Rabbi Sacks taught us that education is a matter of life and death

Former chief rabbi Lord Sacks (© Blake-Ezra Photography Ltd. 2013 via Jewish News)
Former chief rabbi Lord Sacks (© Blake-Ezra Photography Ltd. 2013 via Jewish News)

It is no surprise that a Chief Rabbi would promote Jewish education, but Rabbi Lord Sacks took it to new heights. He gave an urgency to the issue in the way he publicly addressed the topic.

“To defend a country,” he would say, “you need an army, but to defend a civilisation you need schools.” Rabbi Sacks made such statements often, including in his maiden speech in the House of Lords.

Drawing a parallel between national security and schooling makes a stark point. A nation must invest in education with as much determination and resources as it does for its military might.

Something I, and many of his students, have realised is how rooted all of Rabbi Sacks’s ideas were in Jewish sources. He had a unique way of expressing them in succinct and compelling ways that were equally accessible to Jew and non-Jew, religious and not. Yet, in his absence, I think it is valuable to uncover some of the rabbinic texts on which he drew. This one particularly so.

It says in the Jerusalem Talmud (Chagigah 1:7), “Rabbi Yudan Nesia sent Rabbi Chiya, Rabbi Asi and Rabbi Ami to visit the cities of the Land of Israel… They came to a certain place and did not find any Torah teachers there, so they said to the locals, ‘Bring the defenders of the city to us.’

Thecity’s watchmen were brought out. The rabbis said, ‘These are the defenders of the city? In fact, these are the destroyers of the city!’ Said the locals, ‘Who then are the city’s protectors?  The rabbis responded, ‘They are the teachers of Torah, as it is written, ‘Unless God builds the house, its builders labour in vain on it; unless God watches over the city, the watchman keep vigil in vain.’ (Psalms 127:1).

The three rabbis were reminding the people of the city that it is foolish and dangerous to appoint security forces without also focussing on educational needs. If people are not taught the values and beliefs of their society then in times to come they will leave and disperse, and then there will be nothing left to defend.

The context of this story in the Jerusalem Talmud makes it abundantly clear that the very survival of our people is predicated on Jewish education.

Based on this perspective, Rabbi Sacks emphasised that the Jewish view of moral education was radically different to that of general society.

The modern educational approach is to present autonomous choices. Children are taught to articulate their personal preferences in a completely non-judgmental context. No way of life is to be advocated as better or worse than any other. “But,” wrote Rabbi Sacks in The Politics of Hope (p.176), “this is not how we learn. It is not the way we learn anything, let alone the most important question of all, namely how to live. To learn any skill, as Aristotle noted, we need to see how master-practitioners practice their craft. We need to watch and imitate, at first clumsily, then with growing fluency and confidence.”

He goes on to say that once a student is grounded in the Jewish tradition, then there is room for questioning, but first and foremost, education is the transmission of a tradition. We inherent it from our parents and pass it on to our children. There will be innovations and adaptations along the way, but if we love it then, says Rabbi Sacks, “we will do so harmoniously, not destructively.” In the end we are all but ‘temporary guardians’ of our tradition. And, reading Rabbi Sacks, he still has much to teach us about it.

  • Rabbi Dr Raphael Zarum is dean of the London School of Jewish Studies (LSJS), which is launching a new fortnightly online course on the key ideas of Rabbi Sacks, presented by some of his most accomplished students from around the world. It starts on 8 February, to book: www.lsjs.ac.uk
About the Author
Rabbi Dr Raphael Zarum is Dean of London School of Jewish Studies (LSJS).