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הדפסה דוא''ל

Prof. Yaacov Rozenberg, Judaism and Humanity, Herzog-Lifschitz College, Jerusalem


Ethics and Development in Jewish Education: Universal Features for an Integrative Model


Traditional Jewish education may serve as an epistemological model since it always aims to integrate two fundamental modes. On the one hand, King Solomon says “Educate the youth according to his way” (Proverbs XXII, 6). And on the other hand, normative knowledge should be transmitted at specific stages: Pentateuch when the child is five years old, Mishnah (oral commentary of the Pentateuch) when he is 10 years old and Talmud (oral commentary of the Mishnah) when he is 15 years old.[1] This combination of concern for the individuality of each child along with general stages of intellectual development has been a central theme of general modern education since Jean Jacques Rousseau and Jean Piaget. In relation to these authors, Lawrence Kohlberg defined the stages of moral development of the child in connection with his progressive cognitive performance.

Drawing on the aforementioned topics, and using some traditional sources of Jewish Education, we seek to outline an integrative model of ethico-cognitive education, which may broadly carry on the project of a new humanistic and universal education.

Traditional Jewish developmental education

Could Traditional Jewish education be operative today for modern developmental pedagogy, and therefore apt to promote some general features of learning?  We think this question is first related to the issue of individuality which is crucial for Talmudic thought. This latter entails opposite aspects of individuality. On the one hand, humanity has a monogenetic origin and all men are related to the first Adam.[2] On the other hand, each person is inherently unique and does not resemble anyone else.[3] This paradoxical premise could serve as a basis for Jewish developmental education.

An approach to step-by-step education may be found in the Mishnah and Talmud, which considered education a religious imperative. Both stress the importance of education and prescribe that a school be established in every inhabited place. Children must begin attending school when they are six or seven years old, in accordance with their specific intellectual and physical development, and their health. Before that, education should take place at home, under the responsibility of the father.[4] Optimal pedagogical conditions should be realized and classrooms should be limited to 25 pupils.[5]

The Mishnah and Talmud deal only with religious education, but some later commentators also include secular knowledge, albeit at an older age.[6] Basically, according to the ancient book of maxims called Pirke Avoth, known as Ethics of the Fathers, there are three distinct stages of education. At five years old, the child (basically the boy) should learn the Pentateuch, or Written Law; at 10 years old, he should learn the Mishnah, which constitutes the oral explanations of the Pentateuch and other books of the Bible, and at 15 years old, he should begin studying the Talmud which furnishes interpretations of both the Written and Oral Law. Pirke Avoth gives us additional stages of human development that are not directly connected to education. 13 is the legal age for observing religious commandments, 18 is the age to get married, 20 to pursue a livelihood, 30 is the age of strength, 40 the age of wise understanding, 50 the age to give effective counsel, 60 is sagacity, 70 is the age of elderliness, 80 is the age of braveness, 90 is the age to stoop and 100 is the time to be negated from the world.[7]

Education according to the Maharal of Prague and to Jean Jacques Rousseau

The Maharal of Prague, a Jewish thinker who lived during the 15th century and the beginning of the 16th century, suggested a very interesting integration of cognitive developmental and ethical perspectives.  He explained that the educational process occurs in five-year stages, while the natural process progresses in ten-year stages. And the steps of taking on the burden of the commandments and marriage add three years to the educational process. In fact, education, which is based on mental and physical maturation, is not in itself natural but ethical, whereas physical growth results only from some biological and environmental factors. On the other hand, commandments and marriage are in the middle of these two processes; in modern terminology, they belong to a mixture of nature and nurture. Both suppose a certain biological age but also an ethical preparation. Therefore, according to the Maharal, the specific educational steps progress only by five-year stages because they may only be accomplished via a complementary relationship between child and teacher, each contributing half of the entire pedagogical realization. The number 5 symbolizes an incomplete and provisory step whereas the number 10 connotes fullness. Even the teacher should be conscious that he is not a fully realized being, but needs his pupil to achieve completeness. By contrast, natural processes are automatically integral and do not need any ethical assistance from anyone else; then they are growing in ten-year stages[8]. Commandments and marriage, which are between these two processes, natural and nurtural, are rounded to the nearest middle years, 13 and 18.

