Children -- Only Holiness

[Be-Ahavah U-Be-Emunah – Vayeilech 5773 – translated by R. Blumberg]


Question: What is better for our dear children: Torah learning and secular studies together, or just Torah learning?

Answer: Just Torah learning! Such is Rambam’s ruling, that a small child should learn only Torah (Hilchot Talmud Torah, Chapter 2), and we find the same in Yoreh Deah 245. Such has been the ruling down through our people’s long history that children learn only Torah and nothing else. It is by virtue of this that the Jewish People have survived with all their greatness, reverence, Torah learning, purity and holiness intact.

And why not secular learning? Does it not include some very nice features? Certainly, very nice features indeed, very important and very essential. These features are interesting, they broaden the mind, expand the intellect, increase one’s understanding of the world and even one’s understanding of Torah. They are also a means of earning a living and a necessary vehicle for upholding the State. Our country needs physicians, engineers, soldiers and all kinds of professions. Secular knowledge is essential for enabling one to earn a living so that he does not become a parasite, and all the more so for enabling him to support and strengthen the Jewish State, which is great Mitzvah.

All this is very important, but not for children. Not every burden has to be laid upon children. It is very important to get married, and even so, the secrets of married life are not a topic for children. The time will come to teach them everything, but first comes the main thing, and afterwards the additions. The main thing is not broadening the mind with general knowledge, or acquiring a profession for the sake of earning a living. Rather, the main thing is good character, fear of G-d, goodness and integrity, and keeping Torah and Mitzvot (Igrot Ha-Re'eiyah, Igeret #170). All the rest constitute tools, tools towards there being a world, a Jewish State, towards a person’s surviving and succeeding. What could be better?  Yet why does a person want to succeed? Why is he alive? To serve G-d. Obviously, without people there can be no one to serve G-d, but the main thing is serving G-d, knowing

G-d, fearing G-d, having good character, amassing Torah knowledge, doing Mitzvot relating to G-d and to one’s fellow man. That is the essence of life, and that is what a child must be taught.

Afterwards we can add on the less essential matters, and then they, too, can serve as an auxiliary to what is really important. General knowledge can join together with one’s Torah knowledge, and a profession can help one to win life’s battles on behalf of what is important. The main thing, however, is to start out with what is important. Here is not the place to deliberate on how long childhood lasts -- until thirteen, fifteen or eighteen. This is something that changes with each generation. Nowadays, maturity is considered not to come until age twenty or twenty-two. Yeshiva students are called “Tinokot Shel Bet Rabban,” - “The children of our master’s school.”

We are not against secular studies. We are in favor of them. Yet yeshiva elementary school and high school should be devoted to G-d alone. Secular studies are not what children are about. Holiness is. Good character, a good heart, fear and love and devotion for G-d.

Afterwards, whatever secular studies a person learns, whether for his general knowledge or for his livelihood, will bring a blessing.

If the opposite happens, however, and a person ends up with neither good character nor a good heart, why should we develop his talents? What benefit will there be from talented people who lack a conscience? As the philosopher Rabelais said, “Knowledge without a conscience is the soul’s destruction.”

Of what use is a talented university student who breaks into the University computer system, changes his grades and erases the files of others? He is learned and knowledgeable, yet he is barbaric. One thinker called this the “techno-barbarian culture.” The wild man armed with technological knowledge is more dangerous than the primitive barbarian, because he holds in his hands the means and the tools to destroy.

We want good, ethical, upright children, and that is what we have to concentrate on.

Later on we can broaden our ambitions. With G-d’s help, life lasts a long time. We should let our children and our youth study Torah without distractions, in the Talmud Torah, the Yeshiva Ketana and the post-high school Yeshiva. Afterwards, if they wish, they can study Torah their whole lives and become rabbis, and if they wish, they can choose a different profession.

One might ask: At age twenty-five one should start studying secular professions? So suddenly? This is an appropriate remark in relation to anyone who has never learned anything, and his brain is rusty. Yet we are talking about people who have studied the Talmud, which is the profoundest field of knowledge there is, more so than any secular field.

For such people, secular fields are child’s play. Look around and see for yourself. At Machon Lev (The Jerusalem College of Technology) they opened a preparatory “Mechinah” for youths who have studied in Yeshivot Ketanot and have never touched secular studies. In one year, studying secular studies only half a day, they all passed their matriculation exams.

These youth have good study habits and are able to pace themselves. It is important for a person to know how to study on his own, to progress and to toil, to make an effort, to use learning tools and strategies, and not just to sit in class passively for hours and hours. That such students can be rapidly trained for a profession has been confirmed empirically. There are numerous examples of Yeshiva students successfully being integrated into various study programs.

When a boy is young, however, he should be allowed to learn Torah, so that he can grow up good and upright. Mathematics and Physics do not make a person good and upright, neither do they make him evil. They are irrelevant on this point.

Some people quote our Sages’ various utterances, that a man has to teach his son a trade (Kiddushin 29a); that many conducted themselves like Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, studying only Torah, and were unsuccessful (Berachot 35b); that astronomy is our science in the eyes of the nations (Shabbat 75a), etc. Yet Rambam knew all these sources and they have no connection to the rules of educating children. The two issues must not be confused.

Should our Sages’ utterances about the Mitzvah of being fruitful and multiplying make us marry off our children in early adolescence?

All of our Sages’ utterances regarding the value of secular knowledge are well-known and correct. Rambam, as well, knew these sources, and he incorporated them in various places in his works. Our children, however, should be left in peace. There’s no rush. It can wait. When they are young, what is important for them is to gain as much Torah and holiness as they can. That way they can become Torah-true, not half secular and half Torah-oriented, but totally of G-d. G-d alone is exalted.

I am not invalidating national-religious education or the Yeshiva high schools. I am not invalidating anything. Everyone must do what is best for him, on condition that he maintain holiness and purity. By the same token, we must not foster intolerance towards those who wish their children to study according to the pattern recorded in the Talmud, Rambam and the Shulchan Aruch, a pattern that was practiced down through the generations. After all, it was from that pattern that Torah luminaries and reputable children sprang forth. Don’t spread your wings over everyone, saying, “You all have to be like us.”

Quite the contrary, the child’s environment has to be one of holiness. The Torah must be his life, and he should love the Torah and be excited by it. It should be his whole world.

In Jerusalem there are several hundred Yeshivot Ketanot belonging to various streams, and in each of them are dozens of children studying with pleasure and enthusiasm. For the National-Religious population, there are almost none like this. This demonstrates an enormous lack of understanding. This has no connection to arguments about Eretz Yisrael and the Redemption. During the time of the Redemption, is there no need to fill ourselves with Torah and the fear of G-d? Quite the contrary, we need it all the more! We need still more Torah and fear of G-d, more Torah and Mitzvot than in the exile! Because of Zionism we have to weaken the Torah? We have to strengthen it more. In order to build a single individual you need a lot of Torah, and in order to build a state, which is so complicated a task, you need even more!

Over time, general knowledge can be introduced in limited doses to the main objective, which is Torah and serving G-d, for that is why we are on this earth. That is the revolution that lies before us now: to establish Yeshivot Ketanot. From these, real Torah scholars will emerge, both those for whom the Torah is their trade all their lives, and those who will choose a different profession in time. Through both will be fulfilled, “All your children shall be taught of Hashem” (Yeshayahu 54:13).