By Rabbi Shimon Posner – Chabad of Rancho Mirage, CA
In the third week of September 2022, a governmental bureaucracy made noise that Jewish schools must change their curriculum to the dictates of the bureaucrats.
How dare they!?! Where do they get the gall to presume that for the hundreds of thousands — millions! – of children in New York State, they alone possess the wisdom to chart the educational course for each of these children? What about the parents who bore these children into the world, fed and diapered them and will be in intimate contact with them for the rest of their lives, shouldn’t they decide these things? From where the audacity, the gall, the sheer chutzpah to assemble and resolve other people’s life choices? From where is this predatory behemoth that rules by fiat?
Can anything be more immoral than for someone to barge into another’s home and tell the homeowner how to raise their children? And to threaten them, either explicitly or implicitly, should they fail to comply? And a very real threat there is, for the government owns guns, and significant power comes from the barrel of a gun: defy the government, you get fined, don’t pay the fine, your property gets confiscated, continue to resist, you get arrested, attempt escape, you get shot. (On the prison buildings where I served as rabbi, warnings of being shot for attempted escape were emblazoned on the walls.)
But consider this: if someone barges into our home, we recognize that as evil, yet when many, in the name of government, barge into our homes we somehow think that this is the function of government. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Seven points make this issue crystal clear:
1. This country was founded on something basic: people with power become nasty people. Kings become convinced of their divine right to rule; collectivist apparatchiks become certain of their infallibility. Therefore, argued 18th century Americans, the government shall have no inherent power over the people — it is the people who choose what power they will give the government.
This is what made America great, not the mountain majesties nor big houses nor baseball but the idea that the people are in charge of the government, the government is not in charge of the people. The people tell the government what the government’s rights are, not the other way around.
Why are we having a civics lesson now? Because it has hit home and can no longer be ignored. Because people rightfully got busy with their successful lives but fell asleep at the wheel and let the bureaucrats drive. . . I’d rather not say where.
2. Of course, if someone is afraid that I’m not schooling my children well, by all means, try to convince me otherwise. Present your case, but don’t threaten me, and, as stated, implicit in government edict is threat.
If you think you have a better school system, go make one. And if people agree with you more than with me, then your school will flourish and mine will wither. Unless of course, you have exclusive control over the purse strings. Which in this twisted setup the bureaucrats definitely do, and we the people decidedly do not. The simple way to untwist this knotted ball is vouchers. Instead of $20,000 per American child of tax money being handed over to the bureaucrats to educate Johnny and Sally as they see fit, the parents shall choose the pedagogic model that best suits their child and the school shall receive the 20 grand. Like in basketball, if everyone can compete equally, success is bred and everyone has a good time.
3. Do not confuse bureaucracies with public education. I am a Jew and millennia ago, my ancestors instituted the concept of universal public education. John Adams, when charting the American way, advocated that America must follow and provide education for all its youth, regardless of ability to pay, because this builds a mighty and virtuous nation. Again, vouchers.
4. The bureaucratic gall is all the more criminally atrocious because they have been largely inefficient, spectacularly failing and shamelessly hypocritical: those that can, send their children to private schools or to public schools that are hard for gifted students from unprivileged families to get into. We, the great unwashed are left to pound sand and hard choices. If you occupy a glass office have the good sense not to throw stones.
5. Vacuums don’t remain empty for long. When individuals do not govern themselves, aka self-discipline, then others will do it for them: if you don’t set your alarm clock to get up for work, then eventually your landlord will evict you. (Talking about eviction, what did the illiterate Chasid say to the professor? The rent is due on the first of the month.”)
This is why education is foundational to the American Idea. Children must be taught to be moral, responsible, and virtuous. This way they grow to see discipline as the way upward and onward. The fewer people live up to their divine potential through discipline, the greater a vacuum is left and the more oxygen is given to collectivist, totalitarian, plutocratic dictators. We’ve gotten to this point because parents don’t fully appreciate that their raison d’etre is to raise good children. As the drug dealer in the ads pointedly reminded us, if you don’t speak to your kids about drugs, I will.
6. You can’t tell people what to do, you can only show them. Every time a law is passed the citizenry becomes either more compliant, more defiant or more petulant. Passing a law means ordering people what to do. Showing people what to do, is much more difficult, much more involved and enormously time-consuming but it endures like no other way. It is the process of raising a person to grow into something more than they are. (The word education doesn’t mean instructing; it means raising.) Giving orders is the resort of weak leaders.
Think of it like this: there is Chalav and Pas Yisrael but no equivalent for oil, because the Talmud could not/did not institute an order that people would not follow. The job of a rabbi is not primarily to decree fiat but to teach, including teaching those reluctant to learn. Counterintuitively, if people are not threatened but rather convinced, then the idea has triumphed in the free marketplace of ideas. In Europe, religion is government established (that implies at least some control, and government control involves gunpoint, remember?). America established no religion and guaranteed its free exercise, so American religious groups need to inspire their following in order to exist. Europe has large houses of worship but America has religious devotion. This means that not only do we possess well-defined educational policies, but we are especially unwelcoming of being forced to follow orders.
7. Appropriately, this issue has come to the fore as the Jew prepares to celebrate Rosh Hashanah, when we each accept the sovereignty of G-d. This acceptance is the explicit acknowledgment of the covenant that G-d cannot rule unless we accept His dominion and we cannot be free unless He accepts us as His servants. What made this country great was this recognition. Johnathan Sacks was rightly enamored with the Constitution’s preamble- We the People.
John Adams, at the time when the nascent USA was faced with the largest armada the world had ever seen, was asked by his worried friend Benjamin Rush, can we possibly succeed? Adams’s resolute answer was “Yes, if we fear G-d and repent for our sins.”
And to paraphrase Johnathon Sacks, “America needs its Jews to be good Jews.” The future is always tenuous, always obscure. Still, some things are evident. The fate of this country, and by extension civilization, rests on the veracity of its education system and that veracity is now being played in the arena of Jewish education. History assures us that persecution often begins with the Jew but never ends there.
Chassidic tradition recognizes the first night of Rosh Hashanah as somber: will G-d accept us as His subjects? Will we show up and ask Him to? Does he have our attention? Recognizing this is the underpinning of education. Vouchers are its clarion call.