Judaism’s Hidden Road to Character

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Marc Eichenbaum


Educators strive to adjust their curricula to fit their students’ needs. At no time has this been  more apparent than in recent years, when rapid technological advances have accelerated the speed in which trends, social mores, and ways of thinking come and go. If this is the case in our general education classes, it is certainly true when it comes to character education which, as the Hebrew word for character traits, middot, indicates, is fundamentally dependent on measuring, or taking into account context and setting. When looking for ways to improve character education in our schools, we ought to look to the wisdom of our sages, whose answers to a peculiar question shed light on the proper way to impart character development to our students in modern times. As we will see, many of these insights converge with research findings in the fields of educational psychology and neuroscience.

Throughout the ages, rabbinic authorities have written about the importance of character development. However, while the Torah extols specific traits such as empathy (e.g., Deut. 23:8), hospitality (e.g., Genesis 18:3), justice, loving kindness, humility (e.g., Micah 6:8), and love (e.g., Deut. 6:5; Lev. 19:34; Lev. 19:18), and prescribes specific commandments against certain negative character traits such as hate (e.g., Lev. 19:17), and  jealousy (e.g., Exodus 20:14), one would be hard pressed to find a clear biblical mandate to develop one’s character. To be sure, most authorities were not bothered by this dilemma. They maintained, in slightly different ways, that ethical character development is part and parcel of many of the mitzvot of the Torah; having a distinct mitzvah is redundant.[1] Interestingly, however, many authorities weren’t satisfied with this approach and offered alternative explanations for why the Torah doesn’t explicitly mandate character development. An analysis of why these particular authorities sought out other, seemingly unnecessary, answers to this dilemma is fascinating, but beyond the scope of this essay. Instead, we will focus on just three of these novel answers and show how they can enhance character education in our schools.[2]

Approach 1: Character Development is a Prerequisite to the Torah
One of the first to ask and answer our question explicitly is R. Hayyim Vital (1542-1620). In his Sha’arei Kedushah (1:2), R. Vital writes that, “the good and bad traits… are the seat, foundation, and root of the foundational soul, upon which depend the 613 mitzvot… It is for this reason that the character traits are not included among the 613 mitzvot. They serve, however, as the primary preparation for the 613 mitzvot.” R. Vital follows the path of Nachmanides (Comments to Maimonides’ Sefer Ha-Mitzvot 1) who argues that the Ba’al Halakhot Gedolot did not count the mitvzah of emunah, faith in God, as one of the 613 mitzvot because it is a prerequisite to fulfillment of the rest of the mitzvot. Apparently, this approach sees proper character as so fundamental to Judaism that it doesn’t even need to be an explicit mitzvah. R. Vital understands the phrase of Hazal (Leviticus Rabbah 9:3), “derech eretz kadmah le-Torah – proper behavior precedes the Torah,” literally; one must actually improve his or her character if the Torah is to have a spiritually positive effect. Character development is not mentioned in the Torah because it is the foundation upon which all else stands.

There are several obvious implications of this approach when it comes to imparting the importance of character development to our students. Perhaps most saliently, this approach suggests that character development should not take a back seat to the rest of our children’s education. If something is indeed the prerequisite of our religion, as R. Vital claims, we must ensure that our students receive that message. This means that discussions about ethics and character should not be relegated solely to the home or presumed to be learned through osmosis. Rather, it must take a significant place in our educational system at school as well. We must avoid the brief “hilul Hashem pep talk”—given prior to embarking on a school trip in which students are guilted into thanking their bus driver and cleaning up the garbage from the school bus, lest they cause a desecration of God’s name for not doing so—turning into one of the only memorable messages about ethical behavior that our students receive. This type of messaging depicts the place of character as something to be pursued solely to avoid negative reactions, and not something inherently valuable and foundational to Judaism.

R. Vital’s position on the supreme importance of character education relates to a similar idea in contemporary educational literature, which suggests ways to discuss character and values within many types of classroom studies. English teachers, for example, are directed to discuss virtues within the literature they are assigning in class. History teachers are encouraged to use historical events as an avenue to discuss human interests, and science teachers can engage their students in conversation about the natural environment, social psychology, and the ethical concerns of biochemical engineering. Mathematics teachers can teach their students the importance of diligence, patience, and integrity when handling data. Even physical education can offer great opportunities to discuss teamwork, fairness, and courage.[3]

If character development can be embedded within secular studies classes, it can certainly be discussed more frequently within Judaic studies curricula as well. In our halakhah classes, it is worthwhile to teach laws governing interpersonal relationships in addition to the laws governing rituals such as berakhot and Shabbat. While many schools spend significant time in their Talmud courses teaching tractates in Nezikin which speak about how one relates to the property of others, more time can be spent discussing the broader ethical elements that these laws are trying to convey.

