Ephraim Osgood

You say you want a revolution…in Jewish education

Every person born into this world is something new that has never existed before, something original and unique. It is the duty of every person in Israel to know and consider that he is unique in the world in his particular character, and that there has never been someone like him before. Every single person … is called upon to fulfill his particularity in the world.”


— Martin Buber


No man is the same as his fellow. Therefore each and every person is obligated to say ‘the world was created for me'”


— Mishna Sanhedrin (4,5)

As an identical twin for my entire life, I can say with absolute certainty that despite external appearances no two individuals are truly alike.

Despite the fact that the above Mishna is easily one of the top ten most frequently quoted statements of our Sages, can we truly say that we live by this dictum? While I’m sure that every one of us who is a parent or has ever been a teacher believes that each child has a unique way of thinking, learning, and expressing themselves, is this truly reflected in our schools and in our society? Our classrooms more times than not become a platform for the teacher to show off the latest app or smart board trick that they have learned. We give the students many opportunities to express themselves…within the limited box of what is acceptable in our class and our society. This is not only failing to address the individuals needs, desires, strengths, and weaknesses, but it is NOT (nor has it ever been) a formula for cultivating and promoting greatness.

The standardization and formalization of education, while affording everyone a chance to have a Jewish Education, pose a great danger to our ability to continue our rich tradition. How could that be? Because in truth the strongest links in the chain of our tradition, the greatest of our Baalei Mesorah (bearers of the tradition from one generation to the next,) were iconoclasts. While on the surface it seems counter intuitive to claim that those most responsible for continuing our tradition were those who radically altered it as well, I hope to prove to you beyond any shadow of a doubt how true this is. The figures that I will use as examples should be very familiar to you. Perhaps you have never view them as revolutionary figures before.

Hillel the Elder — Although descending from royal lineage, Hillel worked as a laboror until he was 40 years old. He would  spent half of his meager wages to pay the entrance fee to the study hall. His humble beginnings did not leave him even after he proved his intellectual worth to the point that the leaders stepped down in his favor. Abolishing the entrance fee to the study hall was just the beginning of Hillel’s reforms.

His greatest innovation in the service of championing the poor of Israel, was his establishment of the Prozbul. Here Hillel used his brilliant mind to devise a method of circumventing the Biblical law (forbidding loans to be held through the Sabbatical year), in order to ensure that people would continue to lend to the poor even on the cusp of the Sabbatical year. His example of knowing when we must set aside even our most sacred laws for the greater good would be fondly remembered (and even emulated) , despite its radical nature.

Rebbe Yehuda Hanassi — Following in those footsteps was Hillel’s descendant and the man who is singularly responsible for saving the Oral Law from being lost forever, Rebbe Yehuda Hannasi (The Prince). Although he could have been quite complacent in his position as both the temporal as well as spiritual leader of the Jewish people, Rebbe (as he was universally known ), was anything but. He used his unique position among the Jews and the Gentiles, to press for a heretofore forbidden innovation, the formalization in writing of the oral tradition (i.e., the Mishna).

Although there were private collections used by individuals and private teachers (e.g., Mishna Rishona, Mishnat Rebbe Meir), the Canonization of the law into one final, formal, and authoritative draft was forbidden as a violation of the very nature of “Oral Law.” Rebbe however, realized that were his generation to continue in that solid tradition the risk of losing the Oral Law (due to an inevitable increase in anti-Semitic decrees), would become an inevitability. He therefore invoked a verse in Psalms (not itself a place where one can generally derive law from) that “one must act for God, lest the Torah be lost.” Once again we find a trans formative leader  bucking tradition, and again in retrospect we recognize that without his contribution we would have no tradition to speak of.

Rav Saadiah Gaon — In the post-talmudic era the great Babylonian Academies were still the centers of word wide Jewish education. These academies were ruled over by the Gaonim (Babylonian sages who ascended to that position only after a lifetime of service and teaching). For this reason the choice of Saadiah, an Egyptian native, and the youngest man to ever ascend to this position by around two decades, was a shocking choice. He was chosen by the Exilarch David Ben Zachai because there were pressing issues that required a leader from a different place and perspective.

