How Should We Teach Our Children?
The Hebrews have always placed God’s Word at the center of their education. Modern religious Jews (especially Hasidic Jews) continue to focus on God’s Word.
The book The Chosen by Chaim Potok, is an absorbing novel about two Jewish boys, Reuven and Daniel, which takes place in New York in the late 1940s just after World War II. It’s a deep, heartfelt novel about the struggles of overcoming religious differences, with several lessons on Jewish history and traditions skillfully woven in along the way.
The novel begins with Danny and Reuven as high-school boys and concludes with their graduation from college. God’s Word was consistently the priority in the boys’ education. Throughout the book, both boys regularly studied the Torah with their fathers, especially on the Shabbat, usually for several hours at a time. Once they entered college, they studied the Torah from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., and then they began academic studies at 3:15 p.m. to 6 or 7 p.m.!
What a lesson in priorities—and what a story of fruit! The Hebrew education method of diligent Bible-focused study has been passed down over thousands of years. The unbelieving Jews don’t have the Messiah nor the Holy Spirit, but they focus their study on God’s Word. Compare this fruit with the fruit from the Greek classical methods used in Christianity. How many hours a day do we devote to God’s Word?
The American Jewish community is famous for academic attainment. Twenty to forty percent of students at Ivy League schools are Jewish.13 In the 20th century, Jews, more than any other minority, ethnic or cultural, have been recipients of the Nobel Prize, with almost one-fifth of all Nobel laureates being Jewish. Twenty-two percent of Nobel Prizes in all categories awarded between 1901–2003 were Jewish. This is an astonishing percentage for a group of people who add up only a twenty-fourth of one percent of the world’s population. 14
Marvin Wilson explains in Our Father Abraham: Jewish Roots of the Christian Faith:
There is no shortcut method to a sound education. If spiritual training is to be a priority in your children’s education, you will be required to make a major commitment of your time and your resources. As the psalmist wrote: His delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night (Psalm 1:2). Although ancient Israel had no formal system of schooling, learning and knowledge were considered the greatest goals in life—parents today would be wise to make the spiritual education of their children just as high a priority.
So strongly did the early rabbis feel about the priority of education that they said it should not be interrupted, even for the rebuilding of the Temple. Israel was to acknowledge the Lord’s authority in every circumstance and turn of the way (see Psalm 16:8 and Proverbs 3:5–6). The ultimate prophetic vision in the Bible was that all peoples of the earth may know that the Lord is God and that there is no other (1 Kings 8:60).15
Dwight Pryor explains the Hebrew’s view of learning for life:
Shortly before his death, the exemplar Moses reminded Israel that the Torah’s guidance and instruction are not just idle words for you—they are your life. By them you will live… (Deuteronomy 32:47). To study God’s Word so as to obey it was the greatest joy and chief duty of any son of Abraham. Study was supremely important because Torah (teaching) was supernaturally given. The process of diligently engaging and wrestling with the sacred text enlivened and sanctified all of one’s existence. Learning was for life and life was for learning…. Study leading to obedience was an act of devotion that engaged the whole person—heart, soul, mind and might—not just the intellect.12
Methods of instruction were largely by repetition; the Hebrew verb “repeat,” came to mean both “learn” and “teach.” Mnemonic devices such as acrostics were therefore employed. Scripture was the textbook, but that other books were not unknown is evidenced by Ecclesiastes 12:12. The value of rebuke was known (Proverbs 17:10), and an emphasis on corporal chastisement is to be found in Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, but discipline was much milder in Mishnaic times.
Until comparatively late times, it was customary for the pupil to sit on the ground at his teacher’s feet, as did Paul at Gamaliel’s (Acts 22:3). The bench was a later invention.
Jewish education’s whole function was to make the Jew holy and separate from his neighbors, and to transform the religious into the practical. Such, then, was normal Jewish education; but undoubtedly there were schools after a Greek pattern, especially in the closing centuries b.c., and indeed Ecclesiastes may have been written to combat deficiencies in such non-Jewish instruction. Hellenistic schools were found even in Palestine, but of course more frequently among Jewish communities elsewhere, notably in Alexandria.
In the infant church, child and parent were told how to behave towards one another (Ephesians 6:1, 4). Church officers had to know how to rule their own children. There were no Christian schools in early days; for one thing, the church was too poor to finance them. But the children were included in the church fellowship, and doubtless received their training there as well as in the home.