HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

The Jewish Religious Nature of the Child

by Rabbi Dr. Michael J. Shire Issue: The Whole Student

Why did God create childhood? Shire explores the ways that Jewish sources have answered this question. He conveys some of the repercussions for Jewish education.

A theological approach to understanding the nature of childhood might ask the following questions: What is God saying to us in the existence of childhood, in the necessity that life begins with childhood and that all peoples must enter into a time of formation and education? To whom do children belong and who should determine their future and growth? From this theological approach, childhood is not seen merely as a stage to pass through, as the developmentalists would have it, but as a state of being profoundly spiritual, “a part of our being before God.”

Theologians of childhood believe that there needs to be a fuller understanding of this state of being and how religion can contribute to the way childhood is shaped and formed. There has been very little theological speculation, especially in Judaism, on the nature of childhood, though thought has been given in the tradition to the moral and spiritual status of the child. The following offers an exploration of a Jewish theology of childhood, with a look at its implications for Jewish education.

The Blessing of Children and the Blessings Children Bestow

Children are considered a great gift in Judaism. Parents who produce children are considered to be blessed, and there are many and varied customs and ceremonies to introduce a child into the Jewish community. Just as children are received as a blessing, they, in turn, bless their own parents as well as the larger community as indicated in the concept of zechut banim—through the merits of the children, the parents deserve honor.

The distinct essence of children in Judaism is therefore expressed as a purity of nature and a potential for the highest aspiration of holiness and goodness. Judaism values children and childhood as perhaps the most pure form of being created in God’s image (betzelem Elohim).

Talmudic aggadah gives emphasis to an understanding of childhood as of value in its own right, not merely as a path to adulthood, when stating that childhood is a garland of roses. One rabbi states that the very breath of children is free of sin (Shabbat 119a) while the Jerusalem Talmud pronounces, “Better are the late fruits we ate in our childhood than the peaches we ate in our old age” (Peah 87:4). Children are regarded as the hope for the future in that they have been entrusted to parents as a Divine gift.

From investigation of attitudes in the Midrash based on biblical narratives of the childhood experiences of Joseph, Samuel and David, we can see emerge a state of childhood being treasured for a special role. Childhood is seen as a condition of purity and deep spiritual connection, especially through awe and wonder of God’s Creation and Divine purpose. Biblical stories about children demonstrate their ability to see what others cannot, as in Joseph’s dreams or Samuel’s call in the Temple.

Childhood is a state treasured in the young and one to be fostered even into adulthood. Invoking the prophet Elijah, harbinger of the Messiah, at a boy’s circumcision demonstrates that each newborn has the potential to change the world and bring it to completion and perfection. The sublime notion of harmony and perfection as described by the prophet Isaiah incorporates a young child playing with a wolf and lamb, leopard and goat and lion and calf at the end of days.

Ritual and Moral Obligations of the Child

There is no single picture of childhood in Judaism, and the promotion of childhood to an elevated status in the aggadic (narrative) literature is balanced by the halakhic (legal) treatment of children as minors. Minors do not have obligations or responsibility, in contrast to adults. Halakhic restrictions are placed on what children can be obliged to do ritually; they are treated differently within Jewish law and practice from adults, particularly in regard to obligations in the public domain.

However, there is a strong understanding that the purpose of childhood is to carry out the commandments and learn to enter the world of duty and religious obligation. Maimonides viewed children as unaware of the knowledge of good and evil so that parents are given a fundamental obligation to instill the values which will lead them to choose well while they are yet young.

Therefore, children cannot fulfill the commandments for which they have no sense of their moral rightness. These early years are precisely to set children on the right moral path of life based on knowledge of the unique nature of children and their innate qualities and character. Tradition then holds that only at the time of bar mitzvah does the “moral inclination”—yetzer hatoventer the soul (Ecclestiastes Rabbah 69). Now the adolescent is able to make a positive choice in carrying out the commandments and becomes obligated to a greater or lesser extent depending on gender. The spiritual elements of the soul are now in place to carry out the Jewish task of learning and living as an adult.

