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The Jewish Ethicist: Exclusive Schools

May 9, 2009 | by Rabbi Dr. Asher Meir, Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem

Should schools cater to an elite?

Q. Some schools in my area try to maintain a student body drawn from the "best" families. Is this an ethical practice?

A. In the article about affirmative action -- we discussed the practice of intentionally giving preference to applicants from a disadvantaged background, even if their measured skills seem deficient. One response asked about schools that have the opposite policy -- intentionally giving preference to members of some elite group, even if others seem equally or better qualified.

Such a practice is hardly new. Some institutions feel that qualifications are only part of the story; students from a certain elite family background contribute to the social, religious or cultural atmosphere due to their upbringing, and this constitutes an important element of the school atmosphere.

Our Sages discussed this idea in a number of places, and generally reached the conclusion that an exclusive approach is counterproductive.

Mishnah tractate "Avot," also known as "Ethics of the Fathers," deals with two main topics: character development and the transmission of Torah. These two topics are intimately connected in our tradition. The very first mishnah tells us that the members of the Great Assembly, who were the bearers of the Torah tradition immediately following the period of prophecy, admonish us to "raise many students." Why would we think otherwise?

An ancient commentary explains:

The school of Shammai say, only teach one who is wise, modest, of good descent, and wealthy. The school of Hillel say, teach every person, for there were many delinquents in Israel who were drawn to Torah study, and among them came saintly, pious and righteous individuals. (1)

The academy of the great sage Shammai were of the opinion that advanced Torah studies should be for an elite group, who are specially qualified through ability and upbringing to devote themselves to serious study. But the academy of Hillel concluded that people of any background could benefit from Torah study, and furthermore that even people of undistinguished background could excel.

Which approach was vindicated? We see that the mishnah supports the approach of Hillel, but there is a passage in the Talmud which elaborates on the reason:

For three years the academies of Shammai and Hillel were in dispute, these saying "The law is according to our understanding" and these saying "The law is according to our understanding." A Heavenly Voice emerged and said: "These and these are the words of the Living God, and the law is according to the school of Hillel." Now, since these and these are both the words of the Living God, why did the school of Hillel merit that the law was established according to them? Because they were unassuming and humble, and they would study their own opinions and also the opinions of the school of Shammai. Not only that, they would even give precedence to the opinions of the school of Shammai. (2)

Beit Shammai's attempt to screen out arrogant and unruly prospects was totally counterproductive: it was precisely the students of Hillel, aware of their weaknesses, who felt the obligation to give equal or even superior consideration to opposing opinions, leading to more enlightened judgment, as the Heavenly Voice testified.

A more extensive presentation is found in the following Talmudic passage:

Be solicitous of the sons of the poor, for from among them Torah will go forth; as it is written (Numbers 24:?) "Water will flow from his pail," meaning that Torah will proceed from them. And why indeed are Torah scholars not found among the children of Torah scholars? Rav Yosef said, So that they shouldn't say that the Torah is an inheritance. Rav Sheshet the son of Rav Idi says, so that they shouldn't insulate themselves from the community. Mar Zutra says, because they come to dominate the community. (3)

The wisdom of our Sages is not in need of my support, but judging from my experience these considerations are valid today more than ever. I observe that schools that strive for an exclusive student body (based on family background) suffer from all these ills. The level of studies suffers due to complacency ("the Torah is an inheritance"), the students develop a demeaning attitude towards others (insulation from the community), and ultimately elitism is used as a way to achieve power (domination of the community).

By contrast, those institutions which adopt an inclusive, reaching-out approach succeed in combining admirable levels of academic achievement with dynamism and a sincere sense of fellowship and belonging.

SOURCES: (1) Avot deRebbe Natan 1:3. (2) Babylonian Talmud, Eruvin 13b. (3) Nedarim 81a.


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The Jewish Ethicist presents some general principles of Jewish law. For specific questions and direct application, please consult a qualified Rabbi.

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