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Thinking is Good


I have just finished reading a book by Shaul Stampfer, Families, Rabbis and Education: Traditional Jewish Society in Nineteenth-Century Eastern Europe (Littman Library of Jewish Civilization), published by the Littman Library of Jewish Civilization. It is an impressive combination of statistics and academic opinion, shedding new light on Eastern Europe Jewish society in the nineteenth century, and its educational system in particular.

Jewish education has always been a religious obligation on parents. In the past as in much of the world before state education, wealthy parents paid for private tutors. Otherwise the church or the mosque was the only alternative. In nineteenth century Jewish communities, it was the cheder.

The cheder took children as young as 3 years old (to allow their mothers to work). And I was surprised to learn to often it took girls as well as boys. They got a very basic education in essential traditional Jewish texts and prayers. But the system encouraged students with talent and interest to go on to become scholars. In this it was remarkably egalitarian in its way and time. Most children had the opportunity to go to some sort of cheder, however poor, and able boys could rise through the system to prominence and acclaim. Those at 13 who showed promise moved on to a larger Talmud cheder, usually in an urban center. They knew if they succeeded they would either find a rich man’s daughter, become a rabbi or some other functionary of a community. The vast majority however simply learnt by rote, ending up relatively ignorant but still obedient to community values, and going to work.

Most of the cheder teachers were poor pedagogues, not unlike the characters Dickens portrays in the English poor houses of his day. They often took their humble positions because they could do little else. Their task was to get their charges to memorize both in Hebrew and Yiddish and inculcate information to supplement the rituals and experiences of home life. But the very nature of the texts and the commentaries required questions and answers. So even before going on to more serious studies, children were encouraged to challenge and start thinking for themselves (obviously within the parameters of the Talmudic method and culture). Success depended on the ability to argue and display intellectual creativity in front of one’s peers as well as one’s teachers.

When I first went to yeshivah in Israel as a teenager, throughout the day–in study, at mealtimes, even during leisure–we were given riddles and conundrums, and constantly tested to see how we responded. The intellectual challenge of yeshivah study was far more demanding and difficult than philosophy in Cambridge. It explains why so many who leave yeshivah go on to become very successful both in professions and business. It is a continuously perpetuated canard that young men who only have yeshivah study behind them are incapable of succeeding in the wider world. On the contrary, given the poor quality of so much state secular education I would put my money a well-trained yeshivah student any day of the week. That does not mean of course there are no casualties or abusers of the system.

Stampfer argues that it was this Talmudic method and the cheder system that influenced all discourse in Jewish Eastern Europe. Its language was combative and witty even amongst the least educated. It enabled so many emigrants to the West to do so well, because they were primed to challenge and question as well as to struggle to succeed. The “aggressive” Jewish mother is a product of such an environment, but so too are the Jewish comedians, writers, and intellectuals who overcame language difficulties to thrive as wordsmiths in new cultural environments.

But more significantly, he goes on to examine why it is that, if both Islam and Judaism revere their texts, drill their children in their early years to memorize and compare an ancient language with a vernacular, in general Muslim products of madrassas have become far more submissive to authority and less able to question. This is such a relevant issue. Religion does indeed speak to the disaffected and poor but why has “religious submission” become more dominant than “religious question”? He is, of course, cautious about extrapolating from limited studies, mainly of North African Muslims, to the whole of Islam. But even with the current turmoil, the Egyptian peasant is unlikely to vote against Allah.

We are both people of the book with similar traditionalist and centrifugal pressures. Yet the results of similar educational systems are so different. Why so many Jewish Nobel Prize Winners and so few Muslims?

One might put it down simply to political systems and historical political factors. Most Muslims live under dictatorships of varying degrees that discourage argument and challenge. Their societies have often not succeeded in liberating themselves from feudalism. Yet recent jihadis come from other backgrounds and degrees of wealth, and all they have in common is their religion. Stampfer suggests the real reason lies in the intellectually limited nature of modern Muslim religious education. But to be fair, within the Charedi world nowadays, there exists an equal degree of intellectual subservience and a reluctance to challenge religious authority. All religions, all authority, resist threats by retreating behind the barricades.

As soon as most Jews achieved freedom and success, they tended both to assimilate and to lose their combative edge. The dominant influences became the host society’s educational system and values, not its own. The good news is that if our experience is anything to go by, the vast migration of Muslims to the West will, in the long run, benefit from exposure to challenge because modern Western educational systems do encourage question and individual autonomy. The mere fact that so many want to move to the west only goes to prove that most of them want the freedoms and the opportunities there they cannot get at home.

Of course it takes time, generations, to turn the tanker around. Everywhere, for all the evil sick minds that are captivated by bloodlust and jihad you can find just as many in the professions, commerce, and politics who are adjusting their Islam to a new reality, just as Jews did when they were the feared hordes of unwashed barbarians, spreaders of revolution, coming from the east! The challenge is to balance the two cultural systems. That applies as much to us as it does to others.

3 thoughts on “Thinking is Good

  1. Dear Jeremy,

    I don't understand. For the past two months the Muslim world has been erupting and as of the last three hours, the Libyan army is reportedly fighting Gaddafi's guards, so where on earth (literally) are these supine, religiously squashed Muslims? I know Muslim woman from Morocco, Pakistan, Turkey, Lebanon and Iran, and not one of them could be described as acquiescent, even if they are variously religiously observant. As for argumentative, questioning, turbulent Jews, aren't they practically always the secular variety? I don't see the division you describe as actually existing, anywhere. Wouldn't it be better to revel in the revolutions instead of apparently hankering after a false sense of superiority.

    Best wishes, dk

  2. I was not suggesting that religious Muslims don't demonstrate! That would indeed be palpably false. But I did and do suggest the vast majority are far more firmly under the sway and influence of their mullahs and ayatollahs than they appear to western TV eyes. Sure they will rebel against dictators when they can, but as the WSJ editorial said last week, the Arab world does not vote against its Mullahs and they have an agenda which is not democratic or secular. You may remember Bahktiar in Iran, a nice liberal secular prime minister, how long did he last?

    You'd only have to step a foot into a Charedi Yeshiva Beis HaMedrash to hear to the extent of Jewish religious argumentation. It is built into the methodology. But nowadays sadly the degree of respect for authority has become so overpowering that even here they do disagree they will not rock the boat. They simply nod and do what they feel like.


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