The average 12-year-old yeshiva student has more wisdom than almost any student at Harvard or most other universities. (A yeshiva is an Orthodox Jewish school that emphasizes religious studies. About half the school day is devoted to religious studies – taught from the original Hebrew sources.)
This is probably also true for many 12-year-olds in mainstream Christian schools.
University students have more knowledge than almost any 12-year-old child in a religious school. But they have much less wisdom.
I know this because I was a yeshiva student from age 5 to 19. To appreciate how much wisdom I have been taught is to appreciate the root of our society’s current crisis: secular life does not teach wisdom (nor, it should be noted, do many schools that call themselves “Christian” or “Jewish”). Generations of Americans have not learned wisdom; instead, they were told that relying on their feelings was enough to understand life and to determine right from wrong.
Here are just three examples of basic ideas about life that most 12-year-old yeshiva students know and few lay students — or, for that matter, lay teachers — know.
#1: I knew long before I was 12 that people aren’t inherently good. Any young person who studies the Bible—and believes in it—knows that God says, “The will of a man’s heart is evil from his youth. (Genesis 8:21).
Apart from the question of the existence of God, this is probably the most important question in life. One could say that wisdom begins with this awareness of human nature. It is hard to imagine a person who believes that human nature is good attaining wisdom.
To be clear, the message of the Bible is not that human nature is fundamentally wrong. What matters is that we recognize the reality, recorded in the Bible and affirmed by all of human history, that human nature is not inherently good.
#2: Precisely because human nature is not good, the concern of my religious upbringing was how to work on myself to make me a better person. Every yeshiva student in the world memorizes the Talmudic aphorism: “Who is the strong man?” The one who conquers his desires. »
One of the big differences between a religious and secular upbringing can be summed up as follows: I was taught that the biggest problem in my life is me. In the secular world, students are taught that the biggest problems in their lives are other people. This is the genesis of the current American tragedy.
Many young people blame others and/or America for their problems and general unhappiness. Few are those who learn to struggle with their own nature. Black people are told to fight with white people, with America and with systemic racism. Women are not taught to work on themselves first but to blame men and fight misogyny, patriarchy and America for their misfortune.
#3: People should be judged by the standards and behavior of the generation in which they lived.
Ask any yeshiva student – even in elementary school – to explain the verse in Genesis, “And Noah was a righteous man in his generations.” (6:9) He or she will tell you what I first learned in fourth grade: that the ancient rabbis debated what the words “in his generations” were supposed to teach. Some rabbis have argued that they were inserted to teach that Noah was a particularly righteous man only in relation to the (awful) generations in which he lived. Other rabbis have argued that these words were there to argue that if Noah was a righteous man in the awful generations he lived in, he must have been a particularly righteous man, for it is very difficult to be good when those around you are evil.
Whichever interpretation one agreed with, it was clear that people were to be judged by the times in which they lived, not by the present times. In the present age of unwisdom, the most educated – usually the same people who lack the most wisdom – reject the unique moral achievement of America’s founders because most of them owned slaves. . Fools – the term for people who lack wisdom – judge the Elders by our time, not by the time of the Elders when slavery was universal.
Wisdom can sometimes be a product of aging, but given the number of old fools and the number of young people who have some degree of wisdom, it should be clear that wisdom, such as mathematics, a foreign language and any other discipline must be taught. Only then is one likely to become wiser with age. Otherwise, an unwise young person is very likely to become an unwise old person.
When America was more religious, wisdom was taught to young people. This is another reason to fear a completely secularized America – it produces a nation of fools. The proof is our universities. America’s most secularized institutions are also America’s dumbest institution.
Denis Prager is a nationally broadcast radio talk show host and founder of PragerU. His latest book, The Rational Passover Haggadah, was published by Regnery on March 1. He can be contacted at dennisprager.com.