These ethico-developmental steps could be compared with Rousseau’s pedagogy. Rousseau’s book, Emile, describes a progressive pedagogy, based on the stages of child development. Rousseau aims to maximize the child’s potential based on four principal stages of natural development.

The first stage is the early preverbal age. In this state, the educator should pay special attention to the child’s physical characteristics and emotional nature.[9]

The second stage, from 2-12 years, is the “age of nature.”This stage offers the possibility to combine emotional and intellectual development. The educator’s role here is to help the child learn to make his own judgments, rather than to impose them in an authoritative way.[10]

The third stage, from age 12 to 15, is called the “age of strength,” in which the adolescent should choose a trade which will allow him to really enter society.[11]

The fourth stage, from 15 to 20 years, is the pubertal age, especially fit to approach religion and love, and from which should emerge marriage and family life.[12]

The differences between the Maharal’s and Rousseau’s perspectives are obvious. The Maharal primarily relates to learning development that aims to transform the child into an intellectual being. Rousseau intends to root rational reasoning in corporeal features, without sublimating them. As a matter of fact, the main disagreement between these two thinkers has to do with their respective starting points.

According to the Maharal, if nature is the basis of all educational processes, it should be surpassed by intellectual pursuits attained by the traditional transmission of tradition Jewish learning.  As a matter of fact, the Torah is the rational order of existence and the blueprint of creation.[13] The Maharal doesn’t denigrate nature but seeks to integrate it within a meta-natural order that could furnish its spiritual significance. [14]

For Rousseau, education could never be separate from nature. Its anthropological unfolding, anchored in physical development, is inextricably linked to sensation and experience. It is never guided by something external. Therefore what should come first is “negative education,” meaning the educator should be concerned solely with removing obstacles to instinctual and sensorial development. In essence, a child is not a cultural being and should not be considered an adult in miniature.[15]

For the Maharal, there is a fundamental opposition between Torah education, that is heavenly in essence, and natural processes which are earthly. However, since education has a bodily basis, it should develop all its inborn processes but must also grasp these processes as mere means. In Jewish tradition, this overcoming of bodily nature can be seen as soon as the age of 8 days, when circumcision is performed. The number 8 symbolizes the non-natural dimension of being; it comes after the number 7, which represents the completion of nature.[16] Through circumcision the boy enters what modern anthropology and psychoanalysis call a “symbolic order”,[17] which is the condition of an ethico-social behavior.

Ethics and abstraction

In Hebrew the same term (milah) designates “circumcision” and “word,” because it enables the non-natural order that makes language possible. Speaking involves leaving the infans (the infant who does not yet speak) stage by breaking out of the sensible, imaginary and natural world. W. J. Richardson explained that language, with all the laws that govern it, introduces a Symbolic order, according to which things may become abstractly present through the power of words, while being concretely absent.[18] J. Lacan showed that the existence of a Symbolic order does not belong to the sensible natural world, in which man sets up only immediate relationships. The signifier, or spoken sign, makes possible an order of reference which is not natural but results itself from an ex nihilo creation. For this reason, the signifier must derive, in a creationist mode, from an absolute beginning.[19] Lacan emphasized that the invention of the creationism signifier drastically revolutionized the mental structures of humanity. At Mount Sinai, through the interdiction of idolatry, there was a revelation of the logical conditions of speech[20]. This is because idolatry values imaginary and natural representations, and consequently a release from these representations permitted an abstract domain of signs. Through education, which is moral in essence, the signifier gained its semantic dimension, which could not appear within the sole imaginary order of a natural world. A system of ethics actually presupposes a special mode of distancing natural reality, which then makes abstraction possible.[21]

