Virtues in Time Travel

Photo: Scholars from the disciplines of education, psychology and religious studies examine fragments of the Genizah, Cambridge University Library, February 2019.

Those acquainted with character education will know that it is, in essence, nothing new. Indeed, the earliest surviving texts in many world cultures often concern virtues and how they should be acquired by the next generation. An obvious example in Western literature can be found in the philosophy of Aristotle who has inspired much of the work of the Jubilee Centre.

While virtues can be understood within an entirely secular framework, they are also of importance to the major world religions. Working on a project about the contribution of religious education to character education, I am interested in what religions have to say about virtues and how they should be cultivated. This raises lots of interesting questions, such as the extent to which virtues translate between different religions and across religious and non-religious contexts.

Given that the major world religions all trace their origins to earlier epochs of human history, the ability to time travel helps in this pursuit. Until this week, I would have scoffed at such a seemingly ludicrous suggestion, but that was before I encountered the Genizah of the Jewish community of Fustat, Old Cairo.

‘Genizah’ is a Persian loan word into Hebrew that means ‘archive’. As the destruction of texts bearing reference to G-d is prohibited in Judaism, when a book, manuscript or letter was no longer of use to the community, it was placed in the Genizah. (As the name of G-d is considered too holy to pronounce in Judaism, this is sometimes rendered as ‘G-d’ in English).

By the time it was transported to its current resting place in the University of Cambridge in 1897, the Genizah of the Ben Erza Synagogue, Fustat, comprised two full stories of the building, holding over 200,000 fragments of all kinds of writings.

Enticed by the discovery of a fragment of an early Hebrew text of the Book of Ecclesiasticus (previously considered to be written in Greek), Cambridge scholar Solomon Schechter began the arduous task of deciphering and studying a record of almost one thousand years (from the 1000s to the 1800s).

The repository relates to all aspects of life, going well beyond the preservation of religious texts. Included are fragments of ancient receipts, pupil’s exercise books, letters, bills, pre-nuptial contracts, poetry and even recipes.

The Taylor-Schecter Genizah Research Unit of the Cambridge University Library holds the responsibility of understanding and communicating the significance of the Genizah today. An eclectic repository of various manuscripts, the Genizah is highly relevant to contemporary questions of ethics, education and interreligious relations. As such, I was privileged to be invited to an international workshop of scholars from the fields of education, psychology, religious studies and ancient languages to consider how the Genizah may help us understand issues of religion, character and education.

One of the most interesting aspects of Genizah is what it says about relationships between Jews, Christians and Muslims. The medieval Jewish community of Egypt lived under the protection of the Islamic Caliphate. Among the collection are texts of the Qur’an written in Hebrew script, and the Hebrew Bible in Arabic script – showing the intercommunication across religious and linguistic divides.

The Genizah also gives a good record of education in the medieval period. Among the fragments are students’ first alphabets carefully inscribed on animal hides. Perhaps of most interest to character educators is a repository of writings by the famous Jewish medieval philosopher, Maimonides – including a class of his students’ lecture notes.

Sometimes referred as ‘the Rambam’ (a Hebrew acronym for ‘Rabbi Moses Ben Maimon’), like his Muslim contemporary, Ibn Rushd (Averroes), Maimonides sought to incorporate Aristotelean philosophy with his religion. Part of this project included a lengthy discourse on character education inspired by Aristotle’s Nichomachean ethics. A polymath, Maimonides also served as a medical doctor to the family of the famous Sultan of Egypt, Saladin.

History speaks forwards in time, not backwards, and the Genizah provides a focal point today to ponder on important questions about education for those of all religions and those of none.

The rich discussion at the workshop among an international group of scholars from different disciplines and cultural backgrounds opened up a range of promising avenues for educational research and practice. Among the workshop participants was Dr Farah Ahmed who is working to reanimate traditional Islamic pedagogies in order to facilitate character development in Muslim faith schools. One method is the ‘halaqah’ – a kind of circle time discussion that has synergies with contemporary concepts of dialogic education.

The concerns of the people who wrote the various writings deposited in the Genizah speak of common human problems and aspirations – education comprising just one aspect of this rich panorama. When travelling back in time, and between cultural contexts, the universal relevance of virtues of character are consistently apparent. As Aristotle himself observed in Book VIII of the Nichomachean ethics – already an ancient text by the time of Maimonides – ‘In our travels, we can see how every person is akin […] to every other.’

Dr. Daniel Moulin-Stożek  is a Research Fellow at the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues and is currently working on the Life of the RE Teacher project.

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