Tomorrow's Jew in the Making:
New Forces Reshape a Centuries-Old Ideal
If one traces Jewish educational ideals back to the source documents of the Tannaitic period at the beginning of the Christian era, one inevitably meets many statements stressing the value of manual labor. Some of these formulations, through the Sayings of the Fathers, have penetrated deep into Jewish national consciousness: e.g., the warning not to busy oneself with the Torah without at the same time engaging in manual work, and the praise of a life synthesizing both forms of activity. Stories about great teachers of the Mishnah like Rabbi Johanan, who was a shoemaker, and Rabbi Joshua, who seems to have been a blacksmith, have reinforced this point. In popular works on the subject, especially those with an apologetic purpose, such stories are often represented as irrefutable proof of a generally accepted personality ideal embodying a harmonious compromise between manual labor and study. Modern Zionism, with its stress on “normalizing” Jewish life and reestablishing an almost mystical “relationship with the soil,” has laid great stress on this element of the tradition.
Yet these same aphorisms and stories can be explained with at least equal plausibility as arguments against the prevailing aristocratic monopoly in the educational field enjoyed by the ruling group that constituted the court of the Nasi, the “prince” of the Law. Many of the scholars of his circle are represented as men of independent means; and we find also the general advice to a scholar to choose a “clean and easy trade.” Statements of this sort, which are harder to use for apologetic purposes, seem more compatible with a Hellenistic environment.
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