01/22/2011 05:14 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Amy Chua Vs. The Talmud

Amy Chua's memoir about Chinese parenting styles, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, has American parents in a tizzy. I teach History at Saint Ann's in Brooklyn, a K-12 school in which we neither grade nor punish our students. Instead, we let the students' individual interests serve as their guides. I'm therefore among the first to ask: are we all too soft on our kids?

But I also spent three years teaching in China. There, parents have questions of their own. Many Chinese educators and social commentators have recently engaged in some genuine soul searching, wondering if the costs of their high-stress, test-centered system are too high. Suicide has become the number one cause of death among young people in China, and gruesome tales of woe--from murder to self-mutilation--have become all-too common for Chinese students. These stories are especially prevalent around the time of the gaokao, or college entrance exam, a two day test akin to an SAT on steroids.

Thus, as Chua encourages American parents to look to east for parenting advice, the Chinese are looking west. Oddly enough, some Chinese are looking to one source in particular: the Talmud. This is part of a growing craze in China for all things Jewish. It isn't surprising that the Chinese impression of the Talmud is simplistic. But the underlying reasons for their examination of the Jewish text are worth considering.

To understand the Chinese interest in the Talmud, it helps to take a brief look at what it has to say about parenting. Rabbi Nachum Ansel offers a summary of the vast teachings, dividing the Jewish scriptural lessons on parenting into four general categories: avoid favoritism; discipline with flexibility; match the treatment to the individual child; and fulfill your responsibilities to your children. He writes that of these, "possibly the most important educational principle for a Jewish parent to adhere to is the notion of bringing up each child according to his or her unique personality, character traits and talents."

In other words: there is no one way to parent. There is no one correct answer. Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah were not Tiger Mothers.

Here we find the reason for Chinese interest in the Talmud. Older Chinese grew up in a system in which the wrong answers could get you sent to the countryside for "reeducation," or perhaps imprisoned or killed. Young Chinese are growing up in a system where their life prospects are entirely determined by high-stakes standardized tests. Entrance exams for elementary school are followed by exams for middle school, high school, college, and eventually the work force and graduate school. Each exam is one-size-fits all, and in a country in which you have a billion people competing for a limited number of jobs, a low score means dashed hopes. For sixty years, there has been only one correct answer to every Chinese question, first provided by Mao, now provided by the tests.

By contrast, the Talmudic ideal of finding individuality within each child sounds like a dream.

Of course, in the world outside of parenting guides and scripture, things are not quite so simple. Jews don't always follow Jewish advice: the Patriarchs of the Torah were constantly playing favorites, behaving with inflexibility, and violating other principles of Jewish parenting. And Chinese are quite capable of showing the creativity, poetry, and individuality anathema to the Maoist and test-based systems.

In fact, this is the overlooked conclusion of Chua's memoir. She eventually retreats from her own mother's overly narrow parenting style. She realizes, in wonderfully Confucian fashion, that good parenting must have balance.

Indulging mediocrity in children is unhealthy. So is demanding perfection.

Perhaps good parenting is best captured in an old Hasidic legend:

A father once came to the Baal Shem Tov with a problem concerning his son. He complained that the son was forsaking Judaism and morality and asked the rabbi what he could do. The Baal Shem Tov answered: "Love him more."