This week marks the return of millions of our children to the regular routine of school. The yeshivot and seminaries of this and other countries have also begun their classroom schedules and study patterns. I think that even though we can all agree that school today is a very necessary part of our society, nevertheless we are also all aware that school contains a downside as well.
Not all children and students do well in school and many times this is not a true indication of their abilities and talents. School oftentimes fosters a sense of inadequacy, frustration and lethargy in many of its students. Having a large number of students in one classroom almost automatically guarantees that some of them will not do well in such an atmosphere and that their learning abilities will be compromised.
Inspirational teachers, perfect classroom settings and size, and elite and motivated student bodies are not easily found in the mass educational systems that comprise modern society. This is true not only in the area of general studies – mathematics, literature, science, communication skills, etc. – but it is especially true in the area of Torah studies.
Not only knowledge needs to be transmitted, but more abstract and extremely vital goals such as faith and life values must be learned as well. And for those abstract goals there is no set curriculum and no perfect text that can help the teacher and the student in achieving success in these areas of the mind and soul.
In striving for this achievement, we are attempting to avoid the tragedy as expressed by Ramban of creating a person who is a naval - wicked and obscene – and who nevertheless has Torah knowledge and lives within Jewish society.
To be a Torah Jew requires study and knowledge. Those who are ignorant of Torah are incapable of being reckoned amongst the truly pious. Yet knowledge alone is no guarantee of being a Torah personality. The great religious movements of Chasidut and Mussar had as their goal the supplementing of Torah knowledge with a societal value system that would create a whole person, formed in the image of one’s Creator.
There were, and still are, many in the observant Jewish world who maintained that knowledge and study are sufficient enough to form a pious and holy person. Therefore, there was great opposition in the past to the ideas and new curriculums of Chasidut and Mussar. That opposition in our time has become more subdued and less public, partly because those movements have in themselves changed and even waned.
Though Mussar, for instance, is still taught in many if not most yeshivot, there is no truly Mussar yeshivot as existed in pre-World War II Eastern Europe. Chasidut, as well, has become much more a matter of form, political ideology, dress and custom than of strong spiritual substance and personal development and inspiration.
A certain sense of atrophy and conformity has invaded observant Jewish society and has naturally spilled over into its school systems and classrooms. This is not the sole reason for the “children at risk” syndrome which plagues so many of our families and our society, but it certainly has a causative effect in creating that troubling situation.
The fact that the new school year has started should impress upon parents their pivotal role in educating and raising the next generation. Many times, the values and inspiration that somehow are not found in the school can yet be found and taught and transmitted at home.
A great person, who was clever, astute and practical to the nth degree, who I knew, always counseled parents to keep their children at home even if the local school was judged inferior to other schools that were out of town. He often told me that children need parents even when the children are fifty and sixty years old, and certainly when they are still in their formative teenage years.
He was going against the grain of the accepted norms of his and our generations. Yet I believe that in most circumstances he was correct. Parents impart not only knowledge but a sense of values, tradition, family, continuity and confidence which no school, no matter how well run and educationally advanced, can ever provide.
In our time, when the Lord has blessed many of our families with grandparents and even great-grandparents it is the task of this older generation to provide for their offspring the necessary sense of the values of Torah and the continuity of families and of generations. By so doing, we reunite the young child wearing his first backpack to school with the experience of Sinai and the eternity of Israel.