Sunday, August 03, 2008

State Funded Ignorance

The Israeli Knesset has recently approved a bill that grants Charedi educational institutions funds without requiring them to teach any secular subjects. I’m sure this is hailed as a victory for Torah education in Charedi circles.

The bill was in fact proposed by the six members of the United Torah Judaism six members of Shas. Opposition to the bill came from the secular Meretz party who said that this is a scandalous law – that Israel is now funding ignorance.

That will surely generate (if it hasn’t already) the familiar Charedi response that such views are nothing more than an anti Torah bias expressed by those whose agenda include the destruction of Torah Judaism.

Torah Judaism will not by destroyed by educating Charedi youth in basic life skills. Requiring a curriculum that includes such basic courses as math and English is hardly anti Torah. It is instead anti poverty. It is making sure that an entire community not remain ignorant, poor, and a burden to taxpaying Israelis. The accusation that anyone who advocates teaching secular subjects in Charedi schools is anti Torah is a distortion of the truth. That would make a lot of Charedim that have expressed such views anti Torah. It would make an existing Charedi oriented school - Marava - anti Torah too.

Those who make such claims often cite the Netziv. He believed it was better to close down his Yeshiva in Volozhin than succumb to the Czarist Russian government’s pressure to insert secular studies in his Yeshiva.

But that is a misleading claim. The Netziv did not oppose secular studies. He was opposed to being forced into it by people whose known agenda was to subvert Torah Judaism. This is not the case here. No one is suggesting anything more than a minimal curriculum that will enable Charedim to learn some basic life skills. That will at some point help them to earn a decent living.

The slippery slope argument of the Netziv does not apply in current day Israel. Not with the increasing power Charedim have in the Israeli government. If I recall correctly this was not the case in the Czarist Russia of the Netziv's time. The Czar didn't have too many Charedim in his government.

The poverty situation of Charedim in Israel is dire and it’s getting worse. With each successive generation the number of ignorant male adults produced by Charedi schools multiplies. Their basic secular knowledge is so minimal it that it is insignificant in terms of getting decent jobs and getting off the public dole.

One reason often cited is for the opposition of secular studies is that there is just so much Torah to learn - there isn't enough time to spend on secular studies. Besides - the Charedi model for education is that of Rav Eliyahu Dessler. He wrote that the need for producing Gedolim is so important that even if 999 out of a thousand people fall through the cracks in order to produce one Gadol it is worth it.

But even if this were true, it is no longer the case. We are no longer at the 1000 to 1 ratio. We are at the 60,000 to 1 ratio. That’s how many Avreichim there are in Israel now according to a recent study - and I question whether any of them are Gedolim. In any case I believe that most Gedolim would probably become Gedolim anyway - whether they are in the current Yeshiva system or not. Gedolim are by definition unique individuals who do not necessarily arise through the system. I therefore do not believe that throwing a thousand people into the Beis Hamedrash is the only way to produce Gedolim.

To allow 999 to fall through the cracks so that one will become a Gadol is bad enough - even if one accepts Rav Dessler’s paradigm. But to allow 60,000 to fall through the cracks so that one might become a Gadol is to beg for a crisis of existential proportion.

There are 60,000 young adults in Israel who are improperly trained to go into the work force at any reasonably productive level. Sure - one can find Charedim who have good jobs. You can even find Charedim who have been able to get an education in spite the anti education environment they are raised in. But they are the exceptions. Many if not most Avrechim are surviving in poverty with little hope of extricating themselves from it.

If Charedi schools were to allow secular studies to be part of a curriculum through high school and have a more generally positive attitude about the work ethic, the poverty problem would start reversing itself - instead of increasing geometrically with every generation.

I have always maintained that full time Torah learning at intense levels should be reserved for the elite of our generation - those who have the potential to become Gedolim, not all 60,000 adults now doing it in Israel - and who knows how many in the rest of the world. This is the view of Rav Ahron Soloveichik as explained in his book, Logic of the Heart, Logic of the Mind.

The vast majority of those 60,000 Avreichim should in some way be preparing for the workforce at some point during their Yeshiva years – for themselves and for Klal Yisroel. So when the time comes to leave Kollel they will not be clueless. Including a minimal secular education in high school would go a long way towards that goal.

So - I agree with Meretz. English and Math will not threaten Judaism. The government has done a disservice to the Charedi community by dropping their demands for a minimal secular curriculum. The reason stated by Education Minister Yuli Tamir is that the government will not win anyway. She just wanted to avoid further battles in a culture war. The government has simply formalized and regulated a process that has been going on under the table for a long time. It is the lesser of two evils.

Well - the lesser of two evils is still evil. Such bills do nothing but contribute to a problem of a growing poverty class that is bound to one day implode. When that happens the genie will be out of the bottle and who knows what kind and how intense the backlash will be.

Post script: I just wanted to make clear – if it isn’t already - that the use of the word ignorant in this post is meant only in the sense of the basic secular education needed to survive in the modern era. Obviously, the vast majority of Charedim are not ignorant of Torah knowledge since that is what they study most of their lives.

Updated: 8/3/08 8:37 PM CDT