Lastly, R. Vital’s comments touch upon another important point that is remarkably similar to findings in psychological research. In recent years it has become commonplace amongst American schools to include Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) programs to enhance students’ competencies in self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making.[4] Not only have SEL programs been consistently found to enhance students’ social and emotional skills and wellbeing, they have also been linked to enhanced academic performance as well.[5] There are a variety of explanations for this phenomenon, but what’s clear is that the development of character and related competencies are important for intellectual pursuits and performance. This finding mirrors R. Vital’s assertion that because character traits are “naturally embedded in the lowly, fundamental soul of man… [the higher] intellectual soul is powerless to fulfill the mitzvot with the 613 organs of the body except through the agency of the fundamental soul which is connected to the body.” Although different in content, both R. Vital and psychological studies conclude that character development is strongly correlated with, and likely influences, behavior and performance. This suggests that in addition to teaching character development in our schools because of its inherent value, it will also aid in both the performance of mitzvot and academic success.

Approach 2: Character Development Must be Natural
A second fascinating approach to our question is offered by R. Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook (1865-1935). Commenting on the statement of Hazal that the patriarchs and matriarchs fulfilled the Torah even before it was given at Sinai, R. Kook (Iggerot Ha-Ra’aya, letter 89) argues that it is indeed greater, specifically when it comes to mitzvot related to “the moral realm,” to fulfill the mitzvot out of a natural inclination that arises out of “charity and the love of kindness” than to fulfill them as a Divine mandate. For if one fulfills them out of “mandatory halakhah,” “one cannot measure the magnitude of the loss that human culture would suffer.” A compulsive Divine mandate, argues R. Kook, would actually upend the purpose of the mitzvah, as its legalistic nature of a command would dampen one’s inner desire to do good to others. The reason why there is no mitzvah for character development and ethical behavior is because having one would be counterproductive and spiritually erosive.

The idea that character should be natural coalesces with research in character education as well. It has been shown that the best character curricula are careful to cultivate self-motivation and altruism by not putting excessive emphasis on extrinsic incentives.[6] The schools that utilize this model emphasize opportunities for reflection as opposed to compliance. Mistakes are viewed as opportunities to learn and improve, and not reasons for punishment.

One of the common features of many of our schools is “hesed hours,” where students are tasked with accumulating a designated number of hours engaged in volunteer activity throughout the academic year. Failure to accumulate and document these hours is detrimental to one’s grade. While this method may motivate some students to engage in charitable activities that they might not have otherwise, students often try to fulfill their requirements begrudgingly, and sometimes even through chicanery. Rather than engender an intrinsic love of ethical character and behavior, this requirement instills within some of our students that hesed is a burden or a box to check off. The naturalness of which R. Kook spoke is missing from this primary method of character education in schools. As a result, the program does not tend to have the intended effects.

While one need not advocate for the abolishment of these requirements, the way in which it is framed should be shifted to a message of empowerment as opposed to one of compulsion. Perhaps rewarding students who engage in these hours, as opposed to punishing those who don’t, would encourage stronger participation and character development. Furthermore, educators should strive to identify and praise the ethical behavior exhibited by their students outside the context of hesed hours for further organic positive reinforcement.

Approach 3: The Power of Stories
R. Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin (Netziv; 1816-1893) in his Ha’emek Davar, wonders why Hazal (Avodah Zarah 25a) refer to the book of Genesis as Sefer Ha-Yashar, the Book of the Upright. R. Berlin’s thesis is that the term yashar, upright, connotes ethical civil behavior and character. The stories of our forefathers in the book of Genesis, in Sefer Ha-Yashar, are meant to teach us the importance of ethical character and behavior, which “sustain the world.”[7] R. Berlin doesn’t address our question directly, nor does he address why the Torah chooses to exemplify ethical and moral behavior specifically through stories. However, his comments may allude to something modern scientific literature is beginning to uncover.

Neuroscientists are now learning that our brains seem to be uniquely adapted to making sense of experiences through stories. As opposed to learning rational facts or statistics which only activate the language centers of our brains, stories allow for the activation of the emotional centers of our brains as well. This is critical because, contrary to popular belief, it is not our rational, linguistic brain that has the most influence on decision making. Rather, studies confirm that our emotional brains make the decisions, and we utilize the linguistic, rational parts of our brain to justify those decisions.[8] This is also why storytelling has been found to be more impactful than expressing statistics or pure facts when it comes to convincing others of something.

Perhaps this is why the Torah chooses to impart the lessons of ethical character through the medium of stories. Unlike most other mitzvot, which are primarily behavioral and dependent on clear-cut criteria, the development and expression of positive character traits are largely dependent on one’s internal emotional world. The best way to tap into one’s emotional world, studies show, is through stories. To encourage compassion, for example, it may be ineffective to simply be told to be compassionate, or informed of statistics about compassionate individuals. Learning about Abraham’s passionate plea with God to save the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, on the other hand, may be a more effective method. And similarly, we learn an equal amount from the stories of Tanakh on how not to behave as well. A serious discussion about the story of David and Bathsheba can invite students to contemplate the concepts of power, vulnerability, and modesty, to name a few. In addition to utilizing the stories of Tanakh, schools should take advantage of the compelling stories taught within their English literature classes and the plethora of stories that take place in current events as a means towards teaching and thinking critically about character development.

