Living by the Pen: Why the World Is Catching on to the Jewish Emphasis on Education

The traditional Jewish emphasis on education has become a model for success in the information age. Countries are realizing that education is no longer necessary just to thrive, but to survive.

Yael Shahar
Yael Shahar
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An illustrative image of college students in class.Credit: Dreamstime
Yael Shahar
Yael Shahar

How much should one expect to pay for an education? How much should a society invest in producing educated citizens? One might put it differently: How much does a lack of citizens’ education cost a society?

Earlier this month, Lower Saxony became the final state in Germany , making education from infancy to a Ph.D. free for all German citizens – and even for non-citizens living there. Germany thus joins Norway and Sweden in providing tuition-free education. In fact, considering that students in these countries also receive generous stipends, reductions in travel expenses, etc., the reality is that they are being paid to get an education, rather than the other way around.

Of course, no lunch is truly free. Eventually, German students will have to pay back their “free tuition” in the form of high taxes. However, because income taxes are progressive, the burden of paying for “free” education is borne mostly by those with high incomes – by and large, the people who have benefited from the subsidization of their own education in past years. This contrasts with the American system of higher education, in which today’s new graduates typically carry huge burdens of debt even before their careers have really started.

Israel lies somewhere in between the Nordic free-education model and the American model. While tuition is by no means free in Israel, the cost of first and second degrees, even from the country’s best universities, is within the reach of most students; and a vocational degree is even more affordable. In addition, recently-discharged soldiers are granted special stipends, while scholarships are available for academic achievement. At the same time, most students will need to work part time while studying, and many put off university until they’ve saved for a year or more to afford the expenses.

The fact that education in Israel today is not free is a departure from most of Jewish history. In fact, universal education was first instituted in Israel at the end of the Second Temple period. While education among most nations was confined to a priestly caste, the Jewish People was commanded to become “a nation of priests.”

The original decision to institute universal education (often attributed to Rabbi Yehoshua ben Gamla, but instituted in fact by Rabbi Simeon ben Shetach) was in response to the domination of the educational scene by the Sadducees, allied with an increasingly insular priesthood. The ensuing battle for hearts and minds led to the establishment of universal education for all (male) children – an innovation that was to shape Jewish life from then on. The rabbinical authorities at the time were well aware that concentration of authority was not only against the whole ethos of the Torah, but was also suicidal for a people without the surety of material sovereignty. Only by diffusing authority and responsibility for survival outward to every member of the people could the nation survive.

This investment in universal education has paid off. In , Charles Murray speculated that the shift from a religion of ritual to one of study placed considerable selective pressure on Jews to become highly literate; those who did not have the intellectual capacity to do so simply assimilated out over time, leaving the more capable to reproduce the next generation of the Jewish people. In other words, Jewish culture self-selected for academic achievement, and became more intellectually challenging over time, which, in a feedback loop, further selected for academic capability. Murray states, "No other religion made so many intellectual demands upon the whole body of its believers."

I believe there is an important lesson in all this. What was true for Jewish society throughout its history is now becoming true for mankind as a whole. The world is an increasingly complicated place, and pressure for literacy and numeracy has been augmented by the need for technical acumen. The world at large has become similar to the Jewish self-created environment of “perpetual study.”

What does this mean in practice? It means that the traditional Jewish emphasis on education throughout a person’s life is now a model for success in the information age. Jewish men had to reach a high level of literary and logical mastery to be “successful Jews.” Today, individuals of all cultures have to reach a comparable level just to succeed in an increasingly complicated world.

And so the Jewish cultural model of community support of universal education is being adopted in other countries – not because they necessarily love all things Jewish, but simply because what helped us survive is now necessary for them to thrive.

After a career in security and intelligence, Yael Shahar now divides her time between researching trends in asymmetric conflict and learning Talmud. She is the author of “A Damaged Mirror: A story of memory and redemption,” recently published by Kasva Press, and a sought-after public speaker. Her writing on Jewish education and philosophy can be found at