Education aims to allow a person to hold the physical world at a distance. He can then remodel it according to a symbolic order, which enables him to reorganize the world from a perspective which is not exclusively bound to nature.[22] Such a process can lead this person to an ethical relationship of alterity, which gives an effective status to the Other. The essence of alterity is primarily symbolic, as shown by Lacan. Idolatry, on the other hand, is attached to nature; it makes isolated elements of nature absolute and glorifies the Imaginary Order of the sensible world. Hence, it blocks any true relationship with the Other, who can only be integrated within a symbolic system that gives real value to each individual.[23] According to Lacan, the human psychic structure is produced by language, and, therefore, a person is not the natural cause of himself.[24] He always needs the Other to achieve himself.

A developmental ethical education

The Maharal’s thought regarding the ethical and spiritual developmental processes could be compared to the contemporary genetic cognitive and moral developmental approaches to education. Jean Piaget attempted to connect these two topics within a global epistemological perspective. He then established a dialectical relationship between the development of the child’s intellectual aptitude, his affective features and his ability to relate ethically to other people.[25] These aptitudes process from operations which are not innate, i.e., they are not completely natural, but do imply a symbolic order.[26] The child becomes conscious of social rules when at the age of 6 or 7. Until age 10 or 11, it holds these rules in respect, but doesn’t always practice them correctly.[27] Proper practice will come into effect later on. Such development is constantly mediated through social interactions which cause the child to search for equitable answers to ethical dilemmas. Moral sense proceeds from normative equilibrium which is parallel to the operative structures of intelligence.

Lawrence Kohlberg went further and proposed three stages of moral behavioral development. The first, from 3 to 8 years, is called preconventional; the child aims to judge acts according to their consequences and not according to social rules. In the second, conventional, stage until the age of 12 or 15, the juvenile assesses the nature of actions in terms of social conventions. In the final, postconventional, stage, the mature adolescent becomes responsible for his actions from his own point of view, integrating social conventions without being limited by them.[28]

Stanley Peerless tried to apply the Piaget/Kohlberg cognitive and moral developmental approach to traditional Jewish education. He noted that the passage from one stage to the next and superior one is qualitative and not quantitative, since at each new stage the child thinks differently but not more quickly than the younger child at the previous stage.

He cites the example of Isaac’s blessing which Jacob took instead of his brother Esau (Genesis XXVII-XXVIII).

Peerless notes that at Kohlberg’s preconventional stage, the child relates to the plain meaning of the Biblical story of Jacob and understands that the blessing should be given to Jacob, who is fully qualified to build the House of Israel. At the next stage (conventional), the pupil confronts the dilemma raised by Jacob, who is aware of committing a wrongdoing but compelled to obey his mother, Rebecca, to deceive his father Isaac in order to get the blessing in place of his brother Esau. In addition, the pupil begins to grasp the meaning of religious responsibility. At the further postconventional stage, he can understand the religious and social impact of Jacob’s subterfuge on the future of the Jewish people and begin to regard it as a “valid act of civil disobedience.” At this stage, all the different aspects of the dilemma are taken into account and assigned their respective importance. Being able to correctly resolve the dilemma indicates a combination of internalized cognitive abilities with a mature moral sense.[29] The Biblical stories could then serve as a concrete and useful model for moral educative patterns. Their pedagogical consequences could greatly contribute to educating children about real human behavior.[30]


We saw that traditional Jewish education rested on developmental approaches which first consider the natural constitution of the child, but also aim to subsume this initial basis into a spiritual and therefore abstract perspective. A comparison between the Maharal and Rousseau’s theories helped us to understand the necessity to surpass the child primary inborn and instinctive constitution of, so that it can enter the non-natural order of ethics and abstraction. We emphasized the importance of a symbolic order which enables the mere natural determination of the infans to be subsumed into an ethical organized life. Then it became instructive to consider the implications of the abstractive operations of genetic psychology to delineate the progressive formation of the child’s moral sense. Finally, through the analysis of a Biblical moral dilemma, we sought to underscore the relevance of Jewish education, as a way of understanding the ethical basis of developmental cognitive processes.


