Rabbi Jonathan Sacks on Education

Rabbi Sacks delivering a TED Talk on “How we can face the future without fear, together” in 2017.

(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

One month ago, the world lost a great light.

Like most observant Jews, I learned of the passing of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks zt”l, former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, just after the conclusion of the Sabbath, during which we refrain from using phones or computers. When I opened my email and saw the dreadful news, I literally leapt out of my chair and shouted, “No!” in disbelief and anguish. My startled family asked what was the matter and I could barely let out the words: “Baruch Dayan Ha’Emes [Blessed be the True Judge]… Rabbi Sacks.” My children instantly burst into tears and we all spent a long time hugging and weeping in our kitchen as we digested the news.

Rabbi Sacks was gone…

My family had never met Rabbi Sacks (the closest my wife and I were privileged to come was when we attended a lecture he delivered in the Boston area in 2012) and this year saw the passing of many (too many) great religious figures, yet none elicited such a response from my children. What made Rabbi Sacks so special?

If I had but a hundredth of his eloquence or insight, I might think myself worthy to the task of even attempting to answer that question. (See here and here, as well as below, for the superior tributes of others.) I can only answer it for my family. Rabbi Sacks was ubiquitous in my home. For the last decade, not a week went by without our studying his commentary on the weekly Torah portion. We devoured his books, holy day sermons, commentaries on the prayer books and Passover Haggadah, lectures, videos, podcasts, and more. He enriched our spiritual lives in more ways than I can adequately explain. At 72, he still seemed at his prime, publishing at least one book per year for the last three decades–including two this year, on morality and the life-changing ideas of the Bible–all deservedly best sellers. He was the teacher par excellence who not only taught us new ideas and new ways of seeing things but also inspired us to be better people.

Rabbi Sacks believed that Jews were called, as the prophet Isaiah put it, to be a “light unto the nations.” That meant not only being living examples of a covenantal society, but also sharing the transformative ideas and insights of the Bible and more than 3,000 years of accumulated Jewish wisdom and experience with the rest of the world. These ideas included ethical monotheism, the dignity of the individual based on our being created in the image of God, the sacredness of life, the centrality of love to morality, the centrality of forgiveness to ethics, the existence of free will, the balance of the universal and particular, the richness of covenantal life, the politics of hope, the dignity of difference, and the ethics of responsibility.

One area where Rabbi Sacks believed the world could learn from Jewish ideas and experience was in the realm of education. For Rabbi Sacks, education was central to Judaism and one of the secrets of the Jews’ ability to survive and even thrive during centuries of exile and adversity. “If you want to save the Jewish future,” he declared, “you have to build Jewish day schools – there is no other way.” As he wrote in Will We Have Jewish Grandchildren?, the greatest Jewish leader, Moses himself, was primarily recognized in the Jewish tradition as a teacher:

We don’t refer to Moshe as our liberator, lawmaker, or miracle-worker. Instead, we endear him with “Rabbeinu,” our teacher. The secret of Jewish continuity is that no people has ever devoted more of its energies to continuity. The focal point of Jewish life is the transmission of a heritage across the generations.

Education is not the role of leaders alone but of everyone, especially parents. Everyone is called upon to do their part to educate the next generation. In an essay titled The Teacher as Hero, Rabbi Sacks wrote:

Not only does [Moses] become the teacher in Deuteronomy. In words engraved on Jewish hearts ever since, he tells the entire people that they must become a nation of educators:

Make known to your children and your children’s children, how you once stood before the Lord your God at Horeb. (Deut. 4:9–10)

In the future, when your child asks you, “What is the meaning of the testimonies, decrees, and laws that the Lord our God has commanded you?” tell them, “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, but the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand.…” (Deut. 6:20–21)

Teach [these words] to your children, speaking of them when you sit at home and when you travel on the way, when you lie down and when you rise. (Deut. 11:19)

There was nothing like this concern for universal education elsewhere in the ancient world. Jews became the people whose heroes were teachers, whose citadels were schools, and whose passion was study and the life of the mind. [emphasis added]

In an essay on Chanukah, Rabbi Sacks developed these ideas further:

The Talmud tells us that in the first century, in the last days of the Second Temple, a Rabbi called Yehoshua Ben Gamla, established a network of schools throughout Israel. The result of this was that from the age of six, every child in the country received a publicly-funded universal education. This was the first education system of its kind anywhere in the world, and also a clear indication of the now familiarly Jewish commitment to education and to ensuring our children are literate in their heritage. According to the Talmud, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Gamla’s memory is blessed, because without his intervention the Torah would have been forgotten in Israel. Without him, there would have been no survival of Judaism and ultimately no Jews.

What Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Gamla and the other Sages understood, and what was not understood at the time of Chanukah itself, was that the real battle against the Greeks was not a military one, but a cultural one. At the time, the Greeks were the world’s greatest in many fields. They were unparalleled in their advances in art, in architecture, in literature, in drama, in philosophy. Even today, their achievements have never been surpassed. But Jews nonetheless believed, and surely history has borne this out, that there is within Judaism, within ancient Israel and still within its heritage to today, something special. Something worth fighting for. Judaism, with its emphasis on the sanctification of life, and the belief that every human being was created in God’s image, held eternal truths that we could not abandon. This was the unique distinction between the culture of the Greeks and the world of Torah and Judaism. As a result, Jews have always known that the real battle is not necessarily fought on the physical battlefield with physical weapons, but rather in the hearts and minds of future generations. [emphasis added]

In other words, the continued existence of civilization itself depends upon whether citizens succeed in educating the next generation about its ideas, ideals, and values. This lesson is especially necessary in an era in which “Year Zero” thinking is widespread. In an essay aptly titled, “To Defend Civilization, You Need Education,” Rabbi Sacks wrote:

Jews began to understand that the real clash between Ancient Israel and Ancient Greece was not political but cultural. To defend a country, you need an army. But to defend a civilisation, you need schools. [emphasis added]

Similarly, in “Freedom’s Defense,” Rabbi Sacks wrote:

What the Torah is teaching is that freedom is won, not on the battlefield, nor in the political arena, nor in the courts, national or international, but in the human imagination and will. To defend a country you need an army. But to defend a free society you need schools. You need families and an educational system in which ideals are passed on from one generation to the next, and never lost, or despaired of, or obscured.

Just any school is insufficient, of course. They must be schools that are intentional about the transmission of culture and heritage. If society fails to educate its children in its values, they will acquire other values by osmosis. In his 2007 book, The Home We Build Together, Rabbi Sacks observed that families in Britain were increasingly seeking out religious schools because the government-run schools were failing to inculcate the values that their parents cherished and believed were necessary for their well-being:

Why, generally, have faith schools become so popular in a profoundly secular society? One can only speculate. But the following might reflect the thoughts of many traditionally minded parents. The wider society is no longer congruent with our values. We do not want our children taught by fashionable methods that leave them bereft of knowledge and skills. We do not want them to have self-esteem at the cost of self-respect, won by hard work and genuine achievement. We do not want them to be taught that every difference of behaviour reflects an equally valid lifestyle. We do not want them to be moral relativists, tourists in all cultures, at home in none. We do not want to take the risk of our children taking drugs or alcohol or becoming sexually promiscuous, still less becoming teenage mothers (or fathers). Many parents do not want there to be a massive gap between their children’s values and their own. They do not want moral values undermined by a secular, sceptical, cynical culture. Nor do they believe that the countervailing influences of place of worship, supplementary schooling and home will be enough. For the values of the wider secular culture are not confined to school. They are present in the every-more-intrusive media of television, the internet, YouTube, MySpace, and the icons of popular culture.

Education is central to a free society because it is necessary for for human dignity. As Rabbi Sacks wrote in The Dignity of Difference:

Education – the ability not merely to read and write but to master and apply information and have open access to knowledge – is essential to human dignity. I have suggested that it is the basis of a free society. Because knowledge is power, equal access to knowledge is a precondition of equal access to power.

Rabbi Sacks may be gone but his ideas and vision remain. May his memory continue to be a blessing and inspiration for all those whose lives he touched.

A Collection of Tributes to Rabbi Sacks zt”l

Here are just a few of the innumerable tributes to Rabbi Sacks that I found particularly poignant or insightful:

  • The Jewish New (UK): A collection of tributes from Prince Charles, Tony Blair, UK Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, and many, many others.
  • Rabbi Meir Soloveichik: “Tributes to him have described his influence on the Jewish community; his globally popular writings on the Torah; and his many books in which he brilliantly expounded Judaic ideas. But he also was—for Europe in general and the U.K. in particular—the most gifted voice for biblical belief in his time.”
  • Rabbi Joshua Berman: “No figure has ever transmitted the wisdom of Jewish tradition to the world at large with such success. Indeed, no figure has ever even tried.” [If you’ve ever faced public criticism, read the last part of this tribute re: Rabbi Sacks’ advice for such a situation.]
  • Erica Brown: “For the Jewish community worldwide, Jonathan Sacks was the closest we got to royalty, a spiritual aristocrat with a regal bearing who inspired with his repeated calls for hope. […] People turn to his books, his weekly essays on the Torah portion, and his speeches to experience intellectual transcendence, to feel intimacy with an age-old tradition, to understand a difficult moment within a broad philosophical and historical sweep.”
  • Rabbi Samuel Lebens: “It is often said that Rabbi Sacks wrote and spoke with a prophetic voice. His command of language and the lofty heights of his ethical vision combined with his deep faith to give rise to prose that truly competes with the prophets of Israel.” [This one is long but it includes a very thoughtful meditation on some of the central themes of Rabbi Sacks’ ideas.]
  • Yair Rosenberg: “But for all the tributes from people like me in the media, Sacks didn’t just talk to those with large platforms or celebrity. I know firsthand from friends how he emailed personally with students, elementary school teachers, and others who sought his guidance. I can only imagine the amount of correspondence he must have received, and cannot imagine how he managed to fit it into his schedule between his dozens of books, online videos, and speeches and media appearances around the globe.”

To learn more about Rabbi Sacks and his teachings, visit www.rabbisacks.org.

2 Responses to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks on Education

  1. sstotsky says:

    Happy Hanukkah! Steve was here briefly. He will help to pack my authored books up so that when the moving van takes one of your big book cases to his home it will take the books, and the stuff on the bottom two selves, too. (my material or print-offs)

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