RABBI BEREL WEIN
Judaism and hence any form of Jewish education have always had to swim upstream against the currents of the surrounding cultures of the countries where Jews resided. Even though these cultures in the main were very hostile to Judaism and to Jews, the Jewish people were able to navigate that river of ideas and norms successfully, in part because the surrounding culture in almost all instances was based upon the idea that there were gods, or a single God, or other supernatural powers that influence and often determined the conditions of human life and societies. In a world where the idea of God was prevalent it was possible for Jewish education to focus on the uniqueness of Judaism, of Torah values and observances, and the essential chosenness of the Jewish people for its special mission in the world.
However, in this 21st century of Western civilization we are now living in a godless society. God is not mentioned, even forbidden to be mentioned, in most of the public educational systems in Western society today. In world events and private lives, God is simply no longer a factor to be considered as having influence and guidance. The ascendant Left now governs much of the thought and controls much of the educational systems that exist in Western society. It is no surprise therefore that atheist attitude and culture has written God out of the classroom and schoolbooks. And this has had a devastating effect upon Jewish education as well, even in the most allegedly God-fearing communities and schools. Lip service is paid to such items as prayer but, to our very great detriment, God is really not found in the hearts and minds of our students because God is not found in the classrooms that they attend.
Please forgive an old man for nostalgia and reverence for the past. However, when I attended high school long ago in the yeshiva in Chicago, God was an incessant participant in all of our classes, whether they discussed Talmud or chemistry and physics. Even the non-Jewish teachers that taught us in the secular studies department were people to whom God was a reality and always spoke of the wonderment and exactitude of nature as being a further indication of the presence of God in the world. I will admit that the study of Jewish history then was pretty dry, boring and uninspiring. But if one stuck it out the entire four years of classes, as I did, the sheer irrationality of the story of the Jewish people began to resonate as the guiding hand of Heaven shepherding, challenging, and even punishing a special people who had a special mission. The study of the great and holy prophets of Israel was always taught with reverence and relevance. Somehow our teachers, all Eastern European Jews and almost none of whom were blessed with academic credentials, were able to communicate to us that these prophecies and ideas were meant not just as ancient moral mantras but spoke to us. Even the sections of the commentary of Rashi that were purely grammatical were taught to us from the perspective of learning the holiness of language and the precision of Hebrew. And when we studied Talmud, we did not skip over the sections of Agada found in its pages. In fact, we came early on to realize that Agada was a primary tool for introducing God into the curriculum and into the classroom, making the divine presence real in our studies and eventually, in our lives.
In our godless time neither is a study of the words of the prophets of Israel nor the grammatical sections of the commentary of Rashi – and certainly not the Agadic digressions in the Talmud – given adequate place of study and honor. We are wholly devoted to knowledge, facts, exams and scholastic marks but the inner spirit and beauty of Judaism is often times not present in our Jewish schools. In the 19th century both the Chasidic and Mussar movements injected life and spirit into Jewish schools and the Jewish street. These movements today are more institutionalized and frozen in time and therefore have much less influence than they once did, though I think it fair to say that the presence of God is emphasized to a greater extent in the classrooms of the schools of the Chasidic variety than elsewhere.
Facing the overwhelming culture of godlessness and hedonism that now dominates the culture of the Western world, our schools and homes are the last bastions of defense against this form of destruction that has already consumed millions of Jews the world over. Defeating the enemy first requires identifying it, and this, in my opinion, is the vital role that our Jewish schools can perform and thereby ensure the survival of the eternal people and of its core beliefs and value systems.
Rabbi Berel Wein is a widely recognized expert on Jewish history, which he has popularized through lectures, books, seminars, television and radio appearances, and films. A former lawyer and pulpit rabbi and Founder of Yeshiva Sha’arei Torah, in Suffern, NY, Rabbi Wein has received numerous awards, including, most recently, the Torah Prize Award from Machon Harav Frank, Jerusalem, for his teaching achievements. Rabbi Wein is Founder and Director of the Destiny Foundation.