In fact, our civilization is built on imagination. Without it no progress could ever be made, whether in science, literature, philosophy, art, music or commerce. Only when human beings try new and not yet utilized pathways will our world sustain itself and develop. It is for that reason that every generation must make sure that its youngsters have enough opportunities to develop a healthy imagination.
Children’s toys have become a major industry. In the last few years we have seen an outburst in the manufacturing of the most sophisticated toys. Today it is possible to buy dolls which can walk, sing, speak with other dolls, sleep, cry, smile and even need diapers. No doubt it is a matter of a few more years and the doll industry will confuse its clients with dolls so sophisticated that the owner will see the need to go to city hall to register a new member of the human race. The same is true with electric trains, boats and planes, etc. Some of the electric cars which one can buy in toy stores can go at a speed of 50 kilometers an hour, have radios, computers and rain wipers included and need petrol or drive on solar power.
While our society welcomes these developments and sees it as a great benefit to our children and grandchildren, we believe that this is a major educational mistake.
The Torah is often called a toy. King David said: “Were not Your Torah my plaything, I would have perished in my affliction.” (Tehillim 119:92) This concept is found throughout many parts of Tanach. Just like playing gives joy to a human being, so does the Torah. But of what is this joy made? No doubt one of the many elements which contribute to the joy of play is the use of the faculty of imagination as George Santayana once wrote. (Persons and Places, The Middle Span, p.1) Joy is the art of seeing great possibilities. When people learn Torah it is not just the information which they receive which is enjoyable, but, above all, the possibility to create new insights, chidushim. It is not the passive intake of knowledge but the development of one’s own imagination in the pursuit of understanding the Torah. This is one of the reasons why the Oral Torah was never completely recorded and why the Torah and, later, the Talmud were written in a most cryptic script which requires the student to read between the lines to fully grasp its profundity. It allows the mind to expand and demands much creativity. “It is impossible that a beth hamidrash (house of Torah study) will not contain a chidush. (Chagiga 3a) One needs to use his own imagination to add what the text itself does not reveal.
One of the most important benefits of playing with toys is the need for children to pretend. Children do not play with a toy itself but with what they imagine while they play with that toy. And the greater the distance between the toy and the product of the child’s imagination, the more intensive and the more beneficial will the play become. The child will have to use all her imagination to create the world in which she wants to find herself.
It is, for this reason, highly undesirable that toys should approximate reality. A doll which can speak, cry or smile is not a real doll, exactly because it is so “real.” A child is not able to pretend because the manufacturer has already done it for her. Because grown-up people have much less imagination than children, they believe they need to produce toys which look real. What they do not understand is that the child herself will imagine the part which is missing. To be sure, the child initially will be very pleased with a highly sophisticated doll which can sing and smile. She is not a child psychologist. But, as we all have observed, she will soon become bored. There is little left for her imagination. In fact, more and more, parents complain that the more expensive the toy, the faster it gets neglected. The toy industry today no doubt makes more money than it ever did before, but it does not improve the child’s education. We need future adults who are gifted with a healthy imagination. For that we need a simple educational doll.
Whether we succeed will depend on the toy industry. If we do not, we are in trouble. After all, toys “R” us.