One of the most unique talents with which human beings are blessed with is the faculty of imagination. Unlike any other creature, the human has nearly unlimited potential for constructive fantasy.
In fact, our civilization is built on imagination. Without this capacity, no progress could ever be made, whether in science, literature, philosophy, art, music or commerce. Our world would be unable to sustain itself and develop properly if human beings did not continuously explore new and uncharted paths. It is for this reason that every generation must ensure that its youngsters are provided with enough opportunities to develop a healthy imagination.
Despite this, we find that children’s toys have become a major industry. In the last few decades, we have witnessed a boom in the manufacturing of the most sophisticated toys. Today it is possible to buy dolls that can walk, sing, speak with other dolls, sleep, cry, smile, and even need diapers. One gets the impression that in just a few years the industry will confuse its clients with even more lifelike dolls – to such an extent that their manufacturers will rush to City Hall and register them as new births! Similarly, electric trains, boats, planes and other modes of transportation have become more and more like the real thing. Some of the electric cars available in toy stores can travel at a speed of 50 kilometers an hour, are equipped with radios, computers and windshield wipers, and can operate on solar power.
While our society welcomes these new innovations and regards them as greatly beneficial to our children and grandchildren, this is a major educational mistake.
The Torah is often referred to as a toy. King David said:
“Had Your Torah not been my plaything, I would have perished in my affliction.” (Tehillim 119:92)
This analogy is found a number of times in Tehillim (Psalms). Just as playing brings joy to a human being, so does busying oneself with the Torah. But, what does this joy comprise? No doubt, one of the many elements that contribute to the pleasure of playing is the use of imagination. Joy is the art of seeing great possibilities.
When people learn Torah, it is not just the information they assimilate that is enjoyable, but above all, they thrive on the possibility of creating chiddushim (new insights) by developing their 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, requiring the student to read between the lines in order to fully grasp the profundity within. This allows the mind to expand, demanding much creativity. “It is impossible that a Beth Midrash will not contain a chiddush.” (Chagiga 3a). One needs to use one’s own imagination to encompass what the text itself does not reveal.
One of the most important benefits of playing with toys is the fulfillment of children’s need to pretend. Children do not play with the toy itself, but rather with what they imagine while they are playing. The greater the distance between the toy and the product of the child’s imagination, the more intensive and beneficial is this pursuit to the child. The child will have to use all her imagination to create the world in which she wants to find herself and will, literally, have to think out of the box.
For this reason it is highly undesirable for toys to approximate reality too closely. A doll that can speak, cry, or smile is not a real doll, precisely because it is so “real”. The child is unable to pretend because the manufacturer has already done it all for him. Adults, who do not possess the same degree of imagination as do children, mistakenly believe they need to produce toys that look real. What they do not understand is that the children themselves will imagine the part that is missing. To be sure, the child will initially be very pleased with the state-of-the-art doll that can sing and smile, but a child is unaware of his own psychological makeup and will ultimately become bored. There is, after all, very little left to the imagination. In fact, more and more parents complain that the more expensive the toy, the sooner it is likely to be neglected.
Many Torah institutions today have fallen victim to the same problem as the toy industry. They now offer classes where questions become nearly impossible. The teacher delivers his discourse as a well prepared dish to which nothing more can be added and about which no further questions can be asked. Instead of encouraging imagination, they kill every opportunity to imagine. From being the great plaything—the source of endless imagination—the Torah becomes a sophisticated but sterile toy. And just as the child will drop the toy, so the student will drop the Torah.
Toy manufacturers are certainly making more money than ever before. Similarly, many Yeshivoth are producing students with a phenomenal amount of Jewish knowledge. But are these booming industries serving the child’s needs? And are the Yeshivoth producing real Torah scholars, or just walking encyclopedias? The famous Chazon Ish, Rabbi Avraham Yeshayahu Karelitz (1878-1953) is reported to have said: “Trying to raise gedolim b’Torah, great Torah scholars, in yeshivot is like trying to raise trees under a table.”
For a healthy future—for humanity and for Judaism—we will need adults who will be gifted with fertile imaginations. For that we need simple educational dolls for our children. And we need Torah teachings that consist of open-ended inquiry and a willingness to undergo a renaissance, which challenge us to grow.
Whether we succeed in the first task will depend on the toy industry’s understanding of human psychology. Whether we succeed in the second will depends on the will of the leaders of our Yeshivoth to make space for their students’ imagination. After all, Toys R Us. And so is Torah.
Questions by the David Cardozo Think Tank:
- “Trying to raise gedolim b’Torah, great Torah scholars, in yeshivot is like trying to raise trees under a table.” In your opinion, what is the “table” to which the Chazon Ish was referring? Under what circumstances might the authority of teachers be an impediment to learning?
- “Ask your father and he will explain to you; your elders and they will tell you.” (Devarim 32:7) There are two different forms of teaching spoken of in this pasuk: one uses the verbs, yagid, to tell or narrate, as in telling a story and the other the verb yamor, to say. What might be the reason for the different educational styles referred to here? Which would you say leaves more room for the imagination?
- In his commentary HaEmek Davar , the Netziv, Naftali Tzvi Berlin (1817-1893) writes: “The reason God ordered that the second set of tablets should be hand-crafted by Moshe was to teach that the ever-renewing power of halacha given in the second tablets involves the active participation of the labor of human” (HaEmek Davar on Shemot 34:1). What are the limits of human participation in this work? How far can humans go toward being a partner of God in creating the halachah?