Our first child is going to start school this fall for the very first time, and I think I'm having separation anxiety. It feels so sad to leave the summer for the classroom. Where did schools come from? Are schools a Jewish idea or have we adapted this framework from outside our culture? The Sh'ma tells us to teach our children. It sounds so simple. Where did this all this school stuff start?
The first day of school can be as momentous for parents as it is for children. The slow certain approach of September can surely be daunting. The First Day of School looms with its distinct shadow of pencils, erasers and notebooks. School-supply aisles spill over inside stores threatening to spoil the last deliciousness of summer freedom.
Yet there are those for whom that magical day cannot arrive too soon. I remember my Mother, of blessed memory, quoting a friend who would testify dramatically each August that she was prepared to lay down in the street in front of that yellow bus in order to prevent it from inadvertently passing her home without collecting her children that first morning after Labor Day. Mixed feelings notwithstanding, the movement from pool to school is a good time to wonder about the Jewish ideas of academe.
A good place to start is with a fascinating piece in the Talmud. This passage might be titled: "The Origins of Jewish Schools." We have a specific sage to thank for the creation of schools and we are urged to remember his name for good, a bit of an unusual request. Perhaps this anticipated some of the challenges presented by organized education. If not for him though, we are told, Torah would have been forgotten in Israel. Here is his story.
Joshua ben Gamla lived in the first century CE, not one of the quietest moments in Jewish history. Though he was a friend of Josephus, a high priest, and married to one of the wealthiest women in Jerusalem, he is most well known for leading an educational revolution.
The Talmud in Baba Batra 21 records the progression to the age of Joshua ben Gamla.
First Step: A father taught his the child Torah. The problem: if there was no father, the child did not learn Torah.
Second Step: Teachers of young children were to be set up in Jerusalem for everyone. The problem: only those with fathers were taken up to Jerusalem for schooling.
Third Step: Schools were set up for 16- and 17-year-olds in central districts. The problem: by that age students were rebellious, meaning they must learn how to learn on their own.
Fourth step: Joshua ben Gamla came along and ordained that teachers of young children be set up in every town and that children should enter school at age six or seven. There you have it folks: school! Two thousand years later, we can still thank Joshua ben Gamla.
What happens in those schools of course is subject to huge conversations through Jewish literature, beginning with this very passage. Issues arise once we have the idea of a school. How many students in a class? Twenty-five answers the Talmud. What about quality teachers? The Talmud recommends healthy competition between instructors. What about the conflict of covering material versus exactitude? Mistakes cannot be easily erased, precision is urged.
Other texts urge extending enormous patience toward pupils. Or they advise a humorous and engaging start to the lesson, such as riddles to stimulate sleepy students. Instructors should be terse in their delivery and spirit of awe should pervade the classroom. Review and repetition is required. You get the idea.
Though formal classroom education seems to begin at age six or seven, according to this passage there was lots of thought about our most tender aged children and their readiness to learn. We draw on a host of these sources to guide us in our early childhood programs.
My personal favorites are the stories around the sage Rabbi Joshua. In praising him with his other prominent disciples, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai lauded Joshua by saying, "happy is the one who bore him."
Zakkai's other students are praised for piety, scholarship and acuity. Why the reference to Rabbi Joshua's mother? Later passages in the Talmud tell of how Rabbi Joshua's mother would bring his cradle into the house of study, and ascribing his magnificent achievements to this exposure.
I love picturing this scene of baby Joshua's cradle nestled among the scholars, listening to the lively majestic exchanges among the sages. Our early childhood programs replicate this noble ideal as we create the atmosphere for their future learning.
Jewish schools and young Jewish learning is vital to our people. A city without a Jewish school will ultimately be destroyed, declares the Talmud, for the world only exists but for the breath of school children.
Perhaps this is the case because school learning is just the beginning. Real Torah study is the pursuit of a lifetime. What we learn as children simply the way for adult learning.
Maimonides wrote that every adult is required to study whether they are rich or poor, healthy or sick, young or old -- even a poor person supported by tzedakah must study Torah daily.
Maimonides tells of great sages who were woodchoppers and water carriers, but studied Torah. You are setting your children on this noble path of a lifetime of Torah study. This is merely the start, the encoding process, the furrow plowing for future plantings.
As you carpool your precious one bright and early to school for the first time, pause to appreciate what you are doing. Jewish schools have been around for a very long time and Jewish parents have been bringing their children to the doors of learning for eons. Now you are the one, linking your child to all of those who came before; the myriads of young Torah students who have trotted off to learn Torah, a long chain of beautiful children reaching all the way back to Sinai itself. Good luck!