This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Irrelevance*

News Item:

October 1994--The Ministry of Advanced Education of the Province of Alberta issued its "White Paper on Adult Learning" which dealt, among other things, with the roles of the universities and its faculty members. The paper was not favourably disposed towards academic learning or the traditional liberal arts curriculum. On the contrary, it argued that the primary purpose of advanced education is to train students in specific professional skills.

As I understand them, our present provincial leaders are not favourably disposed towards any form of higher education that is not directed towards the "employability" of its graduates

From out here in the pedagogic trenches, this strikes me as a frighteningly shortsighted notion of what higher education should be about--and all the more so when viewed from the perspective of a Jewish tradition for whom schooling has always been seen as a way of molding the student's intellectual and spiritual character.

To be sure, Jewish tradition is unequivocal about acknowledging the parental obligation to teach one's children a useful trade; to do otherwise, the Talmud states, would be tantamount to actively recruiting them into the criminal underworld. The ancient rabbis offered practical guidance in selecting vocations that allowed their practitioners to work in dignity, if not in affluence.

In fact, by reading the rabbis' career recommendations historians have been able to learn a great deal about the vicissitudes of economic conditions in Talmudic times.

Thus, the severe decline in agricultural profits in the third century, a consequence of political instability in the Roman empire, was exemplified in two contrasting statements by Rabbi Eleazar ben Pedat. Initially he echoed the traditional Jewish preference for the farming life when he declared that "a man without land is not a man" (No, the saying was not invented by Duddy Kravitz's zeide). In later years, however, the harsh economic and social realities of his day prompted him to observe that "there is no profession more degrading than agriculture," thereby reflecting the experience of the thousands of his contemporaries who were being forced to forsake their fields and flock to the crowded cities.

The fickleness of the economy should of itself be sufficient reason for concluding--as our political leaders and administrators apparently have not done--that a real education must be based upon more substantial and lasting foundations.



At any rate, for our sages education was not a matter of acquiring technical skills, but a means of participating in civilization, and of shaping moral and spiritual character.

Even the champions of the European Jewish Enlightenment, who insisted that Jewish schools ought to be teaching their students to become economically productive members of society, did not imagine that the inclusion of practical subjects would come in place of the traditional academic and religious curriculum.

Indeed, the time-honoured pedagogic agenda of the talmudic yeshivah promotes many of the ideals associated with liberal education. Firmly rooted in ethical values, it is at the same time committed to critical analysis. The teachings of earlier authorities are subjected to the most uncompromising investigation, challenged by logic or by proof-texts. Sloppy reasoning is not tolerated.

Admittedly, one area in which the Talmud can hardly claim to excel is that of practical relevance. For the most part, the rabbis had far more interest in subtle conceptual definitions than in the pragmatic application of Jewish law. We often receive the impression that the more implausable the situations, the greater the likelihood that they would be heatedly debated in the academy.

But of course relevance can be a matter of perspective. Just as many of our most useful technological and scientific breakthroughs have resulted accidentally from disinterested theoretical inquiry, so have several of the farfetched constructions in the Talmud anticipated developments in "the real world."

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz has collected several fascinating examples of bizarre-sounding talmudic speculations that would take on actuality centuries later. He notes, for instance, the recurrent mentions of the "tower floating in the air," a hypothetical construct that would allow a person to traverse an impure place without actually touching the ground or breathing the air.

What was once the farfetched imagining of an unbridled legal imagination has since become a commonplace of aviation; and the halakhic concepts formulated in those ancient discussions can be profitably applied to contemporary questions as diverse as as overflight rights and environmental protection.

It is precisely that freedom to indulge in fruitless impracticalities that defines us as civilized human beings. And one cannot help but be dismayed by people who have gone astray after the idolatries of practicality and relevance.

This article and many others are now included in the book

Why Didn's I Learn This in Hebrew School?Why Didn't I Learn This in Hebrew School

by Jason Aronson Publishers


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My email address is: eliezer.segal@ucalgary.ca

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