In Praise of Brainwashing

A reference to a Shabbos seudah as “brainwashing.” An attempt by a flag-draped man to enter a Montreal Jewish day school. And a preschool morah’s report. All took place recently and, together, helped me better understand something fundamental about life.

The cynical reference to Shabbos was from a woman quoted in a book. Sadly, she had left the Jewish observance of her childhood behind.

“My father was always tired and so was my mother,” she explained to the author. “They were fighting. We were fighting. And so there was not that kind of love and joy that makes the brainwashing really stick.”

The brainwashing.

On the very day that quote appeared in a book review, a man draped in a flag of Quebec tried to enter a chareidi Jewish day school, Yeshiva Gedola, in Montreal, claiming that he wanted to “liberate” its students.

Wisely, the school’s staff did not allow the fellow into the building. One staff member said “When I answered through the intercom, the man told me: ‘I want to talk to the children because they are imprisoned in this school… I want to liberate the children.’”

Liberate the children.

Two people with a similar perspective, that Jewish children who are raised in their ancestral faith are essentially being psychologically abused, their minds imprisoned, their brains, well, washed.

It’s not an uncommon way of looking at things, unfortunately, these days. But it’s an ignorant one—quite literally: It ignores the most fundamental mission of any thinking, caring human being.

Does any loving parent—leave aside a Jewish one—allow a child to develop entirely on his own? Un-“brainwashed” and “unimprisoned”? Do any parents, no matter how “liberal” or “open-minded” they may be, leave their progeny to their own devices, always? Children are, understandably, self-centered and, inevitably, somewhat uncivil and rudderless about how to interact with others and with the world. A parent’s most important role, after providing a child physical nourishment and shelter, is to provide him what might be called ethical nourishment.

On, now, to the preschool morah. The caregiver was reporting to the mother of a not-yet-3-year-old how her little girl was behaving within her group of pint-sized peers. The morah recounted how some other toddlers in the group were “negotiating” which of them would occupy the only seat left around an activity table. Little “Aviva” looked on at the commotion, assessed things, quietly walked across the room, retrieved another kiddie chair and brought it over, upending the need for any further “negotiations.”

To be sure, there are children, like Aviva, who are naturally good-natured. But even they, and certainly less finely endowed kids, don’t just naturally develop concern for others, or for peace. The pacifist and empathy muscles, so to speak, are there in all of us, but they need nurturing to develop and grow. I know the little girl’s parents well, and that they invest much energy in raising their children to be decent human beings. That’s the only way one has a shot, with Hashem’s help, at such results.

And Aviva’s parents, like most Jewish parents, are raising their children to be not just good people but good Jews, too. They “brainwash” them by teaching them not only about middos tovos but about the timeless tradition that was handed down through the ages since Har Sinai, to their ancestors, then to those ancestors’ children, and then by those children, once grown, to their own.

In only a matter of weeks (forgive me for spilling the secret!), Jewish families around the world will be engaging in what is the year’s most potent “brainwashing,” as parents and children sit around their Seder tables and recount their received testimony about Yetzias Mitzrayim.

The parents will, with the aid of the Haggadah, fulfill the mitzvah to recount that seminal event in Jewish history, and the children, kept awake (with candies and nuts and stunts—granted, not torture) will be brainwashed—that is to say, imprinted with information that will prove not only vital to their lives as strong and knowledgeable Jews, but vital to the entire world, whether that world knows it or not.

Surely the disillusioned authoress who had, nebach, so deficient a Jewish upbringing, and the fleur-de-lis-draped crusader would not approve. I won’t likely approve either of how they will raise their own children, presumably to follow in their “independent” footsteps. Hopefully, those children will be independent enough to realize something their parents don’t: “Brainwashing” is just a hostile way of referring to education one doesn’t like.