Whenever I teach about the obligations parents have to children I inevitably cite the alternative opinion in the Talmud (Kiddushin 29a) that states that in addition to the ritual obligations of circumcision and redemption of the firstborn (when applicable), and the obligation to educate, job train, and match-make, parents should also teach a child to swim. Most students will automatically explain that swimming is a life-saving skill and so teaching a child to swim is a natural extension of parental care. This is true enough. And the quintessential medieval commentator Rabbi Solomon Yitzhaki offers this exact explanation.
But then I hasten to add another explanation: one that I learned from an esteemed teacher and colleague: Rabbi Myron Fenster. He pointed out that when a person teaches another how to swim there comes a time when the teacher must be willing to let go. Thus, an object lesson for parents – and particularly “helicopter parents:” learn to let go. Protect your child but also give him or her independence. This is certainly a worthy message that, I believed, closed the discussion. That was until I read Bonnie Tsui’s thoughtful book entitled Why We Swim. In contrast with Howard Means useful history of swimming in his book Splash! 10,000 Years of Swimming, Tsui dives into the depths of the matter. Means made me aware of the oldest depiction of human beings swimming in a cave in the middle of the Sahara Desert (there were once great lakes there!) eight thousand years ago. But Tsui made me think or, should I say, re-think why swimming is so important that Judaism makes it a parental obligation.
Tsui mentions the typical reason: safety or survival. And she adds some additional reasons like community and competition, although the latter is far less compelling. But her main contribution to my reconsideration of swimming is her contention that swimming prepares us for life. She writes: “To swim is to witness metamorphosis, in our environment, in ourselves. To swim is to accept all the myriad conditions of life.” In reviewing Tsui’s book for the Literary Review, Fran Bigman interpreted Tsui’s words to mean that swimming teaches human beings about “the flow” of life. It was the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus who is reputed to have taught that all life is flux, citing the example of a flowing river into whose waters a person can never step twice. Tsui argues that swimming in that paradigmatic river imparts the ineluctable message that humanity is insinuated in that flow of life: ever-changing and evolving.
I think that Tsui has got this right as psychology, but her narrative stops short of fully explicating this fundamental idea. Life does indeed flow like a river. But more than simply recognizing this truism each person must determine whether to “go with the flow” or swim against the current. Judaism, I would argue, has perpetually seen itself as a distinctive way of life that demands of its adherents to go against the flow. Naturally, that makes Judaism difficult. It is neither easy nor comfortable to go against the current or swim against the tide. No wonder that some Jews have rejected Judaism in whole or in part. But there is something invigorating knowing that you are not just along for the ride, being carried forward by some force that requires no thought at all.
So Jews will continue to teach their children to swim. And by swimming we better conceptualize our place in the world.