Jewish Maginot Lines (Ideas #82)

On one of my regular recent walks in the Jerusalem forest, I noticed some old Turkish trenches that can still be seen on the western outskirts of Jerusalem. From the battle for Jerusalem in World War I, my mind started wandering to other trenches and other wars. I quickly started thinking about the battle of France fought at the beginning of World War II.
It is not only because I would have liked to have seen the defeat of Nazi Germany that I have always felt frustrated by the German victory over the allies in France. I have always been bothered by how France (and England) made such seemingly obvious mistakes in their conflict with Germany. While many errors were made, arguably the most severe one was not extending France's state-of-the-art defensive fortifications, known as the Maginot Line, on its border with Germany to also include France's border with Belgium. Germany's desire to avoid these formidable fortifications made an attack on France via an invasion of neutral Belgium an almost foregone conclusion. It is true that the allies made other contingencies for defending France's border with Belgium from a possible German invasion, yet the lack of serious fortification on France's Belgian border allowed the Germans the speedy offensive that cut off the largest and best of the allied land forces, and quickly led to the fall of France. Ironically, when the French government surrendered, many commanders of the Maginot Line were still manning their posts waiting for a chance to rebuff the armies they felt so well equipped to do.

I don't intend to write an article about military history; Rather, I am more interested in the type of excuses that led France to leave its border with Belgium improperly defended. We may not be experts in military history but, whether on the giving end or the receiving end, we are all masters of excuses.
Looking back at historical records, it seems that the main excuse given was that extending the fortifications to the Belgian border would have been too costly in effort and money. Difficult geological conditions on the Belgian border made building, what would be mostly underground fortifications, a project that the French government understandably preferred to avoid. I say understandably, because we all sometimes make decisions to forgo the best available option when its price tag requires too much sacrifice.

Indeed, we are all limited in our resources. We cannot spend money on everything that we would like. On the national level, money that goes to the defense budget is taken from social spending. In the 1930's, the world was still trying to recover from the Great Depression, and cutting the already-underdeveloped welfare programs of the time was no simple matter. Our appreciation of the difficult tradeoffs notwithstanding, France's decision to literally cut corners on defense would end up being a lethal one.

The basic lesson of Maginot was that national survival has to be the top priority in determining how a nation uses its resources. All other needs have to take a back seat to self-preservation. Of course, a nation cannot invest in every possible weapon needed for every possible scenario. Still, when it comes to basic national defense, a government may not worry about cutting costs.

The temptation to cut costs in areas vital to survival is not only the stuff of nations. Individuals and families also must spend money for their survival as well as for other things. It is clear to all of us that we must spend money on our basic subsistence needs such as food, shelter and medical care. Indeed, people are known to spare no expense in assuring the best medical care possible in times of need. Jewish tradition, however, seems to take a more expansive view of what is needed for a person's survival.  

Perhaps this is the rationale for the Talmud's discussion about what a father is obligated to provide for his son. The Talmud prescribes he take care of the following needs: brit milah, pidyon (redemption of a first-born from a Kohen), Jewish education, marriage, a trade and, according to some of the sages, swimming. (1) To the Jew, survival is not only a physical matter. The first half of the above list focuses on the spiritual survival of a Jewish boy. Thus, at the very least, our spiritual survival is on a par with our physical survival.

In this regard, it is worthwhile to heed the words of Achad Ha'am who, at the inception of the Zionist movement, foresaw the mistake it would be to focus only on the physical survival of the nation and not to consider its spiritual state: Deep must be our degradation, if we have no understanding, no feeling left for anything but the physical suffering which touches our flesh and bone.(2) Thus, for Jews, the lessons of the Maginot Line go beyond taking no chances when it comes to the physical defense of the State of Israel. We must be just as, if not more, careful about our spiritual survival.

For most, the high-ticket item on the list of spiritual needs is Jewish Education. As a result, many of us are tempted to compromise our children's education to save some of the truly substantial tuition costs that our schools often need to pass on to us. As with the cost of the Maginot Line, it is not human nature to welcome financial sacrifice, especially for things that only assure our survival. After all, our survival simply preserves the status quo, something easily taken for granted and which naturally fails to capture our imagination. 

While I do believe that the cost structure of Jewish Education needs serious review with the goal of taking some of the burden off most parents I also believe that not nearly enough money is being spent on Jewish education. Obviously, schools should not have carte blanche to waste money on all sorts of ill-designed projects and duplication of efforts, but there are many places where our children suffer due to lack of proper funding. Most critical is the issue of human resources. Many outstanding teachers are not allowed to develop their true potential due to the heavy workload that the schools must place on them to render them cost-effective. Since teaching salaries are often low for rabbis who enter the job market  with as many years of study as doctors many of the best rabbis in education move prematurely to higher-paying school administration, or out of the field altogether.

If money is one issue, it is not the only one. The failure of the Maginot Line was also the result of laziness. In Jewish Education, we need bold new paradigms, strategies and teacher training which, in spite of all the talk about these issues, do not seem to be serious priorities in our community.

If we do not want to fail, it is imperative that the Jewish community stop compromising on its spiritual survival. We are 1930's France. We are still rebuilding our nation from the ravages of the Holocaust and are only beginning to see the next real threat over our borders. The Jewish people cautiously watch as the threat of secular narcissism threatens to challenge Jewish survival in the decades to come. Now is certainly not the time to cut corners. Now is the time to assure our survival and not to repeat the mistakes of the Maginot Line.

(1) Kiddushin 29a.
(2)  The Spiritual Revival, 1902.