[1] Pirke Avoth V, 21

[2] Bersehith Rabba XXIV, 7

[3] Sanhedrin IV, 5 ; cf. J.J.Rozenberg, L'individualisation Ethique selon la Tradition Hébraïque. Pardès. 11  (1990), 131-143

[4] Baba Batra 21a

[5] Maimonides, Hil’hoth Talmud Thora, II, 5

[6] Cf.Y.Levy, Shaare Talmud Thora. Jerusalem, Feldheim, 2rd Ed. 1982, pp.251-269

[7] Pirke Avoth V, 21

[8] Maharal, Dere’h Haim, V, 21

[9] J.J. Rousseau, Emile ou de l’éducation. Paris, Garnier Flammarion, 1966, pp.69-81

[10] J.J .Rousseau, Emile ou de l’éducation, pp.150-169

[11] J.J. Rousseau, Emile ou de l’éducation, pp.240-262

[12] J.J. Rousseau, Emile ou de l’éducation, pp.380-409 ; pp.428-439

[13] Zohar, Shemot 161b

[14] Maharal, Gur Arieh, Bamidbar, XXVIII, 15

[15] J.J. Rousseau, Emile ou de l’éducation, p.93

[16] Maharal, Hidushe Agadoth, II, Nedarim, p.5

[17] C.Lévi-Strauss, Introduction à l'œuvre de Mauss. Paris,  PUF, 1950  p. XLVIII

[18] Richardson, Ethics and Desire. The American Journal of Psychoanalysis. 47, 4, 1987, p. 297

[19] Lacan, L’Ethique de la psychanalyse. Paris, Seuil, 1986, p. 253. Cf. K. Reinhard and J. Reinhard Lupton, The Subject of Religion: Lacan and the Ten Commandments. Diacritics, 33.2, (2003), 71-97

[20] Lacan, L’Ethique de la psychanalyse, p. 205

[21] Lacan, L’Ethique de la psychanalyse, p. 147

[22] W.Ver Eecke, Sublimation and the Ethical Tradition. The American Journal of Psychoanalysis,47, 4, 1987, p. 328

[23] Cf. J. J. Rozenberg, From the Unconscious to Ethics. New York, Peter Lang, 1999, pp.90-93

[24] Lacan, Ecrits, Paris, Seuil, 1966, p. 835

[25] J. Piaget, Le Jugement moral chez l’enfant, Paris (1932), Puf, 1973.

[26] J. Piaget, La formation du symbole chez l’enfant. Lonay,  Delachaux et Niestlé, 1970  pp.11-12. In fact J. Piaget was opposed to N. Chomsky regarding the origin of intellect. Whereas for Chomsky, intellect is innate, for Piaget it emerges always from a genetic dialectic between the child’s natural self and his social environment. Cf. M Piatelli-Palmarini (Ed.), Théories du langage. Théories de l'apprentissage. Le débat entre Jean Piaget et Noam Chomsky.Royaumont,1975. Paris, Seuil, 1979.  More recently, neurobiologist J. P. Changeux and philosopher P. Ricoeur engaged in a similar debate concerning the origin of socio-moral rules. Cf. J.P.Changeux, P.Ricoeur, La nature et la règle. Paris, O.Jacob, 1998

[27] J. Piaget, Six études de psychologie. Paris, Denoël-Gonthier, 1964, pp.74-75

[28] L.Kohlberg, Stage and sequence: The cognitive-developmental approach to socialization. In D. A.

Goslin (Ed.), Handbook of socialization theory and research. Chicago, Rand-McNally.1969

pp. 347-480

[29] S. Peerless, Developmental Stages and the Jewish Studies Curriculum. Jewish Educational Leadership Winter 2004 (2):  http://www.lookstein.org/online_journal.php?id=36

[30] Bailey, Educating for Menschlichkeit a Kohlberggian model for Jewish Day Schools. Wisdom from all my teachers. Jerusalem, Urim Publications, 2003, pp. 137-157