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Jewish World Review
Dec. 5, 2005
/ 4 Kislev, 5766
Rabbi Dr. Asher Meir
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. 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
Our Sages discussed this idea in a number of places,
and generally reached the conclusion that an exclusive
approach is counterproductive.
Mishnah tractate "Avos," 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
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 G-d, and the law is according to the school
of Hillel." Now, since these and these are both the
words of the Living G-d, 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
Besis 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
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
24:7) "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 Sheshes 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 from my experience I view these considerations are
valid today more than ever. I observe that schools
that strive for an exclusive student body (based on
family background) tend to 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) Avos deRebbe Nosson 1:3. (2) Babylonian
Talmud 13b. (3) Nedarim 81a.
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JWR contributor Rabbi Dr. Asher Meir, formerly of the Council of Economic Advisers in the Reagan
administration, is Research Director of the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem, Jerusalem College of Technology.
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© 2005, The Jewish Ethicist is produced by the JCT Center for Business Ethics