Book Review: History of Jewish Education

Dear Reader,

I recently finished A History of Jewish Education from 515 BCE to 220 CE by Nathan Drazin. This is an older book, originally published in 1941. My overarching concern in my  current series to is develop a reformed Christian approach to education. As I believe a reformed theology is a biblical theology, this means I am seeking a biblical philosophy of education. In reading Drazin’s book, my interest has been to see how a culture other than the classical (Greek and Roman) approached education and also how another ostensibly biblically-based culture did so. Of course even before the time of Christ, there would be some differences in the Jewish understanding versus our own so it is not necessarily that we are going to follow all that they did, but still my hope was to find something instructive here that will aid us as we develop that biblical approach to education. I will first summarize Drazin’s book and then give my own reactions to it.

The period Drazin examines is a wide-ranging one, covering some 700 years from the Jews return from the Babylonian exile until the Jewish Mishnah was completed. Not surprisingly, given such a long span , there were some changes within this time. Most notably an expansion of education. Whereas before the Babylonian exile there would have been little formal education outside the home, after it the Jews first developed higher education, then secondary, and finally added elementary education for boys (girls would not receive any formal education at this time). This expansion, from higher levels down to lower, Drazin believes to be a common pattern in societies, and, indeed, I think we can even see it today when there is still a tendency to repair the deficits of the educational system by starting earlier and earlier.

Drazin makes quite clear that Jewish education is not just education using Jewish content. It was fundamentally different in its system and goals from Greek and Roman education (Kindle loc. 209). “The outstanding difference,” he says “between Jewish and Greek and Roman education was, of course, in the matter of aims . . .’The whole purpose of Athenian education was the development of virtue, but the virtues were always civic virtues'” (Kindle loc. 2161). Their purpose was often theoretical — the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, the discovery of universal moral principles — whereas for the Jews the theory should always influence action (Kindle loc. 2171, 2245). Interestingly, Drazin here sees much more of a connection with the 20th century theories of John Dewey who also sought to shape behavior through education (Kindle loc. 2257).

The goal of education, then, was one of the primary distinctive features of Jewish education. This goal was always focused on Torah, the learning of the law of God, not just for its own sake but so that it may be lived out (Kindle loc. 222, 316). Education was part of life as a whole and was to continue throughout one’s life. Adults too actively sought out education (Kindle loc. 250). Though girls were not educated outside the home and were not required to learn Torah, they too were educated and an educated wife or daughter was still valued (Kindle loc. 1921, 2075, 2096).

The primary content of Jewish education was the Law. For modern Christians it may seem odd but this included not just the text of the Old Testament but its interpretations by scholars and teachers. Though at a certain level there would be discussion of points of the Law, at young ages particularly these interpretations would be memorized as well (Kindle loc. 1713). Other subjects, sciences and grammar and the like, would be learned as they were touched upon by the Torah (Kindle loc. 268, 1382). Though there is some indication that such things could be valued in their own right as they pointed to God. Drazin quotes the Talmud as saying: “‘The man who understands astronomy and does not pursue the study of it, of that man Scripture says, “they regard not the work of the Lord, neither have they considered the operation of His hands”‘” (Kindle loc. 1616).

Though Jewish education did not, like classical education, aim for civic virtues yet there was a broader, more societal goal. Education would assure the survival of the people and would draw other nations to them. This vision was based on an understanding of Deuteronomy (Kindle loc. 296). Israel was a light to the nations and their wisdom was a large part of what would attract those nations.

Practically speaking, Jewish education, particularly elementary education, included a lot of memorization (Kindle loc. 2224) and there was certainly a set body of knowledge that was to be learned. All boys ages 6 or 7 and older were educated. There was a recognition that some would not learn as easily as others and attempts were made to ensure that all learned the needed material. Though physical discipline might be used, the teachers were generally kind and had a real desire to teach and pass on their knowledge.  Intelligence and imagination, Drazin tells us, were not valued in the lower schools (Kindle loc. 1713). Education was not entirely a top-down affair, however. There was room for students to pursue individual interests (Kindle loc. 1752), and, though the Jews did not educate through play, there was an effort to stimulate the child’s interest in the subject matter (Kindle loc. 2226).

In seeking to develop our own biblical philosophy of education, it is helpful to look at those who have come before us. Though the Jewish model of education as a matter of course only looks to the Old Testament and not the New, there are still aspects of it which can be instructive to us.

The Jews of this period took the biblical injunction to educate one’s children seriously. This more than anything else was the impetus for their model of education. Though the move was away from parental education for boys (girls were still educated by their parents), this came from a concern that all should be educated well. The alternative to home education was not just any education but an education based on the community’s core values. And this would be a very tight-knit community with common ideals. It is very different from the modern choice one has between home education according to one’s own ideals and public education in which one has no say (which is not to say that I am always opposed to public education; see this recent post).

