Toys — and the Torah — Require Questions and Imagination
One of the most unique talents that human beings are blessed with is the faculty of imagination. Unlike any other creature, humans have nearly unlimited potential for constructive fantasy.
In fact, our civilization is built on imagination. Without it, no progress could ever be made — whether in science, literature, philosophy, art, music or commerce. Our world would be unable to sustain itself if human beings did not continuously explore new and uncharted paths. It is for this reason that every generation must ensure that its children have enough opportunities to develop a healthy imagination.
Children’s toys have become a major industry — and they are growing incredibly sophisticated and life-like. Today, it is possible to buy dolls that can walk, sing, speak with other dolls, sleep, cry, smile and even need diapers. Similarly, electric trains, boats, planes and other modes of transportation have become more and more like the real thing. Some of the electric cars available in toy stores can travel at a speed of 50 kilometers an hour, are equipped with radios, computers and windshield wipers, and can operate on solar power.
While our society welcomes these new innovations and regards them as greatly beneficial to our children and grandchildren, I believe that this is a major educational mistake.
The Torah is often referred to as a toy. King David says, “Had Your Torah not been my plaything, I would have perished in my affliction.” (Tehillim 119:92)
In fact, this analogy is found a number of times in Tehillim (Psalms). Just as toys brings joy to a human being, so does busying oneself with the Torah. But what does this joy comprise of? No doubt, one of the many elements that contribute to the pleasure of playing with things is the use of imagination. Joy is, therefore, the art of seeing great possibilities.
When people learn Torah, it is not just the information that is enjoyable. Above all, they thrive on the possibility of creating chiddushim (new insights) by developing their own imagination in the pursuit of understanding the Torah. This is one of the reasons why the Oral Torah was never completely recorded, and why the Torah — and later the Talmud — were written in a most cryptic script, requiring the student to read between the lines in order to fully grasp the profundity within. One needs to use one’s own imagination to include what the text itself does not reveal.
One of the most important benefits of playing with toys is the fulfillment of the child’s need to pretend. Children do not play with the toy itself, but rather with what they imagine they are playing with. The greater the distance between the toy and the product of the child’s imagination, the more intensive and beneficial it will be for the child. He or she will have to use all of their imagination to create the world in which they want to find themselves. They will have to, literally, think outside the box.
For this reason, toys should not approximate reality. A doll that can speak, cry or smile is not a real doll — precisely because it is so “real.” The child is unable to pretend, because the manufacturer has already done it for him or her.
To be sure, the child will initially be very pleased with the state-of-the-art doll that can sing and smile, but a child is unaware of his own psychological makeup and will ultimately become bored. There is, after all, very little left to the imagination. In fact, more and more parents complain that the more expensive the toy, the sooner it is likely to be neglected.
Many Torah institutions today have fallen victim to the same problem as the toy industry. They now offer classes that offer only answers, and discourage questions. The teacher delivers his discourse as a well-prepared dish to which nothing more can be added. Instead of encouraging imagination, these teachers kill every opportunity to use it. The Torah, then, is no longer a great plaything, but merely a sterile, sophisticated toy. And just as the child will drop the toy, so too will the student drop the Torah.
Toy manufacturers are certainly making more money than ever before. Similarly, many Yeshivot are producing students with a phenomenal amount of Jewish knowledge. But are these booming industries serving our children, and are the Yeshivot producing real Torah scholars or just walking encyclopedias?
For a healthy future and Judaism, we will need adults who will be gifted with fertile imaginations. For that, we need simple educational dolls for our children — and Torah teachings that consist of open-ended inquiry and a willingness to undergo a renaissance.