Indoctrination or Self Discovery

Friday, 20 May, 2022 - 1:20 pm

This morning I had the pleasure of participating in a unique ceremony. In Hebrew it is called “hachnasa l’cheder” – initiation of a child into Jewish education. There were a group of little boys who had recently had their first haircut, who were being introduced into the formal Jewish schooling. Now these kids have been in school for years, but this ceremony utilizes several rituals to impress upon the child the sweetness and goodness of Torah learning. We place honey onto the Alef Bet, which they lick and read. They read certain verses off a honey cake and eat it. Finally, they are showered with candy that “comes from” the Angel Michael, who rejoices in their accomplishments.

Some might accuse us of engaging in indoctrination of young minds into things that they cannot yet fully grasp. They argue that we should let the children grow up a bit before exposing them to religious doctrines so they can choose for themselves whether they want it. Seems like we are bribing three year old kids with honey and candy so that they associate Torah with enjoyment.

To which I say, first of all, I could think of worse things to be imparting to little kids than a love of Torah. How tragic is it that if they associate morals, kindness, and holiness, with a fun time? Imagine how terrible it would be if a generation of kids grew up believing the absurd notion that G-d actually cares about them not killing, stealing, lying and cheating. What an awful world it would be with no juvenile perpetrators of crime… How unfortunate to have children growing up with imaginary heroes like Abraham and Sarah, Moses and King David, instead of those real-life heroes like Sponge Bob and the Ninja Turtles. Let’s not forget Harry Potter and Wonder Woman (after all she is now Israeli...).

But to the heart of the matter, there is a much deeper way of understanding this idea. Indoctrination implies super-imposing something upon someone, which they did not posses previously. Kids are not born with political or societal biases. Imposing a political or societal viewpoint upon a child would be a form of indoctrination (and still I believe that parents have a right and imperative to educate their children in that form).

However, parents impressing upon their child that they are human is not indoctrination. It is simply acquainting them with the reality of who they are. Nothing wrong with telling a kid that they have blue eyes or brown hair.

For a Jewish child, learning about G-d and Torah, is simply acquainting them with their reality. Our Neshamas are who we are. It is not separate from the essence of who we are. Therefore, introducing a child, even at a very young age, to the beauty of Torah and Judaism, is simply putting them in touch with who they are. The sooner they are aware of their identity and reality, the more successful humans and Jews they will be; and the better off they will be for the rest of society.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

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