`Forward the Light Brigade!'
Was there a man dismay'd?
Not tho' the soldier knew
Some one had blunder'd:
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do & die,
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred."
-- from "The Charge of the Light Brigade" by Alfred, Lord Tennyson
Even though it was back in the 1960's, I can still remember those lines
from England's poet laureate because I was made to recite the entire poem
in front of my class in New York's P.S. 114. It was a survival of the
system of rote memorization which was already in disfavor by the time I was
exposed to the sonorous cadences of Tennyson.
I recalled those lines once again recently at the end of another school
year. But this time it was the end of my son Moshe Chaim's school year, and
I was taking him to the store to buy a computerized notepad---a special
prize for his hard work and good grades. But it was not without a certain
ambivalence that I did so. Not because of the expense. The money comes out
of the Mommy-And-Daddy-Educational-Foundation, which is underwritten by the
Bank of Israel in the Sky. As the Midrash says, G-d pays you back for the
money you spend on Torah education; and I think that includes prizes like
No, my ambivalence had to do with the nature of the prize itself. Having a
machine to do your calculating and remembering for you is a dubious
advantage. The development of one's mental powers is, after all, one of the
main goals of education; and reliance on such devices to do your mental
work for you engenders a ruinous sloth.
Indeed, the exercise of memory itself seems to be a long-forgotten relic of
the past. The collective atrophy of the faculty of memory reaches far
beyond the classroom into every aspect of our lives. We are increasingly
dependent on the artificial memories of computerized registers and
notepads. When they fail us, we are rendered helpless until someone can
come and fix the problem. How many times have we had to face our incapacity
to cope when the office computer or the scanner at the checkout counter
goes down? Not to mention the embarrassment of otherwise intelligent people
resorting to calculators for relatively simple mathematical problems.
It was not always like this. My parents were no mathematicians; they were
ordinary working people. Yet, they both knew by heart the price of every
item in their grocery store and worked the totals out on the sides of brown
paper shopping bags for each customer with unerring speed.
The dismal state of the educational system in England and America today is
an agreed-upon fact. But neither Bush nor Blair would dare to recommend
learning the classics by heart as a remedy for the nation's ills. Nor could
they. For both the system of memorization and the classics curriculum have
long fallen into disfavor. The negative attitude toward linguistically
difficult and politically incorrect works of literature has all but
destroyed any desire to study them, much less memorize them.
Memorization itself bears the stigma of stultification. It is commonly
thought to be the kind of curriculum designed to be enforced by the waiting
smack of the teacher's ruler. And although it surely was abused by bad
teachers, the equation between memorization and anti-creativity is
fallacious. The greatest literary personalities steeped themselves in
Bible, Homer, Shakespeare and Tolstoy until they could recite reams of it
from memory. Rather than stultifying, it trained and enriched the mind.
By contrast, the emphasis on memorization in traditional Jewish studies
has, if anything, been revivified in the current generation. World-wide
mishnayot competitions, in which the young participants demonstrate not
only their astounding recall, but their intelligent mastery, of thousands
of mishnayot, are a reflection of the emphasis on memorization. This
thorough grounding in the classics of Jewish study provides the basis for
the deep Talmudic analysis and original thought that are the hallmark of
the Torah scholar. Only the age-old Jewish love for the words of the holy
Torah makes it possible. And when there's a conflict between the Torah and
the ideas of the moment, it is the moment, not the Torah, which is
To be sure, there now exist CD-ROM's loaded with whole libraries of
Judaica; but there is no substitute for the individual's mastery of the
material. Some years ago, Rabbi Yaakov Yisrael Ruderman, one of the great
European-born Torah scholars of the past century, was shown the miracle of
the entire Talmud available to anyone on a computer screen at the press of
a few buttons. Rabbi Ruderman himself knew all of the Talmud's 2,711 pages
by heart. And he knew it word for word. But he was unimpressed by the
computerization of Torah. He explained that it means very little to have it
in the computer's memory. You have to have it inside you.
Indeed, that is the goal of Torah study. Not just to know facts, and to be
able to spit them out on a test, but to make the Torah a part of you. To
internalize its wisdom, so that your very life, every thought and deed, is
an expression of Torah. As the chassid said who went to visit the great
Maggid of Mezritch, successor to the Baal Shem Tov:
"I did not go to hear words of Torah from his mouth; I went to watch him
tie and untie his felt bootlaces."
And what of my Moshe Chaim and his computerized notepad? Well, it's been a
few days, and---Baruch Hashem---it looks like the novelty is already
wearing off. Could be that soon he'll forget about it altogether...