We have discussed three approaches to the question of why the Torah may not contain an explicit mitzvah of character development. These approaches are not mutually exclusive, and all are supported by psychological and educational research. Each approach offers practical steps to improve our current character development curricula in our schools.

With any approach, the first important step is to increase the quantity of time dedicated to character development. R. Vital’s approach that character development is the foundation of all the mitzvot implies that character development should have an increased role in our educational system. It should not be relegated to a “pep talk” that occurs a few times a year, but rather should be incorporated into even a diverse range of subjects. Improving character and social-emotional skills will, research shows, improve one’s academic performance as well.

Our schools may also want to consider character development through the natural lens that R. Kook championed. Empowering our students to engage in ethical behavior has also been shown to be more effective than character education through compulsion. An emphasis on rewards, rather than punishments, can transform the school’s environment and engender in our students an intrinsic motivation to develop their character. Lastly, the approach derived from R. Berlin’s comments in Genesis speaks to the importance of tapping into our students’ emotional worlds by teaching through compelling stories.

Both our traditional Jewish wisdom and contemporary psychological research emphasize the importance of character development in education. It’s time to listen to, and implement, that advice.[9]

[1] It is quite easy to see this connection for certain mitzvot. For example, by adhering to the laws governing lashon ha-ra, forbidden speech, as derived from Leviticus 19:16, one’s speech towards their fellow is naturally shaped for the better. Similarly, the various verses mandating proper financial behavior should engender a sense of honesty and a sense of sensitivity to the plight of the underprivileged. Indeed, some have classified many of the 613 mitzvot as affecting one’s personal character. See the introduction to R. Bahye Ibn Pakuda’s Chovot Ha-Levavot  and Maimonides in Moreh Nevukhim (3:35) and Mishneh Torah (The Laws of Temurah 4:13). For an alternative approach, see R. Avraham Yeshaya Karelitz’s Faith and Trust (Chapter 4).

[2] I plan to publish a thorough analysis of all of the available answers to this question at a different time.

[3] James Arthur, Kristján Kristjánsson, Tom Harrison, Wouter Sanderse, and Daniel Wright, “Classroom-based approaches to character education” in Teaching Character and Virtue in Schools (New York: Routledge, 2017), 70-93.

[4] Roger Weissberg, Joseph Durlak, Celine Domitrovich, and Thomas Gullotta, (2015),Social and emotional learning: Past, present, and future,” Handbook of social and emotional learning: Research and practice, ed. J.A. Durlak, C.E.Domitrovich, R.P. Weissberg, & T.P. Gullotta (New York, NY, Guilford Press, 2015) 3-19.

[5] Michael Wiglesworth, Ann Lendrum, Jeremy Oldfield, A. Scott, Isabel ten Bokkel, Kyrah Tate, and C. Emery,), “The impact of trial stage, developer involvement and international transferability on universal social and emotional learning programme outcomes: A meta-analysis,” Cambridge Journal of Education 46 (2016): 347-376.

[6] James Arthur, Kristján Kristjánsson, Tom Harrison, Wouter Sanderse, and Daniel Wright, “Classroom-based approaches to character education” in Teaching Character and Virtue in Schools (New York: Routledge, 2017),  70-93.

[7] For more on how stories teach ethics, see Dr. Shira Weiss’ article here.

[8] See Antoine Bechara, Hanna Damasio, Antonio R. Damasio, “Emotion, Decision Making and the Orbitofrontal Cortex,” Cerebral Cortex 10, no. 3 (2000): 295–307; and Rupa Gupta, Timothy R. Koscik, Antoine Bechara, and Daniel Tranel, The Amygdala and Decision-Making,” Neuropsychologia 49, no. 4 (2011): 760-766.

[9] I would like to thank Miriam Zami from the Lehrhaus for her editorial help as well as Rabbi Dr. Mordechai Schiffman, Yehuda Fogel, Rabbi Effie Wagner, and Rabbi Mayer Simcha Stromer for helping me flesh out the ideas of this essay.

Marc Eichenbaum received his semicha from RIETS and is the Rabbinic Researcher for Yeshiva University’s Sacks-Herenstein Center for Values and Leadership. He is also a doctoral student in Ferkauf’s School-Clinical Psy.D. program. Previously, he worked for Yeshiva University’s Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought, the Stella K. Abraham High School for Girls, and as the Rabbinic intern in the Young Israel of Lawrence-Cedarhurst.