Walking in My Ancestors’ Shoes

Our Pesach tradition, which demands that we imagine ourselves as if we had been slaves in Egypt, teaches us that we can learn about our present lives by taking an imaginary walk in the shoes of our ancestors. As I’ve been learning about Jewish education from Talmudic times through the Middle Ages, I’ve been trying to imagine myself as a Jewish educator based on this historical perspective.

In Talmud Bava Batra 21a, we learn that Yehoshua Ben Gamla noticed that some children were not being educated by their fathers and created a workable but imperfect solution: centralized Jewish education. It turns out, not every parent wanted to journey to this new establishment in a centralized location, so Jewish authorities established more convenient, localized options to “meet people where they were.” When this solution did not fix the problem, the sages continued to propose new ideas.

Following the time of Yehoshua ben Gamla, the world and the Jewish community with it continued to change dramatically. Jewish educational leaders in Amsterdam in the Middle Ages required students to study Hebrew, Tanach, Mishnah and Talmud from morning until sundown with a brief break. Shlomo Ben Adret, Rabbi of Barcelona (the Rashba), issued an edict in 1305 that religious philosophies and natural sciences (except medicine) were not to be studied until the age of 25. Only a few hundred years later, in 1564, David Provenzalo of Mantua saw that as broader society was advancing intellectually, his fellow Italian Jews remained isolated and poor. He sought to create a Jewish college that would teach Jewish texts as well as the sciences, so those who “busy themselves only with the temporal life,” could explore eternal questions of existence while staying relevant to secular society.

The iterative process of these historical educational leaders liberates me as an educator. I see that there is no perfect solution, and we must constantly reflect and re-envision based on our environment and the results of our innovations. Yehoshua Ben Gamla, Ibn Adret, Provenzalo and others were all trying to give their students the best chance they could to become their best selves while gaining a sense of meaning and purpose. The immutable value is education; the form it takes is ever evolving.

Of course, I find myself in a very different world than Ben Gamla, the Rashba and Provenzalo—a place where I as a woman can be a rabbi; a time in which Jews occupy both the margins and seats of privilege; a time in which individualism, pluralism, and transcending constantly shifting boundaries are values, if not always reality. Yet, I walk in the footsteps of these historical figures as I continue to find new ways of reaching students and families. Why? I believe there is something in Judaism, in our text and our story, that will help people live their lives with love and wonder.

As we approach Passover, a time when many of us will participate in, if not lead, an age-old but enduring educational activity called a seder, I encourage you to reflect on how we are walking in the footsteps of our ancestors while adapting our inherited tools for our current time. While seder means order, sometimes finding meaning and enriching our tradition means mixing it up!

Rachel Gross-Prinz is a TJF Fellow teaching in the religious school at Adath Israel Congregation.

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