I just saw the documentary from a few years ago, Waiting for Superman. It notes that American students’ rankings have been falling precipitously in math and science over the past few decades. It also notes that every President since Eisenhower has claimed to be the Education President. As our nation struggles to get back on track, education is once again brought out as a key concern. Universal access to quality education has been an important principle since our nation’s founding. Nowadays, everyone recognizes that a failing educational system will have economic and social impacts down the road, but we can’t come together on the best way to fix our broken system.
The emphasis on education is an aspect of Jewish culture in which we take great pride. From our people’s beginnings, education has been considered to be of utmost importance. Our tradition does not entrust the transmission of knowledge to an intellectual or religious elite. Since the days of the Torah itself, the importance of passing on knowledge to one’s child has been a primary religious obligation.
It is not only an individual responsibility. We can even identify in our sources an obligation to entire communities to provide universal education. With one caveat: as anyone who has seen Yentl knows, until modern times, the focus was on educating boys, and girls were often an afterthought.
The Shulchan Arukh, the great sixteenth century law code, lays out specific instructions about public education. While it is true that parents have to teach Torah to their own children, the community as a whole also bears responsibility. The Shulchan Arukh*1* teaches that a community is obligated to hire a melamed, a teacher, for its children. The men in any community that does not have a melamed are to be excommunicated until they hire someone.
Children are supposed to start learning the aleph bet when they are 3, and then start school at 5 or 6 years old, beginning with the study of Torah.
An ancient midrash reports the custom of beginning a child’s education with the Book of Leviticus. Then it asks the question: Why do children begin their learning with the Book of Leviticus rather than the Book of Genesis?
After all, for a young child, the laws of sacrifices seem like a strange place to begin. If I was designing a curriculum for Torah study, I might choose to start somewhere different. Perhaps Genesis, as the midrash asks about. After all, it is the beginning. It describes the creation of the world. It is full of stories about Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, Noah and the Flood, the Patriarchs and Matriarchs…
Or, maybe we might choose to begin with the Book of Exodus. It describes the beginnings of the Jewish people, the Exodus from Egypt, and the receiving of the Torah on Mount Sinai.
But no. The tradition was to begin with Leviticus. To teach children about different categories of sin, and the respective types of offerings that had to be brought for each one. To memorize the techniques of slaughtering animals and sprinkling blood on the altar. To learn how to distinguish between the various offerings that were brought at different times of the year. And all of these details about a way of worshipping God that had ceased entirely when the Temple was destroyed in the year 70 C.E. Why, the midrash asks, would we start children’s education here?
The answer, as taught by Rabbi Asi, has to do with a certain similiarity between children and sacrifices. All of the sacrifices written in Leviticus have to do with purity. Children are pure, and have not yet experienced sin. Therefore, the Holy One said, ‘let the pure ones come and engage with matters of purity, and I will consider it as if you were standing before Me and offering sacrifices.’ It is children continuing to learn the laws of sacrifices that enables the world to continue to stand.*2*
Rabbi Shabbatai ben Meir HaKohen, a mid-seventeenth century Ashkenazi Rabbi reports that the custom of starting a child’s education with the Book of Leviticus was still being practiced in his day.*3*
I don’t know of any Jewish schools that continue this tradition, although I bet there is at least one yeshivah in Brooklyn that does. I am not endorsing a change in our curriculum that would have us teaching the laws of sacrifices to 5 year olds.
But I like the idea expressed in the midrash that God considers children learning to be the equivalent of worship in the Holy Temple. And that the world itself is sustained on the merit of children learning.
Those have certainly been core values in Judaism.
But let’s look at where things stand now. In California, between 1981 and 2011, higher education spending has decreased by 13% in inflation-adjusted dollars. In the same time period, spending on prisons has increased by 436%.*4* The state Legislative Analysts Office reported that in 2011-2012, the state spent $179,000 per incarcerated youth. For every child in Kindergarten through 12th grade, the state spent $7,500 per year.*5*
Nationally, as an overall percentage of all federal spending, children account for about 10%. Over the next ten years, that is expected to fall to 8%, with the biggest drops expected to be in education.*6*
If the world stands on the learning of children, we need to do something radically different with regard to our priorities.
*1* Shulchan Arukh, Yoreh Deah 245:7,8
*2* Leviticus Rabbah 7:3, Midrash Tanhuma Tzav 14
*3* Siftei Kohen on Yoreh Deah 245:8