Leon Roth: A Philosopher-Teacher

Article excerpt

DURING MY SCHOOL-YEARS--from kindergarten through university--I had many teachers. They were mostly very good teachers--often dedicated to their vocation beyond and above formal instruction in their specific subjects. Out of the many, two were outstanding--one in the higher classes of my secondary education and another at the university. It is the latter, Professor Leon Roth (1896-1963), who is the subject of this essay.

In order to present his personality and performance to the contemporary American reader it is necessary to expound on the context of my experience as a university student. My last four years of secondary education and the subsequent study at the university transpired in Israel--or, strictly speaking, in Palestine under the British Mandate before the establishment of the State. While the political control of the country was in the hands of the High Commissioner, appointed by the British government and responsible to London and not to the population under his rule, he and his administration left the educational institutions--notably those of higher learning--in the hands of the Jewish community. Thus, unlike in India and the various colonies of Great Britain, the ruling power did not educate the native population (if the Jews could be described as such), but left them to their own traditions and devices, to their own ideas, plans and organization. One consequence of this cultural independence was that the language of instruction in the Jewish sector was Hebrew and this encompassed higher education. Thus, in a way, a new system of education and novel institutions of learning emerged: a Hebrew education and research, which encompassed customary subjects of Western Civilization in sciences and humanities, as well as traditional Jewish disciplines--all of these taught in modern Hebrew.

This does not mean that the educational system was created ab initio. The elementary and secondary schools had their precursors in Eastern Europe where Hebrew or partially Hebrew schools existed between the two World Wars in major cities. These were semi-private communal institutions, largely financed by the students' parents, and therefore attended by a minority of Jewish children. Yet, they were a living proof of a new approach to Jewish education--secular with a colouring of religion and tradition, and animated by the spirit of Jewish national renaissance, or Zionism. Like Zionism itself, the new way of Hebrew education was prefabricated in the Jewish diaspora--mainly in Eastern Europe--and eventually transplanted to the growing National Home in Palestine.

The incipient Hebrew education in Europe had another significance. It created the prototype of the new teacher and eventually supplied the cadre of Hebrew teachers, as well as Hebrew-speaking teachers of other subjects, for the secondary schools in Palestine. They were themselves the product of European schooling, but usually also of traditional Jewish education, and applied this synthesis in Hebrew schools in Europe and carried this symbiotic approach to the schools in Palestine, if and when they succeeded to emigrate to the Promised Land.

The Hebrew gymnasia (high schools modeled on the European example) offered instruction in such basic subjects as the Hebrew language and literature, mathematics, physics, chemistry, English, another foreign language, history (general and Jewish), Bible. The subjects were taught in a continuous sequence--notably mathematics and history--so that there was no disruption and switching from one field or "unit" to another. There were very few electives. This instilled in the student a sense of continuity and cohesion of knowledge, as well as basic familiarity with the various fields--indeed, foundations of what used to be called "liberal education."

The gymnasia studies were concluded by a comprehensive final examination, conducted by a central national authority. The successful passing of this examination was a prerequisite for admission to higher institutes of learning. …