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2 - The Most Jewish Business

In this episode we explore the importance education plays in Judaism and how Jewish education has shaped the world.


Hi everybody, I'm Menachem Lehrfield, and this is Zero Percent, where we explore world changing ideas introduced by Judaism, ancient wisdom for modern living. In the last episode we mentioned in passing so many Jewish contributions and inventions, and in the 18 minutes that we had we barely even scratched the surface. And the truth is, we could spend an entire episode on each and every one, and one day maybe we will. But first I think it's so much more important, so much more crucial to understand what we mentioned last time, is the black box that produces that success. To me it's so much more interesting to understand what produces the success that we see in science and medicine and technology, in all these different arenas and areas, so much more so than just understanding the stories of the Jewish people who have contributed to those different areas.
So I want to begin our discussion trying to understand what are the pieces, what are the elements that contribute to and produce the success that we see around us in the world? The Jewish people have truly civilized the world, and we take so many of these ideas and ideals for granted. The very concept of basic human rights is a Jewish idea. The notion that the sick and the elderly shouldn't just be left to die or murdered, but they should be taken care of and cared for. The idea of a society assisting the poor and disadvantaged all come naturally to us, they seem like they make sense, but for so much of our history, before the Jewish people introduced those ideas, it wasn't the case. In the ancient world infanticide was commonplace, it was a normal way of ridding society of potentially burdensome or deformed members. Any baby that appeared weak or sickly at birth, or even had the smallest birth defect, like a cleft palate or a harelip or something, was just killed.
And it wasn't just children with birth defects. Aristotle, someone who we regard as one of the most enlightened intellectuals who ever lived, argued in his politics that sometimes killing children was essential to the functioning of society. He wrote, "There must be a law that no imperfect or maimed child shall be brought up, and to avoid an excess and population some children must be exposed, for a limit must be fixed to the population of the state." That was the way he saw fit to deal with the population issue, and unfortunately there are people today who still believe that. We have to understand that Jewish wisdom introduced so many of the concepts that we take for granted today, and so it's so crucial for us to explore that Jewish wisdom that led to those discoveries.
What's important to point out, though, is that when we look at these Jewish inventions, these Jewish ideals and concepts, they weren't just taught in an academic form, they were taught as a way of life. And so as we begin to explore, not just, again, the Jewish contribution to the world, but the ideas, ideals, concepts that led to that success, it's important to keep in mind that it's not just in the intellectual realm, in the academic realm, but the reason why it's been so successful at becoming part of a entire nation, entire people's DNA, is because it has been organically seeping into every aspect of our lives. Every aspect of Judaism, both in the ideas that we teach ourselves and our children, to the ways that we act on a regular basis, the ways that we mark time, the ways that we celebrate our holidays, all of these things combined together reinforce all of the things that we learn, all the things that we teach.
Most often, it's the nonverbal messages that we give over to our children, that we reinforce for ourselves, that are so much more powerful than the verbal messages that we share. So yes, telling your children for 3000 years that they can change the world will obviously produce the result that they will, in fact, change the world. But it's so much more powerful to show them, to imbue within ourselves and our children these deep messages organically, in a way that it just seeps in.
In this first season I want to begin our conversation with the most Jewish business that there is. When you think of a Jewish business, some want to look at entertainment, Hollywood, as we said, so many of the major studios were founded by Jews, or perhaps law or medicine, but the truth is the most Jewish business out there is education, and that's where I want to begin our discussion, exploring and understanding what Jewish wisdom says about education. Jewish wisdom teaches that the almighty sealed a covenant with the Jewish people, making them an eternal people specifically because he understood that Abraham would educate his children, he would teach his children.
Jewish wisdom places education as our highest value. Jewish wisdom introduced the idea of education for all, it commands parents to educate their children and requires the community to take on that responsibility if the parents are not able to. Unlike most of the ancient world, literacy and education was never reserved for the scholars and the clergymen, it was never something just for the rabbis. The ideal was always constant, lifelong learning as a requirement for every single Jew man, woman and child. In the ancient world literacy rate were generally a 10th of a percent of the general society. Education was almost unheard of, except for perhaps the elite and the wealthy of society. Even in Rome, the beacon of enlightenment education, even Rome only had a literacy rate of maybe 10 or 15%.
Not only did Greece and Rome not deem it beneficial to educate the masses, they actually viewed education as a potential danger to the stability of society, but Judaism taught that education was a human right, that every single person, regardless of their background, regardless of their stature, what was entitled to. It was a value that was so crucial and so important to the Jewish people. Every single parent saw their role primarily as educator. Their responsibility was not just to raise their children and make sure they were alive and living, it wasn't just teaching their child a trade, it was educating them, imbuing within their children a love of learning that would last forever. It was sharing with their children the ability to learn on their own, and parents took that responsibility seriously. It was a primary part of every single person's day.
In 64 of the Common Era, Rabbi Joshua ben Gamla understood that many parents were not able to spend so much time every day teaching their children. It was then, close to 2000 years before the establishment of our modern public school system, that Rabbi Joshua ben Gamla ruled that every single Jewish child aged six and up should attend school, regardless of a child's background, that means no matter whether or not the parents can afford to send them, the community was responsible to ensure that every single Jewish child received a free Jewish education. And he didn't stop there, he even instituted how the education was going to be carried out. He mandated a maximum class size, no more than 25 students per teacher, to ensure that children didn't just get an education, but they got a quality education.
This is the basis of Jewish schools that exist throughout the world today. No matter what city you go to, any city with a Jewish community will have a Jewish school that will offer subsidized Jewish education for any student who can't afford it. As far as I know this is the first instance in recorded history where we find a compulsory universal education funded by the larger community, because they recognized the value that education played on not just those children's lives, but on the society as a whole.
