Education: Indoctrination or Empowerment?

Friday, 17 May, 2024 - 10:11 am

The opening verse of this week’s Parsha has G-d telling Moses, “Speak to the Kohanim, the sons of Aaron, and say to them.” It then goes on to give the admonition to the Kohanim to avoid ritual impurity associated with a corpse. Rashi cites the sages to explain the double expression, “speak to the Kohanim and say to them,” that this is to instruct the adults that they must educate the minors about this principle.

What can you teach a three-year-old Kohen about ritual impurity? He does not understand the underlying reasons for this command. He can merely be taught that “the boys in our family don’t engage in these behaviors.” As he gets older and learns to appreciate his special status, he can begin to understand why he must behave in this way.

There is a school of thought that maintains that giving a child religious instruction is indoctrination. Rather, they argue, wait until the child grows up and he or she can choose on their own whether they wish to pursue this religious doctrine and discipline.

Personally, I believe that this could not be further from the truth. Parents that neglect to share values with their child, especially religious values, are putting their child at a moral and behavioral disadvantage. Instead, I view an education based on Jewish values and morals as empowerment of the child. We are teaching them behaviors and values that will establish them in good stead for life. Would those parents say the same about teaching their child how to put on their shoes, or with regards to toilet training? If we believe that Jewish values are imperative for ourselves and our families, we must begin imparting them even at the earliest age by way of behaviors.

Yesterday I decided to demonstrate this by experimenting with three of my children. My two-and-a-half-year-old asked me for some water. I said to him, “What do we say before drinking the water?” He rattled off the blessing that we have been training him to say. Did he understand why he must say the blessing or what it means? Not at all. He just knows that this is what we do.

Later in the day, I was talking to my five-year-old and I asked him, “Why do we make a bracha (blessing) before eating or drinking?” He replied, "To put another brick on the Beit Hamikdash.” (To help bring the Redemption.) I asked, “But why do we have to specifically make a bracha before we eat or drink?” He said, “Because it is a Mitzvah.” I replied, “Why is making a bracha before eating a Mitzvah”? He answered, “Because Hashem said so.” I asked, “Why does Hashem tell us to make a bracha before eating?” He said, “Tell me.” So, I explained, “Before we enjoy things that Hashem created for us, we are supposed to thank Him for giving them to us.” He was happy to learn and understand.

An hour later, my seven-year-old asked me to help her get some water. I asked her, “Why do we make a bracha (blessing) before eating or drinking?” She replied without hesitation, “Before we enjoy things that Hashem created for us, we are supposed to thank Him for giving them to us.”

We see empowerment developing within these children. They relate to the value at an age-appropriate level. The two-year-old knows the behavior. The five-year-old has a vague idea of the value behind it but has not fully grasped it. The seven-year-old has it down pat.

I often hear from guests at our Shabbat table, how impressed they are with our children’s knowledge of the Parsha and Judaism in general. They feel like these 5 or 7 or 9 year olds are more advanced than they are. I explain that this is not an indication of their intelligence (though I think they are all brilliant, thank G-d…), it is an indication of the early start they have been given on absorbing these behaviors, values, and ideas.

Our enemies have always known that “if there are no kids, there will be no goats.” It is time that we learned this lesson and ascribe the highest priority to educating our children in the values and behaviors of Judaism, thereby ensuring successful Jewish continuity.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

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