History of Jewish Education
The history of Jewish education and the lessons relevant today.
A bit of history. Formal Jewish education as we know it today began to evolve in the time of Yehoshua ben Gamla in the first century. He was the first to set up a network of schools for Jewish children. The Talmud teaches, “Always remember Yehoshua ben Gamla favorably for if it weren’t for him Torah would be lost from the people of Israel.”
Interestingly, for 1500 years before Yehoshua ben Gamla, the Jewish people were already considered the People of the Book. For all these centuries Torah was not lost from the Jewish people. Yet we had no schools! How did Judaism stay alive and vital.
The answer is that the Jews had a system. The system was called “veshinantom levonecho”, “you should teach your children”. That is precisely what we did. Torah was to be transmitted from father to son. At a much later date, Yehoshua ben Gamla saw that Torah would be lost from Israel through this system so he instituted a school system. That system is with us until today.
Why was the Torah originally transmitted from father to son. Because the source of wisdom must be the source of life. Torah is life and therefore transferred like life, parent to child. Just as the mother transfers life to her child biologically, the child eats what she eats and drinks what she drinks, so too the father transfers the Torah spiritually and educationally. At Mount Sinai we were taught Torah directly from God. The source of life became the source of wisdom.
Yehoshua ben Gamla saw that the system of transmission stopped working so he lowered the level of Israel from the ideal in order to preserve what we had. A school teacher, a cheder rebbe became a sort of surrogate father and carried the child spiritually during the absence of the father. If our child can’t make it to school and we teach the child at home we consider ourselves to be a substitute teacher. The opposite is true, when the child is being taught by a teacher he is in fact being taught by a substitute.
Imagine a community with a law that every newborn baby must go into an incubator. We could correctly conclude that this is due to a serious problem with the communal health of mothers. Every child in a school is due to the inability of the father to teach his child. Yehoshua ben Gamla conceived of an artificial situation to educate the child.
Although profession for a child will serve as one of the greatest blessing in his or her life, Torah for the child is life itself and therefore ideally transmitted just like life.
When God created man, the Torah records the following. “He created man out of the dust of the earth, He blew into his nostrils the breath of life and he became a living being.” Our teachers taught us that from the dust God created the body of man. From His breath He bestowed upon him a soul. Through the study of Torah the two will integrate and the man will be considered a human life.
If we want our education system to be successful we must once again get back to basics. We must put the Yiddishkeit back into our schools and realize that it is we as parents, the source of life, who must set the examples and be the teachers of our children. It is then that we can guarantee that the neshama of our people is intact.