One of the few people that the Gemara (Bava Batra 21a) lists as being ‘remembered for good’ is Yehoshua Ben Gamla who is attributed as being the architect of the formal Jewish education system.
However, what is less well known is that Yehoshua Ben Gamla was the Kohen Gadol in the years prior to the destruction of the Second Temple (despite the fact that he was not, in fact, a Kohen) and that prior to his institution, the formal Jewish education system was based in Jerusalem.
In this piece I would like to take a closer look at this Gemara and explain how the formal Jewish education system evolved towards the end of the Second Temple period, how Yehoshua Ben Gamla’s institution was a response to the impending Churban, while also identifying some essential features of Jewish education which remain relevant today.
We are told in Bava Batra 21a that there was a push for formalised Jewish education towards the second Temple era in order to ensure that even those children without a father to teach them Torah could learn Torah. This itself is significant, because it is from here that we learn that Jewish education should be INCLUSIVE and accessible to all.
Jewish education should be INCLUSIVE and accessible to all.
As such, ‘they instituted to settle teachers of children in Jerusalem’ basing themselves on the verse ‘for from Zion will Torah go forth’ (Isaiah 2:3). According to Tosfot (ibid.), the fact that the centre of Torah learning was in Jerusalem enabled the children to ‘see great holiness as the priests involved themselves in their divine service. This helped the children develop their fear of heaven and in their pursuit of Torah study’. This teaches us that an essential aspect of Jewish education is INSPIRATION, that Jewish children need ROLE MODELS, and that they have to see both RELEVANCE and APPLICATION in the Torah that they study.
an essential aspect of Jewish education is INSPIRATION, that Jewish children need ROLE MODELS, and that they have to see both RELEVANCE and APPLICATION in the Torah that they study.
However, despite this idealistic vision of Jewish education, it FAILEDbecause the fatherless children were not taken to Jerusalem and because these young children were unable to travel to Jerusalem on their own.
The Gemara then relates that to solve the problem of travel, ‘they instituted that they would settle these children in every province and enroll them at the age of sixteen or seventeen’. By delaying the age of formal education, fatherless children were able to travel to a centre for Torah study in their province.
But as the Gemara indicates, this too FAILED because children aged 16-17 have already adopted routines and behaviours, and while the Torah is meant to refine our behaviour, by this stage it was too late for some.
It was at this stage that Yehoshua Ben Gamla instituted formalised Jewish education ‘in each and every state and in each and every city’ for children aged six or seven onwards, so that the Torah that they learnt would be IMPACTFUL ON THEIR LIVES. This is the model that SUCCEEDED, and this is why Yehoshua Ben Gamla is to be ‘remembered for good’.
However, let us now contextualise these events. As Kohen Gadol, Yehoshua Ben Gamla would have agreed to the inspiring quality of having the centre of Jewish education in Jerusalem. But there were two problems:
Firstly, as explicitly mentioned in the Gemara, not everybody was able to access this inspiration.
Secondly, given the impeding destruction of Jerusalem, the survival of Jewish education required that it not be in Jerusalem.
From then on, formal Jewish education committed itself to being INCLUSIVE and IMPACTFUL, while knowing that the distance from and the destruction of the Temple meant that INSPIRATION and RELEVANCEmay be harder to nurture.
Since the establishment of the State of Israel and the reunification of Jerusalem, Torah now goes forth from Zion. However, the high tuition fees for Jewish education in the diaspora, along with the trend towards strict admission criteria in numerous schools both in Israel and the diaspora means that Jewish education is not INCLUSIVE, and many questions remain about the IMPACT of some models of Jewish education.
the high tuition fees for Jewish education in the diaspora, along with the trend towards strict admission criteria in numerous schools both in Israel and the diaspora means that Jewish education is not INCLUSIVE, and many questions remain about the IMPACT of some models of Jewish education.
Moreover, many students complain that their Torah education lacks INSPIRATION and RELEVANCE, and for many, this creates a significant distance and often disconnect with Judaism.
What we learn from the above is that the greatest Jewish educators were those who were prepared to adapt their vision to the reality that they faced and respond to the needs of the age.
the greatest Jewish educators were those who were prepared to adapt their vision to the reality that they faced and respond to the needs of the age.
Today, as I reflect on Jewish education in a post-churban era, I think we’ve lost sight of some of the most important aspects of Jewish education, and ultimately, I believe that for future Jews to ‘remember us for good’, we need to take a step back and consider how we can, in at least certain ways, ‘renew our days as of old’ (Eichah 5:21).