Societal Values

I read about the current “Oprah controversy” with a mixture of concern and curiosity.

For those who are not familiar with the story, the basic facts are as follows:

Oprah Winfrey has spent the last 5 years — and $40 million — building a school for elite 12-13 year old girls in South Africa. The academy is comprised of 28 buildings spread over 22 acres of land. Only 4% of the more than 3,500 girls who applied were accepted in the hope that this unique experience will enable the best and brightest of South Africa to one day become leaders and transform the country.

The largesse and vision of Ms. Winfrey is clearly worthy of admiration and yet, not all are happy. Apparently, some local leaders are upset that Ms. Winfrey chose to spend her money in South Africa and not here in America.

Responding to that criticism in a recent interview, she explained her decision: “I became so frustrated with visiting inner-city schools that I just stopped going. The sense that you need to learn just isn’t there. (Ital. added) If you ask the kids what they want or need, they will say an iPod or some sneakers. In South Africa, they don’t ask for money or toys. They ask for uniforms so they can go to school.”

Rather than put out the fire, it appears that this blunt explanation only fanned the flames of controversy. While some have further criticized these remarks, kudos go to Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page for not only defending Ms. Winfrey, but, more importantly, for adding an important sub-text to the discussion: societal values.

He points out that if inner city youths do not value learning this is most likely a result of having been raised in an environment that gave them that message — loudly and repeatedly. As Page correctly concludes, “If we want our kids to appreciate education, we grown-ups have to show some respect for it too.”

I am concerned, as all Americans should be, because the picture painted is drastic and depressing. One can only hope that Oprah’s comments serve as a “wake up call” and that Page’s opinion is shared and not criticized.

When considering the question from the Jewish perspective, however, I am heartened by the fact that our communal culture is famously suffused with a love of learning. While this value extends to general knowledge as well, it is of course primarily and originally centered on the Torah and Rabbinic texts. And the reason that education is so central a component of Jewish life is simply because it has always been our societal value #1. Children are raised with this understanding and as adults they, in turn, transmit this priority to their children.

There is no shortage of traditional sources that extol the value of learning. Some of the more famous include, “Torah study is the equivalent of all (other mitzvos)” (Pe’ah, chapt. 1), “the unlearned cannot be exceedingly righteous” (Avos, chapt. 2), and “if you have studied much Torah do not take credit for yourself, because that is what you were created to do” (ibid.).

And perhaps it is serendipitous that this Shabbos, in synagogues around the world, Jews will begin to read Sefer Shemos (the Book of Exodus), as a comment by R. Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin regarding the essence of this biblical book adds another dimension to our discussion.

R. Berlin (Introduction to Ha’amek Davar, vol. 2) notes that a number of early sources offer alternate “thematic names” for the various books of the bible. He cites one early authority who suggests the name “Chumash Sheini” or “Book Two” as a reference to Sefer Shemos. He is understandably confused by this choice, as all of the other books – even according to this authority – are given thematic names. So why, wonders R. Berlin, the sudden change and apparent disregard for the essence of this second book?

He explains that the choice of “Chumash Sheini” does, in fact, reflect the essential theme of the book as it conveys the notion that Shemos is – fundamentally – a continuation of Sefer Bereishis (the Book of Genesis).

The defining event of Bereishis is the creation of the world, and the central focus of Shemos is the giving of the Torah at Har Sinai. R. Berlin explains that the message conveyed by the name “Book Two” is that creation is actually is not complete until the Torah is introduced because it is the Torah that is the ultimate purpose of the world. [Compare with Rashi’s comments to Bereishis 1:1.]

What an amazing statement about the importance of Torah!

It’s not just “1st among equals” (as the Mishnah in Pe’ah maintains) or even just the point of our existence (as indicated by the Mishnah in Avos), it is the purpose of the entire world!

With messages such as these it is really no surprise that the Jewish people have always been anchored to the study of Torah. With its value so emphatically stated it is clear why the collective Jewish spirit has always been animated by the never ending search for treasures of Torah.

Our community is defined by study for the obvious reason that there is no higher societal value. While the content may be unique, there is no reason why the process cannot be duplicated by other communities. Clarence Page is right: it all goes back to societal values.

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12 comments to Societal Values

  • DMZ

    So explain how this jives with the sudden “women can’t go to college” thing in Israel?

  • alfie

    I don’t understand. Are you suggesting we give our money to Jewish schools in Israel because American values are bad?

  • Barry

    And yet . . . as a Jewish community here in the United States we tend to pay our teachers poorly. There are of course exceptions, but as a generally rule teachers in our supplementary community or synagogue schools, or in the day schools are not paid remarkably well. Pay for teachers in schools in Israel may be even worse. This is not to say that remarkable men and women do not often do extraordinary jobs with our kids, but merely that we don’t emphasize their value in one concrete method where it counts.

  • Lumpy Rutherford

    And yet . . . as a Jewish community here in the United States we tend to pay our teachers poorly.

    At my daughter’s school, the limudei kodesh teachers do not have college degrees and they only work a half day. I’m all for paying more, but I want highly educated teachers who work full-time.

