What is a child?
In the Middle Ages, said Dr. Julie Goldstein, the answer to that question would depend on whether you were Jewish or Christian.
“Christians see children as born in original sin, and Jews don’t,” she said. “It has an impact on how children are treated.
“The younger you are the closer you are to original sin, so you kind of have to be whipped into shape as you grow up,” she said, summarizing the Christian approach.
During this period, she continued, “Christians have a fear of children. Children are magical and scary. There are lots of stories about demon children, changelings.
“Christians are scared of them and try to distance themselves. They’re warned against being around children too much,” she said.
Jews, however, “are obsessed with educating children,” or more specifically, boys. “They see them as raw material for the inscription of knowledge. They’re not only educating children, but giving them lots of religious responsibility. Even children as young as 4 are responsible for performing certain mitzvot. They form this almost monastic existence for children, who are sent off for intense schooling, away from their families, under the tutelage of a rabbi.”
“Jews see children as somewhat magical too, but they write about children who get to go up to heaven to get all the knowledge they need, so it will slowly unfold when they’re back on earth. They really view children” – or more specifically, in the texts she studies, boys – “as this massive reservoir of intellectual and religious potential,” she said.