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September 4, 2015 | 20th Elul 5775

Workers of the world, arise!

Galilee Diary #362, November 4, 2007

Marc J. Rosenstein

There is an interesting discussion in the Talmud (Baba Metzia, page 33a) of a statement in the Mishnah that if a person’s parent and his teacher have both been taken hostage, he is required to redeem his teacher first. Having made this startling statement, the rabbis then do a bit of backtracking and explaining. A thousand years later, when Rabbi Moses Isserles wrote his Ashkenazic notes to the Shulchan Aruch, the classic 16th century Sephardic code of Jewish law, he added this qualification (on Yoreh Deah 242:34):

Those who say that his teacher takes precedence over his father refer to the case in which he teaches him for free; but if his father pays the teacher to teach him, then the father takes precedence in every matter.

It seems that once it is clear that the teacher is acting as the agent of the parent, then the parent’s status is unchallenged, and the teacher is secondary. This tension between the authority of parents and teachers, which we tend to see as a product of the modern breakdown of traditional lines of authority, is apparently not new at all.

In the early 20th century, the educators who founded the public school system in the Zionist community in Israel saw themselves a cultural revolutionaries, dedicated to weaning the students from the bourgeois, exilic values of their parents and turning them into proud “New Jews,” pioneers dedicated to building a new life and culture. From the very earliest days of modern Jewish education in Israel, there was tension between teachers teaching kids to be earthy socialists, and parents who wanted them to get into medical school in Europe.

In retrospect, the schools of this society-in-formation had tremendous impact, and the teachers had a lot to do with creating modern secular Israeli culture. However, the parents, and the community at large, were never satisfied. There was never a common vision of what we were educating for. It is a common phenomenon, and not only a modern one, for societies to blame their deficiencies on the failure of the education system to inculcate the proper values in the new generation – a claim we have been hearing for a century here in Israel. It seems that if teachers teach exactly what we are – then they are not very important as they are just doing what we could do better (and what is really our responsibility) if we had the time (and remember, we are asking them to teach our children to create a world better than the one we are leaving them) . But if they teach what we are not – then we see them as undermining our values and our authority. They can’t win – and indeed, they rarely do. Which is why we are now in the fourth week of a general strike of all the high school teachers in the country. It is a fairly bitter strike which has taken a pretty central place in public discourse – partly because the teachers have been working hard to keep in the public eye, partly because every columnist, politician, and public figure has weighed in with an opinion, and partly because hundreds of thousands of unoccupied teenagers are hard to ignore.

The issues are salaries and working conditions – as they have been in just about every one of the frequent teacher strikes here since the first one in 1922. Our cultural revolutionaries, the molders of the new Jew and the new Israel, are proletarians on the picket line. While there seems a good deal of public sympathy for the teachers, one also hears a kind of perverse logic that implies that since the teachers have not shown themselves able to solve our social problems, they have a lot of chutzpah asking for better pay and conditions.

We may be the people of the book – but only if we can buy it wholesale.

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