Saadiah had already distinguished himself as one who was willing to stand up against the growing threat of Karaism (a movement rejecting Rabbinic authority). Saadiah had proven his capability in this area by penning an anti-Karaite book before he turned 25. Further, once he became Gaon, he had to stand up to the Nassi in Israel (who still fancied his position to be supreme to that of the Gaonim), Aharon ben Meir, who declared that he would not be following Saadiah’s calendar. Saadiah stood strong as the Jewish community in Israel actually celebrated Passover on a different date. When Saadiah did not budge, Aharon ben Meir did, and the unity of the Jewish people was preserved.

What David surely did not anticipate when he brought Saadiah in from Egypt was that Saadiah would not bow to his bullying either when David demanded that Saadiah sign a certain legal document. Saadiah braved demotion and seven years in exile before he was finally exonerated and returned to his post. Although Saadiah was a young, unproven, and foreign, his willingness to stand up to any and all establishment leaders secured the unity as well as (ironically) Rabbinic authority.

Rambam/Maimonides — There is no name that commands the universal reverence among all sectors of Judaism as that of the Rambam. The irony is that the Rambam was verbally attacked, disrespected, banned, and had his books burned both in his lifetime and afterwards. The Rambam’s Magnum Opus the “Mishna Torah,” is used both as the first stop one makes after learning a piece of Talmud as well as the greatest pillar of all future law. The Rambam was attacked because his opponents believed that he intended his work to usurp the authority of the Talmud. The Rambam vehemently denied this charge, but while he taught, respected, and revered the Talmud, he certainly did intend to revolutionize the nature of Torah learning. In that he was successful, if not entirely in the way he envisioned.

Even more controversial was the Rambam’s embracing and teaching according to the Aristotelian Philosophical Method. The Rambam bitterly complained that false and irrational beliefs had overtaken the masses and Rabbinate alike. He believed that only by embracing the rational and rejecting the irrational (even when it meant arguing with the Gemara or the Gaonim), could such nefarious beliefs be uprooted. One shining example of the Rambam’s success is the almost complete eradication of the them widespread belief in Corporealism (that God has a physical form). While nowadays this is one of the first lessons our children receive in the non-liberalism of the Torah, without the Rambam’s willingness to oppose accepted tradition, this never would have happened.

Rabbi Yosef Caro/Hamechaber — In a similar vein was Rabbi Yosef Caro’s successful effort to once again revolutionize Jewish learning an education. Although today Rabbi Karo is known as HaMechaber (THE Author) and his Shulchan Aruch is eclipsed only by the Talmud itself in the amount of explanatory volumes that it has inspired, it was not so in his time. Many of the greatest rabbis alive at the time opposed his Shulchan Aruch for many of the same reasons given 400 years prior in response to the Rambam’s Mishna Torah. It was claimed that The Mechaber’s intention was to usurp talmudic authority. The work itself was said to be for “idiots, fools, and children.”  Obviously nothing could be further from the truth. The Mechaber understood much as the Rambam did that the time demanded a simpler and more concise language. This not to demean or lower the level of learning, but to tailor it to the needs of a new and different generation.

Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato/Ramchal — When it came to the study and dissemination of Kabbalah, the Ramchal broke pretty much every convention that there was. He learned and taught it before his 21st birthday. In addition he did so in a large group. His assigning messianic roles (secretively and as a request rather than a declaration) to himself and members of his learning group did not meet with the approval of the rabbinic establishment. When even his rebbe urged him to desist his activities he handed over his writings (allowing them to be burnt) and agreed to cease his teaching. Yet time and again he returned to teaching, answering the call that was inside him rather than those insisting that he “do things the way they have always been done.”

