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Talmud to Betsy DeVos: Yes, We Need Public Schools

In this week’s ‘Daf Yomi,’ rabbinical thinking on the relationship of public goods and private obligations explains the advantages of universal education accessible to all

Adam Kirsch
February 14, 2017
Inset photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos delivers remarks to employees on her first day on the job at the Department of Education February 8, 2017 in Washington, DC. Inset photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Inset photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos delivers remarks to employees on her first day on the job at the Department of Education February 8, 2017 in Washington, DC. Inset photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Literary critic Adam Kirsch is reading a page of Talmud a day, along with Jews around the world.

Maybe it’s because I have politics on the brain—and who doesn’t, these days?—but this week’s Daf Yomi reading seemed almost designed to address the big political and social questions that Americans have been debating lately. The fight over the confirmation of Betsy DeVos as education secretary, for instance, raised the issue of public schools: Are they a crucial democratic institution or, as DeVos and her allies believe, a bureaucratic monopoly that should be undermined by privatization and vouchers?

For a Jewish answer, you could turn to Bava Batra 21a, where the Talmud praises the memory of a man called Yehoshua ben Gamla, one of the last High Priests before the destruction of the Temple. He is “remembered for the good,” Rav says, because he created a system of public schools in the Land of Israel. In this way, he preserved the existence of Judaism itself: “If not for him the Torah would have been forgotten from the Jewish people.” Before Yehoshua ben Gamla’s time, the Gemara explains, Torah was taught at home, father to son, in accordance with Deuteronomy 11:19: “And you shall teach them to your sons.”

But this meant that orphans had no one to teach them, and not every father was competent to teach. To ensure that every Jewish child had the chance to learn Torah, then, the Sages established schools in Jerusalem, and fathers would take their sons to the city to study. They found, however, that children without fathers were still being neglected, so they extended the school system, establishing a school “in each and every region.” Because this still involved a long journey—a student would have to go from his village to the main city of his province—the age for students was fixed at a relatively old 16 or 17. But the teachers found it impossible to keep discipline among pupils who were almost adults: “A student whose teacher grew angry at him would rebel against him and leave.”

It was Yehoshua ben Gamla who solved the problem by greatly expanding the school system, ordering “that teachers of children should be established in each and every province and in each and every town,” and that students should begin attending school at age 6 or 7. In other words, he created for Jews something like the universal school system we now enjoy in America—and in so doing, he ensured the future of Judaism. This sounds like a strong endorsement of public schooling for everyone—not just the rich, or the middle-class, or those with the ability and resources to navigate a charter system, but everyone.

The Talmud adds a few principles of sound education. Children under 6 are too young for school, but once they reach that age, “stuff him with Torah like an ox.” Corporal punishment is taken for granted, as it would have been everywhere in the Talmud’s time, but the rabbis urge that it be moderate: “When you strike a child, hit him only with the strap of a sandal,” which doesn’t cause real harm. And the rabbis are against what would now be called “tracking,” the separation of students based on ability. “He who reads, let him read on his own; whoever does not read, let him be a companion to his friends,” Rav says. As Rashi explains, the idea is that a student who is slow to read should not be segregated from his friends; rather, he should stay with them and be encouraged by their example.

The subject of schools fits naturally in Tractate Bava Batra because, so far, it has been all about the relationship of public goods and private obligations. This is the very issue that underpins so much of American politics: What are my obligations to my fellow citizens? Should I have to pay taxes so that other people can have schools and housing, or obey regulations so that everyone can enjoy clean air and water? There is a strong libertarian and laissez-faire tradition in American politics, a desire to be left alone and fend for oneself, which makes it hard to rally Americans around the idea of sacrifice for the common good. Why shouldn’t I have the right to do what I want with my property—whether that means dumping coal dust in a river or carrying a gun in public?

The Talmud, by contrast, is very concerned to balance the rights of the individual with the good of the community. As always, this ethic emerges not in the form of general statements about principle, but in concrete examples. Thus, the first mishna in Chapter Two rules that “a person may not dig a pit close to the pit of another,” on the grounds that the new pit might damage the old one. Likewise, one can’t build a pond too close to a neighbor’s wall, or dispose of refuse like manure or lime, because this might undermine the wall. (Later, we learn that this prohibition includes urinating on a wall, which is forbidden even though there appears to be biblical precedent for it.) There must be at least three handsbreadths’ separating the wall from the hazard.

Evidently, I don’t have an unrestricted right to use my property in a way that might harm my neighbor. In fact, the Gemara goes on to expand the mishna’s rule: Not only can I not dig a pit near my neighbor’s existing pit, I have to take care not to dig so close to his property that it would be harder for him to dig a pit in the future. After all, Rava points out, “the neighbor can say to him: Just as you changed your mind and dug a pit, I too might change my mind and dig a pit.” The same holds true of a wall: hazards must be kept away from the boundary line between two properties, in case one neighbor decides to build a wall at some point. In general, “the Rabbis hold that the responsibility falls on the one who causes damage to distance himself.”

These rules govern outdoor spaces like fields, but a similar principle holds for indoor areas as well. In a multifloor dwelling, like an apartment building, people cannot use their homes in ways that damage their neighbors’ homes. “A person may not set up an oven inside a house unless there is a space four cubits high above it,” to avoid causing damage to the dwelling upstairs, says the mishna in Bava Batra 20b. Likewise, if you are the upstairs neighbor, you can’t build an oven unless the floor is three handsbreadths’ thick. And it is forbidden to start a business that would damage a neighbor’s business: “A person may not open a bakery or a dye shop beneath the storeroom of another, and he may not establish a cattle barn there.”

On the other hand, there are certain annoyances that are unavoidable in communal life; this would have been especially true in Talmudic times, when there was no strict separation between residential and commercial properties. People who live around a courtyard can prevent a neighbor from opening a business in the courtyard: They can “say to him: I am unable to sleep due to the sound of people entering and the sound of people exiting.” But if someone starts manufacturing utensils inside his house, his neighbors can’t stop him, even if the hammering is a nuisance. Likewise, you can’t complain if your neighbor’s children are making noise; and if you live next to a school, you have to put up with the students’ noise. The mitzvah of teaching Torah—in accordance with the ordinance of Yehoshua ben Gamla—overrides the individual’s right to privacy. We all have to put up with some impositions for the sake of the common good.


Adam Kirsch embarked on the Daf Yomi cycle of daily Talmud study in August 2012. To catch up on Tablet’s complete archive of more than four years of columns, click here.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.

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