June 23, 2024
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Rabbi Sacks, zt”l on Jewish Education

The Jewish world suffered an irreparable loss this year with the passing of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, zt”l. His intellect, humility and unsurpassed ability to communicate the truths and lessons of Judaism elevates him to the roster of our greatest Jewish teachers. Erica Brown wrote: “… Jonathan Sacks was the closest we got to royalty, a spiritual aristocrat with a regal bearing.” From Prince Charles to the Lubavitcher Rebbe to students of his weekly lesson on the parsha, to all those who studied his many books, Rabbi Sacks represented the finest and most articulate presenter for traditional Judaism. All of his writings are noteworthy, but his teachings on Jewish education are especially pertinent.

According to Rabbi Sacks, education is fundamental to Judaism, and one of the secrets of the Jews’ ability to survive and even thrive during centuries of exile and suffering. “If you want to save the Jewish future, you have to build Jewish day schools—there is no other way.” “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 central point of Jewish life is the transmission of a legacy across the generations.

Education is not for leaders alone but for everyone, especially parents. Everyone is called upon to do their part to educate the next generation. Rabbi Sacks wrote:

“Not only does [Moses] become the teacher in Deuteronomy, 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 never this concern for universal education elsewhere in the ancient world. Jews were the people whose heroes were teachers, whose palaces were schools, and whose yearning was study and the life of the mind. What Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Gamla (the founder of universal Jewish education) and the other Sages understood is that Jews have always known that the real battle is not fought on the battlefield with weapons, but rather in the hearts and minds of future generations.

According to Rabbi Sacks, Jews understood that the real struggle between ancient Israel and ancient Greece was not political but cultural. “To defend a country, you need an army. But to defend a civilization, 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 deliberate about the transmission of culture and heritage. If the Jewish community fails to educate its children in its values, they will acquire other values by osmosis.

“We do not want them to be taught that every difference of behavior 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 moral values undermined by a secular, skeptical, cynical culture.” The values of the broader secular culture are not confined to school. They are available in the ever-more-intrusive media of television, the internet, YouTube, TikTok and the icons of popular culture and influencers.

According to Rabbi Sacks, core educational values are: Jewish education as the right of every Jewish child; Jewish education at the heart of all of our communal institutions; and families should be empowered and supported as partners and direct agents in Jewish education.

“The end goal of Jewish education must be Jewish identity formation, Jewish continuity and a sense of responsibility to community, peoplehood and wider society. We want our graduates to have pride in their Jewish identity and a desire to pass that on to their children.”

“Science is about explanation. Religion is about meaning. Science analyzes, religion integrates. Science breaks things down to their component parts. Religion binds people together in relationships of trust. Science tells us what is. Religion tells us what ought to be. Science describes. Religion beckons, summons, calls.”

In Rabbi Sacks’ thought, Jewish literacy is an example of the particular, and secular knowledge represents the universal. Both are essential to what it means to be a human, and both must be equally respected in any Jewish school. Moreover, “these products of the twin hemispheres of the human brain must now join together to protect the world that had been entrusted to our safekeeping.” Our schools must also be environmentally responsible and sustainable in both content and practice.

The curriculum of Jewish schools must value Torah and general wisdom equally. When practical, an integrated approach between these two should be taken. “To be a Jew is to be asked to give, to contribute, to make a difference, to help in the monumental task that has engaged Jews since the dawn of our history, to make the world a home for the Divine presence, a place of justice, compassion, human dignity and the sanctity of life.”

As Jews we have a responsibility to work toward tikkun olam (repairing the world, or in the language of Rabbi Sacks, healing the fractured world). Jewish education must therefore have a social activism component. It should not be theoretical, it must leave the doors of the beit midrash and enter the world as a practical and meaningful expression of Judaism’s values. The Jewish school curriculum should be focused on practical personal and national ethics.

“I called my series Covenant & Conversation because this for me is the essence of what Torah Learning is, throughout the ages, and for us now. The text of the Torah is our covenant with God. The interpretation of this text has been the subject of an ongoing conversation that began at Sinai and has never ceased. Every age has added its commentaries, and so must ours.”

As for Zionism, “That is the challenge for a new religious Zionism: to build a society worthy of being a home for the divine presence by honoring the divine image in all its citizens.” Israel should be used as a resource for generating Jewish pride, inspiration and identity building. There should be critical thinking about Israel and a core educational issue should be the theological role of Israel within a broader philosophy of Judaism.

Teachers open our eyes to the world. They give us curiosity and confidence. They teach us to ask questions. They connect us to our past and future. They’re the guardians of our social heritage. “We have lots of heroes today, and they are often celebrities—athletes, supermodels, media personalities. They come, they have their 15 minutes of fame, and they go. But the influence of good teachers stays with us. They are the people who really shape our life.”

These values should be a part of every school’s mission statement.

*Many of these quotes were collected by Dr. Daniel Rose, the educational consultant and content developer for the Office of Rabbi Sacks.


 Rabbi Dr. Wallace Greene has had a distinguished career as a Jewish educator.

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