The next frontier of Jewish education: Restraint
In the American Jewish culture, we are doing great at celebrating the positives, but I worry we risk losing the Torah’s moral lessons about boundaries. If we don’t make certain adjustments for the benefit of our kids, there will be severe implications as they get older.
In recent decades, our Jewish communities have been quite effective at giving kids a meaningful relationship with the “positive” elements of Judaism, such as enjoying Shabbat dinner, lighting Hanukkah candles and having a meaningful family Passover seder. While I wholeheartedly support all of this — and I try to provide the same warm memories to my own kids and students — I believe we are often missing teaching a key developmental value of the Jewish tradition: boundaries.
It is no secret that adults in America have long struggled with boundaries: regarding touch and sexuality, eating and drinking, online oversharing and taking work with them everywhere they go. And, as our kids get older, they too will slowly get introduced to these excesses.
Fortunately, Judaism, I believe, offers an excellent antidote to this. By the count of the Talmud (Makkot 23b), the Torah contains 248 “positive commandments” and 365 “negative commandments.” It is fantastic that we are eager to embrace the thou-shalts. But it can be said that we’re missing more than half of the Torah if we ignore the thou-shalt-nots.
For example, we learn from the Torah not to gossip, not to mistreat our parents, not to cheat in business matters and not to oppress workers. More broadly, though, by learning practices of restraint — such as not eating certain foods or accepting a mandate of rest on Shabbat — we are training ourselves to be less tempted by our baser desires to do whatever we please, and we’re making room for what is truly good in our lives. The “negative” aspects of Judaism are indeed a type of training in self-control.
We all know the famous commandment “You shall love you neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18). But what is striking in the Torah is that “Golden Rule” is the conclusion of a long string of “thou-shalt-nots. This culminates in the full verse:
“You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against members of your people. Love your fellow as yourself: I am the Lord.“
Loving one’s neighbor is a central commandment of the Torah, but living it out hinges on an initial commitment to restraint and humility.
It is wonderful to do all the positive Jewish activities that make life worth living. But we are not giving them the necessary space to change our lives and our family’s lives if we forget that the Torah is just as much about boundaries. Further, helping students learn impulse control and experience limits can help them feel safer in a world that often feels so vast and chaotic. A Judaism that does not ask much of us morally can only take us so far.
Of course, we want an education system that teaches children to challenge society’s intellectual and social limits. But, at the same time, a Jewish education is incomplete if it doesn’t teach a reverence for moral limits. We want to teach our children to explore, be creative and find their own way in the world — but also crucial is instilling an understanding of the lines that, once a person crosses them, one risks endangering precious relationships and lives.
In the American Jewish culture, we are doing great at celebrating the positives, but I worry we risk losing the Torah’s moral lessons about boundaries. If we don’t make certain adjustments for the benefit of our kids, there will be severe implications as they get older and enter a world that almost seeks to sabotage us with addictive technology, a culture of self-image scrutiny, ubiquitous drugs and endless consumerism.
It makes sense why the first educational message in the Torah is about boundaries (don’t eat the fruit). The Ibn Ezra teaches that the word Eden consists of “ad hein” (until here). Building our homes and communities requires learning the rules that can keep us all safe together within our collective norms.
I completely understand why so many schools and communities take a positive approach of embracing all of Judaism’s fun. But our tradition offers so much more than that, and we are selling Judaism and our children short if we don’t offer our kids a path that is morally robust and spiritually challenging.
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is president and dean of valley Beit Midrash in Scottsdale, Ariz.