In the end, he was literally chased out of Europe and ascended with his family to Israel, where he and most of them succumbed to a plague. It did not take long for the world to realize that it had persecuted one of the greatest thinkers and writers in our History. His Derech Hashem is perhaps the only lucid  explanation of the kabbalistic model of viewing the world. Of his Mesilat Yesharim (on individual ethical perfection), no less an authority figure than the Vilna Gaon stated that there was “not a single erroneous word in the first nine chapters.”

Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov/Besht When the Hasidic movement was founded was the Baal Shem Tov it was done with the stated purpose of revolutionizing worship of God. The notion itself of a personal connection with God was one that was introduced (or according to them reintroduced). The Hasidim claimed that the rabbis were so focused on learning that they lost their way in terms of avodah. They claimed that this could take the form of not only prayer but really the elevating of any previously mundane activity. The Hasidim were accused of being alcoholic, sex crazed, loafers who spent all day smoking and doing acrobatics in the street. They were banned, chased out of communities and publicly flogged.

Most of what the Hasidim were preaching (as opposed to what they were accused of) has become mainstream Jewish thought (for better or worse). Ironically the group that most represents lack of individual thought and action it would be Hasidim. It seems as if now that they are the mainstream they are only to happy to relish the role of authority and conventionalism.

Rabbi Eliyahu of Vilna/The Vilna Gaon/GRA Even the Vilna Gaon, who opposed hasidic innovation with harsh and vitriolic rhetoric was himself a revolutionary. His harnessed his brilliance towards the task of repairing  the “corruptions” that had crept into the talmudic text over the previous 1500 years. The audacity to literally cut and paste the text until it conformed to what he believed to be the authentic original could only be accomplished by one who 1) possessed an encyclopedic mind that could juggle and rearrange the hundreds of versions of the text that he had seen 2) was not scared to take this original and unprecedented step as long as he felt that he had the truth on his side. The Vilna Gaon was also one of the few post Shulchan Aruch Rabbis who was willing to disregard all of the Rishonim (Medievalists) in favor of his Talmudic interpretation. 

Into the modern era, the innovative and revolutionary activities of such figures as Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, The Chazon Ish, The Seredei Esh, Rav Kook, Rabbi Joseph Ber Solovetchik, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein and countless others continue to personify the idea that the great upholders of our tradition were in reality revolutionaries each in their own way. Sadly our leadership today believes that the only way to perpetuate our tradition is by indoctrinating our society with a fear of individuality.

We tell our children and our students over and over that they are special and unique and that the “world was built for them.” We say this and yet we do not allow them to express this individuality. When we have them approach our sacred texts we must elicit their thoughts and ideas along with guiding them through those of the classic commentators. When our children express questions and doubts our first instinct is to guide them along a particular path back the “correct” answer. In reality all that they are looking for is an acknowledgment that their questions, doubts, thoughts, and ideas are important.

In order to become part of our tradition, we want our children to become conversant in the “language” of that tradition. We want them to feel comfortable swimming in the waters of the Tanach, Mishna, Talmud, Shulchan Aruch, etc. What we overlook far too often is that they will only want to “speak our language” if we show an interest in their “language” (i.e., their interests, passions, and talents).

When I teach classes relating Torah concepts through the medium of Harry Potter, X-Men, Sports, and History it is not a gimmick to grab the audiences attention. No more so than Social Justice, Aristotelian Philosophy, Mysticism, and Love of Nature were to Hillel, Rambam, Ramchal, and the Baal Shem Tov. This was how they “fulfilled their particularity in the world,” and in doing that revolutionized our tradition. It takes a focused and concerted effort to crush the natural inquisitiveness and individual passions of children. If we instead focus our energy on nurturing those passions and celebrating the inquisitive nature we can help the next generation figure out how their world can be the next link in our continually evolving chain.

About the Author
Rabbi Ephraim Osgood has been a teacher of Torah and Jewish History in Los Angeles and Chicago for the past 10 years. In his free time he enjoys reading graphic novels (that's comic books in layman's terms), Jewish History, and anything that piques his interest. He has six children one all of whom are well behaved, adorable budding prodigies.
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