Stuart Chesner

The Esau Complex: Pride and Prejudice in Jewish Education

We take great pride in being the people of the book. We Jews are a studious, intellectual high achieving group. It’s become part of the rubric of our national identity. This is great, right? No. In fact, it is a falsehood that is one of the greatest killers of Jewish identity in the world today.

Today, psychological science has identified multiple forms of intelligence. Some of us are great readers. Others excel at visual-spatial skills. Others are great in sports. Some of us are incredibly talented musicians. Some are nature lovers and some of us are deeply connected and sensitive to spirituality. Unfortunately, the need for uniformity of thought in creating the collective identity of large nation-states and the need to teach our children in the cheapest way possible have created an educational system held hostage to the tyranny of verbal-linguistic or mathematical intelligence. No other form of intelligence occupies any sort of significance in our school systems.

As Jews, our preference for those who fill the study halls dates back from time immemorial. Rebekah and Isaac have twin sons, Esau and Jacob.  Although being fraternal twins, each child is born with a radically different temperament. Jacob is described as a “pure man who spends his time in the tents of study.” Esau is described as an “Admoni.” He is an outdoorsman and a hunter. Admoni stems from the root of the Hebrew word “adom” or red. The rabbis associated it with an aggressive temperament that needs to be sublimated into positive action.

A vivid description of the failure to sublimate this temperament is the Bible’s description of Esau selling his birthright to Jacob  When Esau returns from the field, hungry and tired, his impulsive nature and its disastrous consequences are graphically displayed. “I am going to die! What use is there in the long term investment of holding on to this birthright.”, Esau exclaims. Jacob convinces or connives Esau to sell the birthright and Esau’s actions reflect the thoughtless impulsiveness of unrestrained behavior. “And he ate, drank, arose walked and disdained the birthright.” The rapid succession of five action verbs in uninterrupted sequence is a one time occurrence, never again repeated in the entire Bible.  It is a beautiful literary expression of the internal impulses that pressured Esau into behaving in what in hindsight was a short-sighted manner.

Jewish society has always preferred the child who is a “dweller of tents” over the “Admoni.” Our educational system is built for the studious “tent dweller.” Our religious rituals from our prayer service to our Shabbat table require tremendous tolerance and patience. Routine is built into our lives. There is little room for the stimulating, dynamic landscape that is necessary for the more sensual, here and now oriented “Admoni”. Interestingly, the Bible presents us with only one other “Admoni”  and this is none other than King David. In fact, the uniqueness of King David stems from the incredibly broad range of activities that he engaged in. In addition to being a warrior, he is an astute politician, a talented musician and poet and a spiritual giant. His failings are clearly recorded as acts where passion preceded reason.

In today’s world, we use labels like ADHD or Oppositional Defiant Disorder to describe kids who like Esau and David are born with the “Admoni” type of temperament. We have created a class of dysfunctional humans who are simply born with a temperament that is a poor fit for the “comfort zone” of our society. The results for the Jewish community in particular are devastating. Many potential “King Davids” flunk out of Jewish education. Their failure usually comes after years of degradation and abuse at the hands of a system that is poorly equipped to understand them. In today’s world where  labels of ADHD and ODD have become more widespread, many schools make “accommodations” for these “handicapped” students.  The bottom line reality is that these kids are still viewed as second rate and disabled. The multiple intelligences that emphasize their strengths are relegated to a status of minimal  relevance.

As a result, an incredibly high percentage of these children are drop-outs from school and from any affiliation with the Jewish community. They come to see the Jewish world as a source of humiliation at best, and abuse at worst. We are losing thousands of potential “Davids” due to a narrow-minded prejudice against certain genetically transmitted biologically based temperaments.

In Israel, several schools have developed that are geared towards helping kids with these type of temperaments utilize their strengths. The Bnei Chayil Schools in Jerusalem and Kedumim are prime examples of innovative projects that prepare hundreds of “Admonis” with the opportunity to develop strengths, build character and prepare for life. The Matara Therapeutic Boarding School has been established in Jerusalem to help foreign students with these westernized pejorative labels who are biblically known as “Admoni.” Unfortunately, these innovative projects are merely a drop in a gigantic bucket.

The technology to help all of these children exists.  For the most part, it’s much more low-tech than high tech. It involves a deep understanding of the temperament of the child. It involves teachers and parents learning to love children who emerge “far from the tree” in terms of their temperaments. What is lacking is the collective will of the Jewish community to undertake and invest in the project of creating institutional and religious frameworks that fit the basic temperamental identity of many of our children.

In the meantime, these kids continue to comprise a significant part of the wounded Jewish worldwide community.  They are part of a silent holocaust that has been perpetrated by us Jews upon ourselves, from time immemorial.

About the Author
Dr. Chesner is a clinical psychologist who has written three best selling books in Hebrew on children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. He has founded Bnei Chayil ( and Matara - a Jewish Therapeutic Boarding School for Teenagers ( and and setup programs in Israel for students with ADHD, Autistic Spectrum Disorder (Asperger's) and other neuropsychological issues. Most recently, he has founded a Pre-Military Academy for foreign students in Israel.