One of the main criteria for the health of any Jewish community has been the strength of its educational institutions. This should not surprise us. Learning has been central to Judaism since the rabbis in the era following the destruction of the Second Temple continued to stress the Torah study that had developed since the time of Hillel and Shammai, in the last generations of the Temple.
The role of Torah study increased in centrality and immediacy as a result of the destruction. In the absence of the institutions of sovereignty or quasi-sovereignty that had stood at the center of Jewish life in the previous era, a new devotion towards the study largely filled the vacuum. As has been so well observed, the text became the Jews’ homeland, a replacement for the land that was fast becoming less of real physical reality for increasing numbers of Jews. With the new emphasis on the learning of Torah, the institutions occupied with the teaching of Torah and the propagation of the values of study became increasingly central within the different communities.
In one Diaspora center after another, institutions of learning became focal points in the community. Taking Babylon, Ashkenaz, North Africa and Lithuania as the prime examples, the image of each of these great Jewish communities in the historical consciousness of Jews has been, and continues to be, bound up with the strength of their yeshivot and scholars.
Traditionally, scholars were the community elite. In reality, they had to share power and prestige with the rich men of the community, but official prestige clung more to the great scholars than to the wealthy. There are countless sources in rabbinic literature that reflect these ideas.
Our masters taught: a sage takes precedence over a king of Israel for when a sage dies, there is none to replace him, but when a king dies, all Israel are fit for kingship.
B. Talmud Massechet Horayot 13a
It is said in the name of R. Hisda: if a father renounces the honor due to him, it is renounced, but if a teacher renounces the honor due to him it is not renounced.
B. Talmud Massechet Kiddushin 32
If one finds a lost article belonging to his father and a lost article belonging to his teacher, the teacher’s article must be returned first, because his father brought him into this world but his teacher, who instructed him in wisdom, is bringing him into the world to come.
B. Talmud Massechet Baba Metzia 33a
These passages provide important insights into the value system of the traditional communities. Learning was a central value, and the pride and joy of the community would be the scholars and scholarly institutions that had developed in their midst. There were many traditional communities in the pre-modern world that never managed to produce particularly distinguished scholars or noteworthy institutions of scholarship; they remained dependent on and overshadowed by the scholars and institutions of other communities.
We know of no communities that succeeded in creating completely self-reliant educational institutions in the first generation. Furthermore, it invariably took a number of generations for communities to start producing a scholarly elite. It seems that the community needed to have reached a certain level of comfort before this process could begin. Immigrant communities are usually involved with many basic problems in the early years; it is only after a couple of generations that sufficient resources can be put aside for the development of important institutions of learning. Once these institutions are functioning, often under the initial leadership of great scholars who have been brought in or who have immigrated from other centers of scholarship, it takes more time before fine local scholars begin to develop. It is only at this point that we can begin to speak of a specific community as a scholarly community. It is these very communities that have been most honored, however, by the collective memory of Jews.
How may we judge the education level of modern communities, however? The traditional criteria hold only for those of the ‘two feet in the community’ type, i.e. the community’s educational level is judged according to the criteria of Torah scholarship. Many others in the community, however, now consider traditional institutions and scholars as representatives of a bygone era, and of little contemporary relevance. Some see them as an embarrassment and a threat to the successful integration of the entire community as a whole into its non-Jewish surroundings. We will examine this subject further when we speak about unity and internal tensions in the Jewish community. For the present, let us simply acknowledge that many of those who are not a part of the ultra-Orthodox community consider it marginal. Many see their scholarship as irrelevant to the real needs of the present-day Jewish community.
Of course, the opposite is also true. Some sectors of the traditional religious community continue to see the modern world only as a threat, and condemn its educational and cultural values as shallow and inauthentic. Among such groups, the scholarly achievements of a Jewish community can only be judged by their closeness to the traditional value scale. Even groups like the modern Orthodox, with their belief in the importance of general education and their commitment to the integration of modern values with the traditional Halachic values, tend to be seen - at best - as compromising and - at worst - as selling out.
For all of these reasons, it is perhaps impossible to talk definitively about the educational level of a Jewish community today. Nonetheless, since it has traditionally been such an important criterion for measuring the health of a community, we should not shrink from examining this aspect of life. From another point of view, the sheer difficulty of the subject may provide a source of fruitful inquiry for the students as they try reach their own understanding of these matters.