    / donning asbestos suit
    // for the impending flaming

  • Dina

    Yes, and yet…there is a streak of anti-education, or anti-intellectualism, in some sectors of the frum community, and I am referring to the aversion to secular learning, even where the content conforms to Torah ideals. Where I will support anyone’s assertion that learning Torah far outweighs the importance of secular knowledge, IMHO this does not mean that the study of science, history, the ability to express oneself and understand how people and societies function, has little to no value, which is the message that is transmitted to many of our youth in yeshivos ketana and mesivta. To my naive mind, this anti-education trend is just self-destructive. Ironically, it is most often the frum individuals with advanced degrees, such as in social work, psychology, etc., who are busy everyday helping to fix the victims of our society who are the products of social dysfunction of some sort or another.

  • Nachum Lamm

    Is there any evidence that most Jewish kids enjoy being in school (and would ask for, say, uniforms over iPods) any more than any other kids?

  • adam

    The other issue was every single girl that Oprah picked were dark
    skinned and black. Not one white girl was picked even though there are poor white girls in South Africa.

  • FKM

    This week’s Hamodia Magazine actually decries the attitude of scorn and condescension to the secular subjects taught in said yeshiva ketanos and mesivta.
    It looks like the old UO stereotypes are slowly being replaced by the mainstream Chareidi’s own media. The times they are’a changin’.

  • francine marino

    #7: that is incorrect. There were white girls selected. The reason that the overwhelming majority were black was the a pre-requisite that the applicants’ parents’ income be US$700 or less. Most of the impoverished in South Africa happen to be black.
    #3: In Israel teachers are currently the absolute lowest paid professionals of all. (there was a time when social workers enjoyed that dubious honor but no more.)

  • Isaac

    The modest level of salaries for religious studies teachers in yeshivos is probably less a function of the value of religious studies in the community than it is the artificially enormous supply of religious studies teachers in relation to the demand that the yeshiva system churns out.

  • Jacob Haller

    Adam, how do you know Oprah selected non-white students exclusively?

    Nachum, perhaps comparing dropout rates and conversely participation in academic-style extra-curricular activity indicates that there’s a wide gap between social/economic groups regarding the PRIORITIZATION of school over ephemeral and fleeting pleasures such as iPods and fashion. Measuring “enjoyment” is way too vague and nebulous but statistics can aid in indicating how a group accepts the responsibility of academic requirements and achievement.

    Dina’s comment how worldly/secular knowledge “has little to no value, which is the message that is transmitted to many of our youth in yeshivos ketana and mesivta”. My oldest is 7 and I’m a BT so I can’t comment either way from personal experience.

    Even if this comment is 100% accurate and covers all situations, I’m personally less stung over this issue since a personal experience which in this instance I’m able to comment on taught that perhaps the yeshivas are not necessarily less or more indoctrinating than other (l’havdil) educational facilities.

    My university experience indicated that what we “learn” is often at the discretion of the professor and the curriculum boards and it’s naive to assume that they are free of personal agendas and that as tenured professors are solely dedicated to facilitating a student’s ability to develop.

    Although the topic of South Africa was only peripherally related to this article, I’m reminded of a senior-level course in South African history where the professor did a remarkable job of presenting Winnie Mandela as an outright “Tsadeikes” when contemporaneously there was information indicating her involvement with gangsters, kidnapping, child abuse and a plethora of other various unmentionables.

    A point here is that while acknowledging that there are caveats with Charedi institutions regarding secular studies, one should take pause before going too far extolling the virtues of such material since it ultimately depends on the discretion of who’s controlling the flow of information.

    This made me appreciate reading much more AFTER finishing college since I was no longer compelled to process the information into something the professor wanted to hear to satisfy their ego or else say kaddish over the idea of getting into grad school with resulting dismal grades.

    BTW, the Shulchan Aruch 307 delves into the topic of studying history (when not engaged in learning sedarim) to achieve greater understanding of the world.

    I supposed there’s a personal angle to this post as well since as a BT there wasn’t a pre-arranged hashkafic path to travel and the decision of what kind of community to join meant literally years of weighing balancing a seemingly endless number of factors, variables and nuances before realizing that life is not a lab experiment in a controlled environment and that actual decisions have to made taking in the ideal with the real. While this is only anecdotal, I was reassured when I witnessed a well-known Mechanech from Lakewood encourage his young son to learn about the varieties of fauna and flora to gain an appreciation of the natural world and also listening to Flatbush askan discuss with his Bais Medrash – aged son on what to read over Bein HaZmanim such as which Greek philosophy book could provide the best overview of the subject since time was limited.

  • francine marino

    1. A number of commenters have raised the question of whether Oprah only accepted non-white applicants. the fact is that she definitely did include whites in the school’s roster. I saw at least one such girl being interviewed, along with a future black class-mate, by a reporter at the well-publicized opening ceremony. That the overwhelming majority of the students are black should surprise nobody. One of Oprah’s requirements for acceptance was that the student’s family have an income of US$700 or less. It is no secret that most of south Africa’s poor are black.
    2. Commenter #3 writes “pay for teachers in schools in Israel may even be worse.” Actually, pay for Israeli teachers is much worse. They are the lowest paid professionals in the country, a dubious honor that was held at one time by our social workers.