Sunday, April 13, 2008

Saving the Torah World from Itself

I’ve been down this road before. Many times. But every time it comes up, it strikes a sympathetic chord. Columnist Meirav Arlosoroff of Ha’aretz has written a thoughtful criticism of the Israeli education ministry. The charge is that they have somewhat of a double standard when it comes to funding their schools. Charedi schools get funding without even the most minimal requirement for teaching their students basic living skills.

This is counter to their overriding concern that these kinds of standards are met on the secular side. It is a standard which the article points out leads them to abhor home schooling. And they are very strict about that. If and when they allow it they require parents to submit a planned study program to ensure that the child receives those skills:

If the ministry doesn't like the parents' proposed curriculum, it simply won't provide the hoped-for home-schooling permit, even though the parents aren't asking the state for a budget.

But when it comes to Charedi education as things stand now, they are given a free pass. Their defense for this policy in part is as follows:

(With respect to Charedi education) we cannot ignore that it is methodical study which has no inconsiderable educational value," the ministry wrote in its brief to the court.

Of course that’s true. I would go even further and say that Charedi education does an excellent job in teaching most of its male students how to think. In many ways it is superior to what secular students get. The problem is that this is not enough. They are taught to think like Lamdanim. They are not thought to think like providers.

They are not taught the basic skills necessary to compete in the real world. And for that reason, I too fault the ministry for the blank check the give to the Charedi educational system. I would insist on standards. At least in line with what Charedi students in American Yeshivos are taught. Not that Charedi secular education in the US is that great. But at a minimum it teaches at least some of the basic skills needed to have a chance in the outside world. Israeli Charedim get none of that.

It is understandable that Israeli Charedim take this approach to education. They do not view their schools as preparing their male students for a life outside of a Beis Hamedrash. Theirs is the ‘Torah Only’ school of thought. Educating for Parnassa is of secondary concern. They believe it should not be part of the educational process. But as is increasingly becoming evident the Charedi world cannot perpetually sustain itself in its present incarnation.

There are far too many people among them who live in poverty taking charity as the primary means of survival. It is not a sacrifice of choice in all cases as many contend. It is a sacrifice of no choice. In far too many cases, they have no other way out. They are stuck in a society not of their own making. They live in a culture where learning full time is the only way to go no matter how limited one's abilities are. Working is at best a second class option.

Until recently this was compounded by the army service requirement that did not allow entering the workplace until one served. This was a major impediment to getting a job. But this is no longer the case. Nachal Charedi and the Tal Law has (or should have) eliminated most of the major objections to army service and has made the path to getting a job a lot easier.

The irony of all this is that the hated Israeli government actually helps to fund the ‘no secular studies’ Hashaka. They actually facilitate it without prejudice.

But I agree with Arlosoroff’s criticism. The education ministry has abdicated their goals of training all Israeli citizens in basic life skills… skills that will enable them to function in a world outside of the Beis Hamedrash.

It would be a battle royal if the education ministry would insist on inserting even the most modest of secular studies curricula. As in the past Charedi leadership will cry foul and accuse the government of anti Torah discrimination. They will claim their system is at least as deserving as their secular one and demand equal funding.

But as far as I am concerned this is not a fight about anti Torah discrimination. It is a fight about saving the community from itself. Ultimately inserting minimal standards will help perpetuate the world of Torah by giving it a better financial base. The more Charedim that work, the better off those who remain to learn will be. A true Yisachar - Zevulun partnership will prevail. Those who should be learning will continue learning. And those who should be working will work and help support those who learn.

I don’t think this is going to happen, but it should. If a fight ever erupts again where the education ministry wants to make funding contingent on some sort of minimal curriculum - instead of listening to the pleas of the rabbinic leadership who will curse the government for cutting funds, let people side with the education ministry. Let them insist that a curriculum be devised in conjunction with their own rabbinic authorities, one that resembles the Charedi system in the US. If there would be such a grass roots campaign, the leadership would be hard pressed to ignore it. And it’s the right thing to do.