Study and Learning as Quintessential Childhood Activities

The vital role of learning in fulfilling the purpose of childhood and finally entering the adult world is richly described in Jewish literature. The elaborate ceremonies developed from early rabbinic times continue to this very day with influences from all the cultures and countries in which Jews have lived. The traditional approach to learning was to start with the study of Leviticus and its sacrificial order. The rationale for this priority was that just as sacrifices are pure, so are children: “Therefore let the pure learn about the pure” (Leviticus Rabbah 7:3). Children are seen as pure of heart and mind, and therefore regarded as potential for ultimate service to God through the priesthood.

This is echoed in the story of Samuel who is indentured to the High Priest in the Temple by Hannah, his mother, in thanksgiving for his long awaited birth. His innocence as a child is emphasized in God’s call to him in the Temple, being the only one who can hear God’s voice. Only a child’s receptivity has the ability to perceive God’s presence and respond to a call for duty and lifetime of service. As he grows and develops, Samuel becomes the paradigm for the child’s potential as priest and prophet, teaching others through wisdom and moral conscience. This innate insight of the boy Samuel leads to the downfall of the High Priest’s dynasty and its replacement by prophecy. It is a challenging and potentially transformative state of being.

Childhood as Symbolic of God’s Relationship with the Children of Israel

The description of the covenanted people in Jewish literature as “the children of Israel” places these views of childhood on a theological plane. This understanding of childhood (as distinct from the status of the child) becomes reflective of the Divine–human relationship. Even though the People of Israel are often depicted as failing in their duty to fulfill God’s mission, nevertheless their status as child to a Divine parent is never questioned. This concept emphasizes the unconditional love of parents to children.

Within humanity as a whole, the Jewish people occupy a special position as the “children of God.” This love for children is enduring and eternal. Even when children cease to behave, they are still their parents’ sons and daughters. Similarly Israel’s special position is one that does not change according to Israel’s behavior.

You are children to the Eternal One your God (Deut. 14:1). When you conduct yourselves as children you are called children. When you do not conduct yourselves as children, you are not called children. These are the words of Rabbi Judah. Rabbi Meir says: In either case you are called children as it says, “They are foolish children” (Jer. 4:22) and it says, “Children in whom there is no faith” (Deut. 32:20) and it says, “A seed of evildoers; children acting corruptly” (Is. 1:4). Instead therefore of saying “you are not my children,” it shall be said to them “children of the living God” (Hos. 2:1). Kiddushin 36a

Educational Implications for a Jewish Theology of Childhood

Judaism’s view of learning is not just as a means to train children but to educate them to be engaged in a higher purpose. Thus, the Hebrew word for education is chinukhdedication or commitment. Knowledge of Torah does not necessarily lead to commitment or engagement. Rather, living a life of religious sensibility with a duty to others is the determinant of the pious Jew.

For Judaism, education is essentially an ethical activity. Studying, practicing and celebrating Torah is what leads to spiritual renewal and commitment to God’s moral purpose for all. The Jewish notion of education is not instrumental in that it seeks to achieve something extrinsic to the learner; rather, it is spiritual in that it offers God’s vision of goodness for all. Children learning and studying are therefore elevated to the highest connotation and their teachers are perceived as the very guardians of the world in which they live. Understanding this role for Jewish educators is to conceive of Jewish education as a powerful and compelling task enabling learners to fulfill Judaism’s highest aspirations.

Childhood becomes a state of being to be cherished and nurtured, on which is built a lifetime of insight and formative perception. These Jewish conceptions of childhood encompass a powerful potential to grow in wisdom and goodness. Judaism understands childhood to be both formative and lifelong and indeed a paradigm for the holiness and moral purpose of life, symbolic of the human–Divine relationship itself.♦

Rabbi Dr. Michael J. Shire is the dean of the Shoolman Graduate School of Jewish Education at Hebrew College in Newton Center, Massachusetts. He can be reached at mshire@hebrewcollege.edu.

Go To the Next Article

Listening to Students’ Voices

Zakai interviewed high school students to understand what they get out of their day school education. This article......


Log in or register to post comments

The Whole Student

One way that day schools stand out is the attention they can provide to each and every student, as expressed in the classic line from Proverbs, “Educate the youth according to his or her path.” Authors here offer numerous ways for schools to address the multi-faceted student to ensure that s/he is nurtured academically, spiritually, creatively and socially. 

Click here to download the PDF and printer friendly version of this issue of HaYidion