Chanuka means consecration. During the eight days of Chanuka we commemorate the miraculous rededication of the Bais Hamikdash by the Chashmonaim in 165 BCE, following three years of contamination at the hands of the powerful Seleucid Greeks.
Chanuka, however, can also be understood as education, consecrating a child for the holy ambition of a Jewish “chinuch”. In this I refer not solely to the transfer of information and ideas, but rather the inculcation of a way of life, a standard of principles and life-shaping ideals that will guide a child to remain on the proper path well into their adult lives. “Chanoch l’naar al pi darko, gam ki yazkin lo yasur mimenu” – Train the youth according to his way, so that even when he ages he will not deviate from it. (Mishlei 22:6)
Chinuch is a topic that deserves special attention during Chanuka, a time when the very essence of Jewish education was threatened by a materialistic, Hellenistic cultural “darkness” that outlawed the study of Torah and the observance of mitzvos at the pain of death. In this article and in the one that follows, I present some thoughts on the topic of character education.
Over the past number of years, much emphasis has been placed within our schools on the development of proper midos and manners amongst their charges. Numerous educational programs have been designed to increase student sensitivity towards others, as well as to develop general character refinement within our youth. These programs are used by yeshivos throughout the world, often with great degrees of success.
However, while it is highly commendable that such efforts have been undertaken (we certainly want to produce young men and women who display a strong connection between Torah learning and Torah living) one has to wonder as to whether so much of the burden of such character training should really fall on our mosdos chinuch. Is it fair and appropriate for our yeshivos to have to allocate their precious time and resources towards the development of mentschen, instead of focusing more directly on their primary, stated function of producing capable, well trained students? Is it unfair to suggest that such character development is really the responsibility of the home, something which the yeshivos should be able to expect to be properly addressed by their parent body?
Home and School: Fostering An Attitude of Ezer K’negdo
In his essay, On the Collaboration Between Home and School (Collected Writings of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, Feldheim Publishers, New York, 1992, pp. 101 ff.), Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch outlines his view on the special educational partnership which exists between parents and educators. Rav Hirsch speaks of a “division of labor”, conceived along the lines of the matrimonial ‘ezer k’negdo’, in which the home and school work to compliment each other in this noble task of educating our children.
Rav Hirsch distinguishes between two primary foci within Jewish education, what he terms as “spiritual” education and “moral” education. Rav Hirsch defines “spiritual” education as the “training of the spirit by and for the acquisition of knowledge”, the religious concepts and skills necessary for a person to live successfully as a Jew. This, he says, is the primary responsibility of the school.
Conversely, “moral” education, defined as the “training of the will for the requirements of the moral law”, speaks to the need to develop a child’s character, so that they can develop into a good person, with proper midos and sensitivity towards others. Rav Hirsch maintains that this second area, (which he concedes to be the far more difficult of the two, as it is much easier to produce a scholar than to train a good person), is largely the domain of the home.
Why is moral development primarily the responsibility of the home? Rav Hirsch suggests this based on the fact that the home is in a better position to guide children in their moral development than a school is. This is based on the home’s informal, authentic nature (i.e. the fact that it is more representative of real-life scenarios), and the increased likelihood of educational opportunities in which the child’s moral compass can be properly directed.
Rav Hirsch adds that parents have the advantage over teachers since that they have raised and nurtured their child since his earliest days, creating a special bond between parent and child, as well as a deep sense of devotion that the child possesses for his parent’s word. Children who have developed properly will respond to their parents more readily than their teachers.
Of course, there are numerous statements from Chazal which underscore this same point. Take, for example, these insights about how parents must speak in the home.
People say, “The talk of the child in the marketplace is either that of his father or of his mother” (i.e., parents are held responsible for the character and upbringing of their offspring) (Sukkah 56b).
Rav Zeira ruled, “One should not promise a child to give him something and then not give it to him, because he will teach him to lie, as it is said (Yirmiyahu 9:4), ‘They have taught their tongues to speak lies’” (Sukkah 46b).
We are also familiar with the tremendous positive impact that the very thought of Yaakov had on his son Yosef despite the distance that separated the two at the time when the latter found himself in the throes of temptation.
Our Sages tell us that when Yosef was faced with a most difficult test of moral strength, he saw before him the vision of his father. Yaakov was, in fact, very far away, but the vision of his father was enough to bring Yosef back to his senses and to make him recoil from the temptation to sin… Thus young Yosef… was saved for the great spiritual destiny that had been planned for him…
Therefore, fathers and mothers, see to it that the moral and spiritual image you imprint upon the hearts and minds of your children by the life that you lead should be pure and awe-inspiring. If you can do that, then you, and even the mere thought of you will hold sway over your children, reaching the deepest fibers of their innermost being (Collected Writings of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, p. 356).
Based on the above, it would appear that parents, not teachers, are primarily responsible for their child’s moral and spiritual development. And even as it relates to the so-called intellectual or academic aspects of the chinuch process, parents play a crucial role in helping their children internalize the content that they have learned in school.
Why, then, does it seem that all of these areas have become largely outsourced to our yeshivos?
To be continued…
Rabbi Naphtali Hoff is an executive coach and President of Impactful Coaching and Consulting. He can be reached at 212.470.6139 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.