By Shmuly Yanklowitz
One of the most potent indicators of a sustained, Jewish life is an upbringing that nourishes the intellectual dynamism of Jewish thought and lived experience. That being said, consider the typical Jewish educational experience. Whether through day school or supplemental programs, the vast majority of curricula tend to focus on (varying levels of) Jewish identity development, Hebrew linguistics, Israel engagement, Jewish history, comfort with Jewish culture, socialization, and the like. These individual elements are very important, of course, but I believe the number one priority to nurture a child’s faculty is missing from the aforementioned list.
That trait is character development.
And by character development, I don’t mean a vague, general awareness of middot—character traits—that help guide people through their days. Rather, when I think about character development, I specifically mean the cultivation of mussar principles through immersive mussar practices. Refining one’s spiritual practices not only allows for the internalization of deep ethical truths, it prepares the mind and soul to venture out beyond normative comfort zones and into the recesses of the unknown. If we are to raise the next generation of dreamers, then this is an essential lesson for them to digest.
Indeed, we can only address the messiness of our outer world to the extent that we have the ability to address the messiness of our inner worlds. Only through the cultivation of inner light can we bring outer light to others through moral leadership and good deeds. While there are countless ethical virtues that we need our children to cultivate, these capabilities can only be displayed if they’re represented in everyday situations. When students are taught humility, courage, patience, awe, and gratitude, among the multitude of traits, they’re getting an education that goes beyond the page. To be sure, facts will come and go. Texts will be studied and forgotten. But our inner lives—the lens with which we encounter ourselves, other people, and God—becomes part of a permanent epistemology of spiritual discovery.
When we approach life from the virtue of hitlamdut (seeking to learn and grow from every encounter), Jewish commitments are sustained and refreshed. At the same time, ethical and spiritual lives grow and flourish. Because of this view, I’m not calling for a minor, superficial adjustment: say, adding a small mussar curriculum to the school. I’m calling for radical change: making mussar the central element of Jewish education. Through this style of learning, students will still learn Hebrew, Talmud, history, cultivate their identities, and develop friendships. But most of all, they will become part of a continuous tradition that goes beyond the cognitive and social, where the end goal is developing our children to be righteous and holy. They become more self-aware, more other-aware, and more God-aware. We enrich their souls through emotional intelligence while simultaneously instilling deep-rooted vivacity of Jewish wisdom.
We need our students to learn spiritual truths: awe, wonder, trust, and faith. But we cannot do it without providing a platform for students to flourish. Often, Jewish education becomes stuck in a pattern of box-checking: Alef–Bet, check; Five Books of Moses, check; Crusades and expulsions, check; the miracle of Israel, check. Where is the fire? Where is the zest for learning what is beautiful, remarkable, and unique about Jewish teachings? When everything becomes rote, intellectual stasis prevails; stagnation follows.
But exploring new avenues of engagements is difficult as well. I have seen this personally. When my Jewish education organization, Valley Beit Midrash, launched our Teen Mussar Fellowship in the summer of 2016, I was skeptical. After all, isn’t mussar for adults? Do teens have the maturity to look at their inner lives and articulate it a reasonable manner with peers? My fears were allayed almost instantly. I learned that that capacity is most certainly there and, in fact, I know from parenting my young children that it is there from these formative years. I am so convinced by this vision that, indeed, it is my dream to one day launch a full-time mussar school to help transform the future of American Jewish education and the soul of the American Jewish people.
Rather, teaching Judaism to the next generation is an imperative not only because we are mandated to do so, but also because we have the opportunity to shape the lives of countless souls in a positive manner. We should—need to!— commit to passing this wisdom down. By doing so, we demonstrate that Jewish wisdom is forever relevant; it will allow students to thrive as they go through life. This wisdom helps impressionable minds to be successful at school and work, to develop meaningful relationships, and, most importantly, have a rich and rewarding spiritual life in which to cultivate happiness; this happiness will—with God’s help—pass down to the next generation. And the next.
And the next.