Teaching Our Children

Va'et-hannan By :  Joshua Heller Posted On Jul 20, 2002 / 5762 | Torah Commentary

The words of the first paragraph of the sh’ma, taken from this week’s parashah va–ethannan, are among the most important in all of Jewish liturgy and learning — the closest thing we have to a catechism. The words of Deuteronomy 6:4–9 proclaim the unity of God and declare the deepest commitment of faith. They mark the doorposts of the Jewish home, they are recited morning and evening and they were the last words of martyrs in many generations. 

They are also words of life and renewal; the commandment “and you shall teach them to your children” (6:7) is reflected in the intense Jewish commitment to education, which has been one of the distinguishing marks of our people. This week, those words bring me to think a bit differently about an issue that has been taken by many American Jews as dogma.

Our sages read the verse “You shall love Adonai your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:5) with careful attention to commitment required by each word. The association of the sh’ma with the greatest possible sacrifice of faith is bound up with the story of Rabbi Akiva, who taught “with all your soul — even if God takes your soul from you” and then fulfilled his own teaching by dying a martyr’s death with the words of the sh’ma on his lips (T. B. Berakhot 61b). Other sages focused on the words bekhol meodekha — “with all your might,” explaining that it meant, “with all one’s earthly wealth.” Rabbi Eliezer Ben Ya’akov asks if one must love God even to the point of one’s very life, is any financial demand not merely superfluous? Is there more than one reasonable answer to the question, “Your money or your life?” The comedian, Jack Benny, in one of his classic skits, responded, “Don’t rush me, I’m thinking about it.” Indeed, Rabbi Eliezer Ben Ya’akov notes, there are those for whom the financial sacrifice is just as difficult, and hence the Torah mentions both.

That does not mean, though, that one must make the ultimate sacrifice for every single mitzvah. Only three transgressions must be avoided at the cost of one’s own life. Similarly, while some prohibitions may not be violated no matter what the cost, others may be observed more leniently when facing great financial loss. Even certain positive commandments may not be observed if the expense is too great. For instance, one need not spend more than one–third of one’s wealth in fulfillment of any one mitzvah (Bava Kama 9a–b, Tosafot), or give more than 20 percent of one’s assets to charity in one year (T.B. Ketubot 50a).

It is surprising, though, that the commandment of “bekhol meodekha” and its resulting limits would have any application in the American Jewish community, which is one of the most well–off in all of Jewish history. And yet, the costs of raising a committed Jewish family have risen even beyond the pace of that success. Responsibilities and social expectations like synagogue membership, kosher food, Jewish summer camp and Bar Mitzvah parties make it an increasing challenge for those who are not rich themselves yet wish to live a “rich” Jewish life.

One of the greatest costs, but also one of the most important investments, is Jewish education, veshinantam levanecha. The blossoming of movement–affiliated and communal day schools across the country has made it possible perhaps for the first time in this country, that the next generation of Jewish children will be more knowledgeable and committed than the generation that raised it. That investment requires a substantial principal. For some lucky families, the expense is borne easily; for many more, it is done with determination, sacrifice or even the help of the larger community. For still others, it is neither disinterest in the importance of Jewish education, nor a principled commitment to the value of public education, but rather dollars and cents, that prevents serious consideration of the best possible Jewish education for their children.

It is for precisely this reason that I believe it is time to reconsider something that has long been another catechism of sorts in Jewish public policy circles — opposition to school vouchers. There are many variations on the theme of vouchers, which allow parents in certain school districts to take a share of the money budgeted toward their children’s education and apply it toward tuition at a school of their choice. The Supreme Court’s recent reconsideration of the issue now creates opportunities for individual communities and school districts to implement such programs. It opens the door for local educational funds to flow to religious and secular private schools on a level not seen before in this country, though common in many other Western countries, like Canada and France.

The issues involved are quite complex, and each of the traditional arguments against vouchers has its corresponding counter–argument. The most far–reaching argument made in the Jewish community against vouchers has been one of constitutional principle: as a religious minority, we Jews run the greatest risks as barriers between church and state are lowered. Some would say that the school vouchers issue is really a restatement of “your money or your life” — trading financial support for insurance against the risk of deeper political and cultural dangers that could result from the co–mingling of government and religion. And yet, there are already well–defined conduits through that barrier. Many day schools take advantage of government programs providing special education assistance, bus transportation, textbooks and computers. For that matter, federal and state funds are often applied to the needs of students in private, religiously affiliated colleges and universities. Students in JTS’s joint undergraduate programs with Columbia and Barnard, combining secular and Judaic studies, benefit from federal and state aid, and that has not led to the collapse of religious freedom or public universities.

Other Jewish leaders argue from a utilitarian perspective. Some proclaim the value of a vigorous, well–supported public school system that creates an educated public and integrates different classes and ethnic groups. In many communities, though, public schools are already far from integrated, and race and class distinctions are well established before kindergarten. Others argue that the vouchers will be of limited usefulness to Jewish schools, since a $1,500 voucher, which covers much of an inner– city child’s tuition to a Catholic or charter school, makes a much less noticeable impact on a $10,000 or more day school tuition. Much remains to be done using the resources already available within the Jewish community to make quality Jewish education available to every family that wants one, but even hundreds of dollars per student could make a difference, particularly when compounded with the results of the other steps which must be taken.

A just society need not ignore “parochial” concerns, so long as it addresses each one fairly. It remains to be seen how vouchers and school choice will be implemented in different communities, but it is everyone’s responsibility, and to everyone’s best interest to ensure the quality of education for all children in our society. As Jews who value “veshinantam levanecha” (teaching our children), we have the further responsibility to make sure that our own children are not left behind in this process, to create a strong Jewish educational system and to make that system available to every Jewish family that wants to participate. Let there be one more mitzvah that families can observe without contemplating the dire implications of “bekhol meodekha“.

Shabbat Shalom.

The publication and distribution of Rabbi Heller’s commentary on Parashat Va-ethannan have been made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld