As has been constantly stressed by our sages, the contents of the Torah are not open to innovations through which people try to update the Torah to sound more progressive. While progress is no doubt a matter of great value without which society can not function, one is reminded of G.K. Chesterton’s famous observation that many people believe that progress is “leaving things behind us, which has utterly obscured the real idea of growth which means leaving things inside us.” (The Romance of Rhyme, Fancies versus Fads, 1923)
“It is not the Torah which needs to change to the spirit of modern times, but it is modern times which has to accommodate itself to the spirit of the Torah.” (Samson Raphael Hisrch) While such an observation is much more complex than what many believe it to be, it is definitely true that throughout history since the days of Moshe Rabenu till our own days there has never been a controversy how tefilin need to be updated, mezuzoth need to be upgraded, or how tzitzith need to look more progressive. While there are theoretical disputes in the Talmud about some of them, the practical Halacha has always been the same.
There is, however, one exception to this rule, and that is Jewish education. The Talmud in Baba Batra (21a) informs us: “First, if a child had a father, his father taught him [Torah], and if he had no father, he did not learn at all.” This was based on the verse, “And you shall teach your sons…” (Devarim 11:19) Later on, the prophets or sages “made an ordinance that teachers of children should be appointed in Yerushalayim,” and children from the outlying areas of Israel should be brought to the Holy City. The verse to support this was “For from Tzion the Torah shall go out.” (Yeshayahu 2:3) When this ordinance lost its effectiveness, and too many children did not receive Jewish education it became mandatory to have teachers in all towns and provinces. When it became clear that this would neither be effective, and many young children under 16 would neither have any elementary instruction, “Rabbi Yehoshua ben Gamla came and ordained that teachers of young children should be appointed in each district and town and that children should enter school at age six or seven…”
This Talmudic observation is of great meaning. While the sages considered “new rulings” as illegitimate even when times may have asked for it, such an attitude was absolutely rejected when it came to the question of how to instruct Jewish children. Nowhere do we see more innovative practice in Judaism as in the area of Jewish education. When times changed the teaching of Judaism changed. Although the Talmud does not discuss the actual syllabus, it is clear that it had this in mind when it made the above observations. (see the essay on Jewish education by Rabbi Yacov Kamenetsky z.l. which deals with the question why Jewish children today are no longer taught by the method suggested in Pirke Avoth, 5)
Jewish education has only one goal, and that is to inspire students to reach for Heaven (Yirath Shamayim) and to transform them into outstanding human beings, in which the concern for their fellow men and dedication towards the Jewish people and mankind are achieved through the commandments of the Torah. The moment any educational system is no longer able to achieve that goal it becomes outdated and dangerous, however much it may have greatly succeeded in earlier generations. The often repeated slogan in some orthodox circles, “This is the way our forefathers taught Torah in Presburg or Istanbul, so it must work today as well, and what could be wrong with it?” is of no value unless it is abundantly clear that such a system indeed works in the 21st century. The heavy bombardment of modern external influences from which even the most orthodox cannot escape requires constant contemplation and innovation by highly competent Jewish educators. When this demands totally different approaches or drastic changes in the syllabi in schools or yeshivoth, then nothing should hold back those responsible from making these changes. No doubt this requires courage. But courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear — not absence of fear. (Mark Twain)
Part of the religious world today has fallen victim to a kind of religious behaviorism, the belief that Judaism glorifies the deed without proper motivation and inspiration. We are blessed with synagogues and educational institutions, but how many of the worshippers are still connected with “inner life?” Lots of religious children receive a host of excellent Jewish religious information, but how much do they learn to appreciate? The failure to understand this matter will ultimately lead to the vulgarization of Judaism of which there is already a lot of evidence today. What a man does is only the minimum of what a man is. Deeds are outpourings, they are not the essence of the self. This does not minimize the importance of the Jewish belief that outer deeds create inner feelings and mentalities. The heart is, after all, a lonely voice in the marketplace of the living. But without constantly emphasizing the fact that all observance is ultimately for the sake of transformation of the whole man, Judaism will not be a beloved friend of the religious child and student. This is the holy task of Jewish education about which the sages were concerned when in every generation they considered the need to change the rules of Jewish study programs so as to accomplish the maximum.