The following is a freely-translated excerpt from a letter about the value of religious education written by the Rebbe in the summer of 1963 to Shalom Levine, an Israeli educator of international renown:
After the long interruption since our meeting, it will surely come as a surprise to you to receive a letter from me. Yet my hope is that just as our meeting, and the content of our discussion, remain in my memory, the same is true regarding yourself, especially since our discussion was on matters that concern the greater public, and is thus worthy of having a continuation.
My immediate reason for writing you now is the notice in the press that you have been elected chairman of the international teachers’ association, IFTA. I would like to express my heartfelt wishes that you should optimally utilize the new opportunities that have been extended to you toward their ultimate purpose—the establishment of proper education in all countries of the globe, and in our Holy Land in particular. A new position always entails new responsibilities, and divine providence surely provides the ability to fulfill them.
As a continuation to our aforementioned discussion, allow me to speak of a certain matter which might seem inappropriate to the occasion because of its distressing element. But the verse has already said that “Every sadness should have an advantage” 1 —the advantage being the lesson it contains. And it is the lesson that I have in mind…
Education has two basic purposes: a) to impart a quantity of knowledge to the student; b) to educate the student toward proper conduct in his future life. Each of these areas is obviously comprised of many fields; regarding the behavioral aspect of education, there is the field of interpersonal relations, and the field of the student’s individual personality development—the manner in which he will regard his own drives and desires.
One who contemplates the results of the public school system in the United States and in a number of European countries, and, from what I am told, the situation is similar in the Land of Israel, reaches the conclusion that these schools have had considerable success in the area of education that concerns social relations—in reducing the divisions that separate people and bringing them closer to each other, and in training the student toward what is nowadays called “democratic” behavior (this, in addition to their success in imparting knowledge). Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule—places where the schools have been utilized, maliciously or not, to the very opposite ends—but the above is generally true in the majority of cases.
However—and this is the distressing point—the same contemplation also brings the realization that the public schools have not succeeded in the area of the student’s personality development, in training him to curb his desires. It is only thanks to the influence of the home and religious instruction that this generation’s youth have not completely cast off the constraints of civilization and turned the world into a jungle.
The result of this is that in those places where parental influence has been weakened for whatever reason, one sees a disproportionate rise in juvenile delinquency in comparison with other places, though the quality of the schools is more or less the same.
I don’t have the statistics to support this conclusion with numbers, but since you are an expert in this very field, there is no need to “prove” any of this to you.
The above should come as no surprise. Regarding the expansion of the student’s knowledge, there are many ways to waken and encourage his will to advance and achieve, by explaining its usefulness to him now or in the near future. The same is true regarding his social and democratic sensibilities—indeed, the very fact that the student must interact with other boys and girls contributes much toward this end. Not so is the case regarding his moral self-discipline. This cannot come from within the person, as in the famous analogy that a person cannot raise himself by pulling upwards on the hairs of his head. Rather, it must come from a point outside of the person.
In our generation we have seen, to our great distress, the ineffectuality of relying on the sense of justice and righteousness imparted by the teacher, or on the influence of the student’s elder brother, or even on his fear of the policeman. From year to year, the youth come up with new devices to circumvent the policeman and the judge, and the plague of criminality keeps on spreading. As for the civilizing influence of the “humanities,” we have seen what has transpired in Germany, whose superiority in philosophy, and even “moral philosophy,” was world-renowned, but in actuality, that country produced generations of beasts in the form of men.
It is clear that there exists no other way to implant in the hearts of children and youth a true and functional self-discipline except through the fear or love of a force greater than man. Only in this way can they be truly trained to exercise control over their will and desires. And this is something that cannot be postponed until the child reaches the age of 18, or even the age of 13, while allowing him until then to follow his heart’s vagaries, in the hope that the fear of human institutions will direct him along a good and righteous path.
One sees no other way than to instill in the hearts of the children, from their earliest years, a strong belief in Him Who created the world and continues to rule it and direct it. In the words of our sages, there is “an eye that sees, and ear that hears, and that all one’s deeds are recorded in a book” 2 —a book that cannot be forged, an eye and an ear that cannot be bribed or outsmarted by any schemes or deceptions.
According to our Torah, the law of life, belief in the Creator and Ruler of the world is binding upon all peoples of the world. Furthermore (and in certain circles, this must be the primary argument), it is a rational necessity.
So any school, if its program includes “education”—moral as well as social—must set as one of its foundations the above belief, not only as a subject for theoretical study, but as something that concerns day-to-day life… While there are schools that do not have the word “religious” in their name, it is obvious, based on the above, that the difference lies only in the amount of hours devoted to religious matters. But if the school is completely devoid of religiosity, G-d forbid, it lacks what, especially in our generation, is among the most primary functions of the school: to educate the student to be a human being worthy of his name—as distinguished from a mere beast. And the primary difference between man and beast is that the human being is not subservient to his natural instincts, desires and tendencies, and, at the very least, endeavors to restrain them and control them.
I remember your saying to me, in our conversation, that you are merely the secretary of the teachers’ association in our Holy Land, so that the things [we discussed] are not in your jurisdiction. I believe that my reaction, back then, was that I am not addressing you in any official capacity, but appealing to you as one who has been given the opportunities and abilities to find ways to correct the existing situation, which, to our great sorrow, is not improving, but the contrary. In any case, now you are chairman, and of an international organization!
Perhaps it seems strange that I am addressing such a request to a person who is not a member of any religious party, and is actually a member of a Socialist party… But surely it requires no elaboration that the present circumstances in no way resemble the way things were during the formative years of Socialism, especially since, even then, there was no truth in the assumption that Socialism necessitates a conflict with religion.
My hope is that even if my appeal seems somewhat strange in your eyes after a first reading of this letter, that you nevertheless, out of consideration for the great importance of its subject, examine it again, without prejudice, point by point, in which case you will certainly discover many ways in which it might be implemented…
I would also like to take the opportunity to again express my thanks for your continuing to send me the publications by the teachers’ association, and my hope that you will continue to do so in the future, for which I thank you in advance. 3