The ever-increasing costs of Jewish education have been the focus of many articles recently, including at least three in the Canadian Jewish News just this past week. The unaffordable cost for many in our community of attaining a Jewish education is not a new phenomenon. The Talmud (Bava Batra 21a) explains that since the obligation to teach one's children is a parental duty, in the early years of our history "whoever did not have a (learned) father did not learn Torah". While to moderns, this seems rather unbelievable, in the ancient world formal education was the property of the few. Apparently, many Jews "learned" by societal osmosis--by witnessing the practices of their parents and the Jewish community around them. They, unlike Jews today, could be practicing Jews even if they were ignorant Jews.
Yet such a "system" was doomed to fail. The 1st century high priest Yehoshua ben Gamla thus instituted universal free Jewish education, with the costs being borne by the community at large. This act, which became the model for our contemporary public school system (where every child is guaranteed a free education), was simple, brilliant, and the most important enactment in all of Jewish history. Without it, there would, in fact, be no Jewish history.
The Talmud, in assessing the importance of universal free Jewish education, states simply, "Remember that man (he was apparently not learned himself) for good, and his name is Yehoshua ben Gamla; for if not for him, Torah would have been forgotten from Israel ". The Talmud states the obvious--and often it is the obvious that must be stated most--that if not for Yehoshua ben Gamla's decree mandating universal free Jewish education, there would no Torah, no Judaism, and no Jewish people. Jewish history would have ceased with the destruction of the Temple. Amazingly, this decree was enacted a mere six years before that destruction, when the Jewish community seemingly had much more serious issues to deal with, issues of physical survival. Yehoshuah ben Gamla understood that there can be no greater threat to Jewish survival than ignorance.
Coupled with the successful plea of Yehoshua's contemporary, Rav Yochanan ben Zachai, to set up an academy of higher Jewish learning in the coastal city of Yavneh, rabbinic Judaism was able to survive and even thrive despite the destruction of Judaism's most beautiful and important building, the Temple. The many Jewish sects of the time were soon to fade into oblivion, interesting only scholars of the Second Temple period. Had the Romans understood that Judaism can survive without the gleaming temples--but not without Jewish education--they might have spared the Temple, concentrating their efforts on closing down Jewish schools.
While many believe that Jewish tuition fees should be treated as user fees, to be paid by those who use the system, our tradition teaches otherwise. It is a tradition that the rest of the world has copied from us. Now it is time that we copy it back from them.
While our contemporary Jewish communities (outside of Israel) lack the power to tax their members, the unprecedented resources that exist within our community allow us--if the will is there--to guarantee "Birthright Education" to every Jewish child. It will take a concerted effort involving the entire community; nothing less will do when the future of Judaism is a stake. Study after study has shown that Jewish education and involvement in--and a commitment to--the Jewish community at large are intimately related.
The Talmud (Shabbat 119b) teaches that "the world continues to exist only because of children learning Torah". Are we up to the challenge of Jewish history?