Many scholars look at ben Gamla model as the basis of our modern public school system. It's hard to say that we would even have have a public school system had Judaism not introduced it thousands of years before. And it didn't end when a child "graduated," or became an adult, Judaism taught to constantly have this lifelong love of learning. There's a Jewish teaching that states, "Do not say when a I'm free I will study, for perhaps you will never become free." It required that every single person set aside time every single day to study and to learn something new. How many people today in our society do that? We spend 12 years or so in school, and then maybe go to college or grad school, and then what?
For most of us learning ends after graduation. We get a job, we start in a career, and then if we're required to take some sort of continuing ed course we take it, but specifically in the area that we're already working at. How many of us continue learning for the sake of learning throughout the rest of our lives? That is a Jewish value that is so crucial. Education is not just limited to a student as a means to get a degree, as a means to be able to practice a specific profession, but the education is there as an ideal in and of itself. And that's why it's so crucial to make time to study, to make the time to learn, because if we're just waiting until we find the time we'll never truly find the time, because there will always be something else to fill our time, there will always be another excuse.
Now you understand why I call education the ultimate Jewish business. It's not so much that Jews go into academia or education more than the general population, but education has always been the most important of all professions. It has been the most important calling throughout Jewish history of both layperson and professional educator alike, and when we look at the success of the Jewish people, it's hard to imagine the impact or the success without the focus of education, and the specifics of how we educate. They say that when you're a hammer everything looks like a nail, and I have to make a confession. So my background is in education, so I have a special place in my heart for the topic of education, but even without that I really believe that education is at the forefront of all of the advancement and all of the contributions that we talked about in last week's episode.
When I was in graduate school one of the things that struck me most about learning about education was how much of it was founded and rooted in Judaism among all the things I studied and learned the thing that was most in aligned with Judaism was the research of Stanford Professor Carol Dweck, and I was getting my master's degree at Layola University at the same time as I was studying to become a rabbi, so I was in rabbinic school and graduate school simultaneously, and it was so fascinating to see the work of Dr. Dweck coming alive in the pages of the Talmud was studying. There was so much synergy, so much overlap.
She's best known for the research that she introduced on the mindsets, understanding that some people approach life with a growth mindset, understanding that we can constantly grow, we can constantly change, and others approach life with a fixed mindset, an understanding that everything is fixed exactly the way it always has been, that nothing really changes, nobody really changes, I have a specific set amount of ability and that's all the ability I'm ever going to have. And so if there's no way to ever change that ability, there's really no point in ever trying.
And it was this set of research that really blew me away because so much of Jewish thought and practice is based on the concepts that Professor Dweck talks about. All of our Jewish holidays, all of the ways that we mark lifecycle events, so many of the concepts that we teach and we talk about, are predicated on building a growth mindset. And in fact, if you asked me I would say one of the primary focuses of Judaism is building the growth mindset. And when Professor Carol Dweck introduced this to the world, she introduced this remarkable way of looking at education, at looking at learning, and understanding so much of what Judaism has been teaching for thousands of years, but she did it in a way that was based on brain science, based on the way that our brains work and the way that we learn. And it was so cool seeing ancient Jewish wisdom and modern brain science coming together.
It was at that point that I said, I'm just going to reach out to Dr. Dweck directly and ask her, and so I did. I emailed Professor Dweck and I asked her if she was aware of the fact that there is so much overlap between her research and Jewish teachings, and she responded, and here's a world famous professor that is so busy, and she took the time to respond to this little graduate student who was in school rabbinic school, I was so moved by that, and her response was actually quite shocking. She responded to me and she said, "You know, I come from a long line of rabbis," she was not aware that any of her research was influenced by, or had any connection to Judaism in a formal sense, but she did acknowledge that she came from a line of rabbis, that she in fact was Jewish herself, and I wondered how much of her research maybe subconsciously was affected by her Jewish upbringing.
Because if you recall last episode we went through so many examples of ways that Jews have impacted and affected our world, impacting the world of medicine and technology, and other sciences. Then you can ask, and rightfully so, how many of the people who've contributed to all of those enormous inventions and innovations, how many of those people are practicing traditional Judaism? How many of those people have studied any of the ancient wisdom that we're going to talk about on this podcast? And the reality is you're probably right, I would think most of the people that we talked about in last week's episode, most of the people that have contributed and invented so many things that have changed our world have very little connection to their Jewish upbringing.
But I'll answer you with what's known as the cut flower phenomenon. If you take a flower and you cut it from the life source, maybe you put it in water, maybe you just leave it out on the table, at some point it's going to with and die, but it doesn't happen right away, it takes time for that process to set in. It still retains some of that life source from before, and I believe the same is true with Jewish wisdom. Even though many of the people who are changing our world today have so little connection to their Jewish upbringing, they were still influenced by it, they still retained some of that connection, even if they don't have it anymore. But like the cut flower it's not going to last forever. It might last for two, three, four generations, but at some point we're going to be so far disconnected from our roots, so far disconnected from our life source, that we're no longer going to have that reservoir that's producing the success that we see today.
So if we truly want to continue living with that success, if we want to learn what has produced that success, we need to connect back to those Jewish values, those Jewish concepts. So for the next couple of episodes I want to begin to explore Carol Dweck's growth mindset research, but from a Jewish perspective, understanding a holistic approach to, to building and reinforcing a growth mindset. What are the values? What are the core tenants, the concepts, that are building and enforcing that growth mindset, and what can we do to enforce it in ourselves and in our children? So join us next week as we begin that discussion, and don't forget to subscribe and share with your friends. See you next time.

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