When I ran for Congress last fall, one of my themes was the need for America to reinforce its founding principles of honorable living. I argued that encouraging Americans to live dignified lives, with ingenuity and hard work and by the sweat of their brows, was key to easing the skyrocketing rate of unemployment and restoring a sense of entrepreneurship. When we make people feel that they matter – that they are noticed and essential – we lend them dignity and make them feel alive. Every human being has an innate and indiscernible quality that we Jews call the spark of God.
It seems ironic, therefore, that the nation that first introduced the idea of human dignity to humanity should contravene its own teachings.
TRUTH REGARDLESS OF CONSEQUENCES Yeshivas and other ultra-Orthodox schools often fail to enforce legal minimum standards for basic education, thereby leaving tens of thousands of young people ill-prepared for the world. This only amplifies the dependence on government subsidization, for everything from groceries to housings. Decades of sub par education have created a class within our community that at times needs to depend on others for basic sustenance.
Earlier this month, Yaffed, a Jewish organization committed to improving educational standards in ultra-Orthodox schools, funded a large billboard over the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway that quotes the Talmudic dictum about every man’s obligation to prepare his son for work or teach him a craft. The ensuing opposition – on blogs and in formal protests – was perplexing. Many argued that we’re doing just fine on our own without all that “literacy” and “job training.” Extremists have gone so far as to compare our governments’ regulation of schools with Soviet efforts to crush Judaism with their interference in parochial education.
The idea that a person should be offended by someone learning a craft or trade undermines Judaism’s strong work heritage. The opposition to higher educational standards, and the subsequent lack of preparation for a career that can support a family, undermines our human dignity. This is beyond the scope of the classic Talmudic debate about whether study or action is more important. This is about depriving individuals of the fundamental right to be productive.
Throughout history Jews have distinguished themselves as producers. To be sure, there are scholars who are meant to be supported by their community. I witnessed this for 13 years at Oxford. But the idea that work is something lowly and only study is to be exalted is not the Jewish way.
What distinguishes humans from animals is not our intelligence but our dignity. The preservation of dignity, “kavod habrios,” is a recurrent theme in Jewish law. Our libraries are filled with legal texts describing the most preferred conventions of personal modesty, humility, and the importance of allowing man to redeem himself using his own devices.
According to the Talmud, the single greatest sin – worse than killing – is robbing a person’s dignity by humiliating him or her in public. Moreover, the Talmud warns, whoever causes a person’s face to turn white in public, causing the blood to rush away in embarrassment, loses his allotment in the world to come. Midrash tells us that the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed because of the humiliation of Bar Kamsa.
America succeeded when other countries did not precisely because we value dignity of the individual, known colloquially as “rugged individualism.” In Europe, over the course of many centuries, human dignity was a privilege afforded only to a tiny minority. Only men and women of noble birth were given the rare opportunities of literacy, governmental influence, and personal self-sufficiency. Everyone else was predestined to subservience. But in America, we earn dignity through autonomy and independence. Being able to point to something, even if it is small, and say, “I made that” confers dignity. Our ability to imitate God as a creator fills us with pride and confidence.
The Jewish prayer book offers a daily meditation where we beseech God never to be dependent on others for our basic subsistence. That’s why I encourage caution when inviting more government intervention in our lives. Government should intervene when there’s a pressing and immediate need. This is what we teach our children. We don’t do their homework for them, and we don’t put away their toys. We teach them to make their own beds, do their own schoolwork, and help around the house. So why would we encourage others to do the work for which we are uniquely capable?
Teaching someone a trade or useful career skills is less about earning a livelihood than it is about protecting and preserving human dignity. Even Bill Gates teaches his kids that no task is beneath them.
I support Yaffed’s initiative to help fix segments of our broken educational system as I support all projects aimed at improving the quality of our lives and our communities. We need to face the harsh realities of a growing self-imposed poverty and stop hiding behind the veil of piety. The future of the Jewish nation is at stake.