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October 13, 2015 | 30th Tishrei 5776

The Classics

January 26, 2003
Marc Rosenstein

We read in the Talmud (Shabbat 112b): "If our ancestors were angels -- then we are merely human; and if our ancestors were human -- then we are asses." This rather pointed denial of human progress expresses an ideology that runs through our tradition -- and no doubt many other traditions as well: we are in a constant state of decline, of deterioration, since our mythic beginning. There will never be another Abraham -- or Moses -- or David -- or Akiba. Our mere existence is possible only by virture of their merit -- for we are barely worthy to call ourselves their spiritual heirs. I suppose that the discipline of a traditional society would be impossible without such an ideology to keep us in our place.

However, aside from the above somewhat cynical view of the concept, sometimes I think that there really is something to it when we look at Jewish education in the modern period. For example, the first generation of Reform Jews in any community in the past two centuries -- that is, Jews who decided as adults to leave the traditional community and start a Reform congregation -- all had a traditional education, and based on that knowledge and experience, made their decisions regarding what to keep and what to jettison. Their children, on the other hand, did not have the same freedom, as what the parents had already rejected was not presented as an option for the children. Thus, we find a process which is usually "one-way." A father who has made the considered decision that putting on t'fillin in the morning is not religiously meaningful for him is unlikely to teach his children how to put on t'fillin, giving them the option to accept or reject the practice. He is more likely not to even mention the practice in their presence.

The same pattern can be seen in education in Israel: the founders of the school system a century ago almost all came from yeshiva backgrounds, with broad knowledge of biblical and rabbinic texts. Yet these cultural assets that were, despite their secular rebellion, a central part of their identity, were lost in the transition of the generations. And so it is that for most of that century, teachers and writers and other observers of the cultural scene in Israel have been bemoaning the illiteracy of the young generation. Just in the past few weeks, I have attended two lectures by well known popular authors -- novelist Haim Be'er and playwright, songwriter, and translator Dan Almagor -- critical of the cultural diminution of the generations: not only can't "kids these days" appreciate Agnon's novels, so richly allusive to traditional text; but they don't even get the meaning of common idioms of speech, the roots of which are in rabbinic literature.

It is interesting to note, however, that this litany of mourning for our lost cultural riches began almost with the Zionist revolution itself. Already in the early days of Zionist education -- before the First World War -- visitors to Palestine publicly expressed disappointment in the Jewish ignorance of the students in the Zionist schools. Then, in 1930, Bible scholar and educator Yehezkel Kaufman published a dire account of the failure of the schools to assure cultural continuity, claiming that just as Europeans study Homer, or Shakespeare, as "classics" that provide them with cultural and linguistic roots, so Jews must study our own "classics" -- or else we will lose our understanding of our own language, and our culture will become shallow and imitative of others.

With the globalization of American slang, and with the almost total removal of rabbinic literature from the curriculum, it is hard not to be convinced that 100 years of criticism and dire predictions were, in fact, on target. Yet it is also hard to believe that the same chorus of disapproval is not being chanted everywhere else in the world. Perhaps what we are seeing is a general phenomenon of modernity -- or perhaps, since the talmudic quotation above is certainly pre-modern, it is a general human phenomenon, in every generation.

Remember the gramatically elegant "lehitra'ot" [...until we see each other again]? No more: Yallah [Arabic for "let's go"], bye!


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