The main goal of education was a personal one, to build personal virtue and knowledge of the Law of God (as opposed to the classical model which aimed mainly at civic virtues). A secondary aim was to shine as a light to the nations so that the biblical prophecies might be fulfilled and the peoples would be drawn to the true God. This is a reason I think we are sorely missing in the church today. Note that it is the wisdom of God’s people which attracts the nations. In our day and age Christianity and scholarship are more often than not seen to be opposites, particularly in the popular conception. No one is coming to the church because of our scholarship. This has not always been the case, of course, and I think we can yet recover good, Christian scholarship.

Based on what Drazin says, it seems that more often than not education revolved largely around the Torah and that other subjects were included only as they arose in that context. But knowledge, particularly at the higher levels, might be pursued in its own right, and it was even seen as good and necessary to do so. There was certainly a belief that all knowledge was God’s and that God’s truth would hold up to investigation and experimentation.

There are ways in which the world has changed since 220 AD. Books are everywhere (not to mention computers!) and the bodies of knowledge to which we have access are enormous. Ancient education, whether Greek, Roman or Jewish, was primarily memorization. There is often an emphasis on this in modern homeschooling based on classical models. While this may not be an entirely bad impulse and I am somewhat saddened by our seeming inability to remember things in this day and age, I do think we need to have a discussion at some point about how education can and should change with changes in access to materials and very real changes in the content of human knowledge as well. All of which is to say, it is worth noting the practical aspects of how ancient education worked, but we need to also evaluate them from the perspective of the modern world. A fuller discussion of this would take another post, however, so I will leave it for the moment.

The biggest difference between our biblical model of education and that of the Jews arises from our very real theological differences. For most of the period under discussion (which you will recall was roughly 550 BC to 220 AD), the Jews were God’s people and we would say we share that common heritage. But God’s revelation was not complete at the time; His biggest revelation, His own Son, had not yet come. I hate to beat up on the Pharisees because I think they often receive a bum rap, but the New Testament does make clear to us that the teachers of the time, those who were most educated, got a lot of stuff wrong.  The primary goal of Jewish education was the development of virtue. The underlying assumption of this approach to education was that one could, by studying the Law well, be able to keep that Law. Drazin quotes the Rabbis as saying that the whole world hangs in the balance, “‘the merits of the people nicely balancing their transgressions'” (Kindle loc. 471). This is not our understanding nor do we believe it is a good understanding of the Old Testament. The good deeds do not weigh against the bad and people are not able by study to keep the Law of God on their own. In my own philosophy of education I have talked about education as sanctification. This is much larger than the development of virtues. It is a transformation because a complete transformation is what is needed (Rom. 12:2). And, most importantly, it is not something we can accomplish on our own. It requires the work of the Holy Spirit who writes His Law on our hearts (Jer. 31:33) and changes us and enables us on a very fundamental level. Education itself, even education in the Law of God, apart from the work of the Spirit has no power to make us good.

I think there are things we can learn from the Jewish model of education. It is particularly helpful to have an ancient model that it not the classical so that we may compare the two (you can see some of my thoughts on classical education here and here). There are things we can learn from the model Drazin describes and there are details which perhaps we need to incorporate in our own, but, at the end of the day, this is not  a Christian model and our very fundamental theological differences will cause us to reject this model as it is and to look elsewhere. Though, I would add, we do see once again how a people’s core beliefs are manifested in their approach to education. The Jewish model may not be ours but it was quite well-suited to their own worldview.

Nebby

4 responses to this post.

  1. […] I recently reviewed a book on Jewish education which made just this same point. The education of the Jews from 550 BC to 220 AD was distinct from that of the Greeks and Romans in that it sought to make wisdom affect life. (In contrast, our previous thinker was Gordon H. Clark argues that reformed education should be “intellectualistic.“) […]

    Reply

  2. […] article I reviewed recently, A History of Jewish Education from 515 BCE to 220 CE  (see my review here), the author, Nathan Drazin, shows that Jewish education, while it did begin after the exile, […]

    Reply

  3. […] In so far as it transforms the minds and hearts of God’s people, election builds up the Church and glorifies God.  (Education and the Covenant Child; see also History of Jewish Education) […]

    Reply

  4. […] For some posts on what Hebraic education was and what it had to contribute see: Book Review: History of Jewish Education; Book Review: Train Up a Child; Hebraic vs Hellenistic Education and Revisiting Hebraic vs Greek […]

    Reply

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