from the Gemara of practical ethics in an educational setting (albeit of a considerably more exalted nature than that to which we have been referring!).
The Talmud (Sanhedrin 11a) recalls an incident, which occurred in the Yeshiva of Rabbi Yehuda Ha-nassi. Rabbi Yehuda objected (for obvious reasons) to his disciples eating garlic before they came to his shiur. One of them inadvertently did so. Sniffing the air, Rabbi Yehuda announced, “The one who has eaten garlic – leave the room”! Rabbi Chiya, his favorite pupil and greatest of them all, immediately got up and went out. Seeing this all of the others followed suit. Rabbi Chiya preferred to attract the blame on himself rather than allow a colleague to be embarrassed.
From whom did Rabbi Chiya learn this principle? From Rabbi Meir, the great Tanna of the preceding generation. The Gemara recounts (ibid.): Rabbi Meir was once sitting in his Beth Hamedrash, which was full of his talmidim all of them of course adults and great men in there own right. A woman entered and said to him, “Rabbi, one of you here married me in secret. I demand that he either comes forward and either fulfills his marital obligations towards me, or gives me divorce and enables me to marry someone else”. Immediately, Rabbi Meir himself came forward and wrote her out a bill of divorce. Seeing this, every single disciple in the Beth Hamedrash came forward and wrote her a bill of divorce.
We see how Rabbi Meir welcomed the opportunity of demonstrating to his pupils in practice some important ethical principles and by doing so provided an example, which has echoed down the generations. There were several ways in which Rabbi Meir could have dealt with this embarrassing situation. He could have demanded that anyone who knew about the matter should come forward. Or better still, he could have told the woman he was not obliged al-pi-din to accept her unsupported word. He could have told her to go away and not come back again unless she brought witnesses to back up her allegation. (In Jewish law there can be no marriage without witnesses.) He did neither of these things. He chose to accept her allegation at face value and as he himself was included (‘one of you here’), he elected to set an example by himself giving her a get.
By doing so he demonstrated the ethical principle, firstly, that if one can, without undue cost to oneself, satisfy the demands of a person who is obviously in trouble, one should do so, even if those demands are prima facie unjustified. And some embarrassment in such a context is not considered undue cost. Furthermore he demonstrated – and this is the point the Gemara emphasizes – that one should take the embarrassment upon oneself rather than leave it to be borne by the culprit.
We would be inclined to ask: what about the waste of time involved in writing all those gittin? What about the bittul Torah? Rabbi Meir did not worry about this. He knew that the lesson he was giving in practical ethics was Torah; not a moment was wasted, because the Torah arose out of the very situation itself.
This is, of course, an extreme example, but it serves very well to illustrate my point: that the school situation is ideal for the promulgation of practical Torah ethics. Here are a few examples of how our own school situation can be used to foster such experiences of Torah ethics in action.
(1) Teacher – pupil relationships
The Classroom situation is a fruitful source of opportunities for demonstrating Torah ethics. Classroom justice, for example, should not be just a matter of school regulations but a demonstration of mitzva principles: tsedek tsedek tirdof (“justice, only justice shall you pursue” – Devarim).
(2) Pupil-pupil relationships
Here too is a very fruitful field for teaching the dinim of human relations. Welcoming new pupils (va-ahavtem ET ha-ger) consideration for feelings of others (malbin pney chavero; Assur le-channot Shem, etc.) fair play, co-operative attitudes, etc. should all be presented in a mitzvah context.
(3) Care for property
The avoidance of waste and the requirement of care for property, both other people’s and one’s own, should be projected in the context of Mitzvot lehishamer mi-nezakin and Bal tashchit. (Avoiding damage to others and not destroying or wasting anything of value).
(4) Concern for truth
Again a chance to foster a basic ethical mitzva.
(5) The helping hand
The fundamental character forming mitzva of gemillut Chassidim should be the constant currency of school life. The capacity to share and co-operate should be consistently encouraged from the earliest years and the words ‘this is how a baal-chessed behaves’ should be as familiar to children as the dinner bell. In my opinion ‘houses’ and other competitive devices are too often adopted in our schools without alternatives being sufficiently considered.
Of course our children need the spur of shelo lishmah (indirect incentives), but shelo lishma can take many forms. The trouble with the competitive incentive is that the other side’s doing badly can produce just as much satisfaction as my side’s doing well.
This leads to the most undesirable middah of mitkabbed bi-kelon chavero (benefitting from the other person’s disgrace). Why not foster the much more satisfactory shelo lishmah of pride in corporate achievement?
In the East End Jewish Scholarship Center we introduced a chart, which showed cumulatively all the points, earned by all classes that week. If the total reached a certain target, the whole Center was rewarded.
Every teacher who is alive to the problem can multiply examples of this kind. What is needed above all is an effort of the imagination – to conceive the school as an opportunity to teach not only the theory but also the practice of ethical Judaism.
I would like to end this lecture with a practical suggestion. We have witnessed in Great Britain in recent years, the rise to prominence of a very welcome fixture: the annual Siyum of Pirchei Agudas Yisroel, held in successive years in London, Manchester, and Gateshead, and attended by well over 1,000 boys drawn from these three communities, as well as from further afield. The boys get together for five or six days during the winter and besides the Siyum itself enjoy a program of outings and other ‘treats’.
There is a great opportunity here for an imaginative mitzvah project for our schools, which we could establish on a national basis. I suggest that the schools get going on a selected gemilut chessed project – perhaps adopting a children’s ward in a hospital. During the period before the Siyum schools would maintain contacts with the children, collecting toys and magazines, making time for them, writing to them, visiting them, and in conjunction with these activities learning hilchot gemilut chassadim. The climax of the project would take place during the Siyum week itself, when selected boys from all over the country would visit the hospital, convey good wishes of Pirchey A.Y. and possibly put on some entertainment for them. The all around benefits of such a project would be enormous. It would do the children of an affluent society no end of good to be brought into even fleeting contact with suffering and deprivation.
What a difference it would make to their kavvanah in the blessing “poke’ach ivrim” to have met just once a sightless child!
And even more, there is the long-term character benefit from personal involvement with a practical, ethical mitzva project.
I bring this suggestion to the notice of those responsible for organizing functions of this sort, and also to those who might be interested on behalf of individual schools on a local basis.
To sum up, therefore while ethical education within our system is not plagued by some of the confusions which beset the outside world, there is still a vast amount of work to be done before we can be satisfied with our progress in this sphere.
The ethical relevance of Torah and Mitzvot must be thought out and hammered home both for internal (Jewish committed) and external (Jewish uncommitted) consumption.
We must do this by releasing some of the enormous hidden potential in the source material already taught in our schools; by adopting imaginative teaching programs such as that pioneered by Torah Umesorah; and in my submission by releasing the ethical potential in the life of the school community itself.
If we have the imagination to make a start in this direction the results both short term and long term will surprise us.
It may mean a revolution in our educational thinking, but this is a sphere in which a revolution is long overdue.