Tuesday, September 21, 2010

A Modest Charedi Rebellion

When Rav Soloveitchik was studying for his doctorate in philosophy in the prestigious University of Berlin, he was occasionally visited by the great rabbinic figures of his time. As the grandson of R’ Chaim Brisker he was given that courtesy despite his departure from the norm of the Charedi world by attending a university. They saw it as a rebellion of sorts.

The discussions always involved Torah subjects. Complicated discussions always ensued. Those rabbinic figures were amazed at the Rav’s brilliance and depth of Torah knowledge in the subjects they discussed – being on par with their own. He was once asked how it was possible for him to be studying the difficult subject matter in a university towards a PhD and still be so knowledgeable in Torah? When did he have the time? He answered with the following: ‘During the time when you learn, I also learn. During the time when you talk about me, I study philosophy.’

This in a nut shell describes the attitude of a small but growing number of Charedim in Israel who support the idea of carving out some time for Limudei Chol – secular studies - in Charedi Yeshiva high schools. Yes they exist. They constitute what I call the moderate Charedim.

In America they are a majority. The vast majority of Charedim still receive a secular education through high school at least at a basic level. The quality varies from school to school but in almost all schools it exists at some level. And there are growing numbers of Charedim that take advantage of schools like Touro - getting degrees in areas that will enable them to provide a decent living for their families.

Although there is also a trend in the opposite direction here - where many of these schools are minimizing secular studies and some have even eliminated it, I don’t think this will be the final school model. As I’ve pointed out many times - the new Centrist will be a social unit comprised of the moderate Charedi and the right wing modern Orthodox Jew. They both will be meticulous in their Mitzvah observance, both have productive careers, both value learning and be Koveah Itim (sometimes with each other) both send their children to the same moderate Charedi schools …and live together in the same neighborhoods. I truly believe this is the future of mainstream Orthodoxy.

But in Israel - it is a different story. An article in Ha’aretz makes this point very clearly. Israel is a country of sharp divisions. There is nothing resembling the ‘New Centrism’ that is taking hold in America.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in Ramat Bet Shemesh – currently divided geographically - although next to each other - as well as philosophically into two distinct units: Alef and Bet. This division has resulted in some pretty hefty violence on the part of the extremist Charedim who comprise much of Bet. Not that the entire Bet is violent. But most are extremist in their view of Charedism. And some of them act violently on it.

Aleph is the more ‘normal’ of the two units. They are comprised of an extremist – if non violent -element too. But Aleph also has many moderate Charedim as well as many Daatim - the Israeli equivalent of modern Orthodox. Unlike Bet which is comprised of Edah HaCharedis type transplants from Meah Shearim Aleph is largely an English speaking enclave with many of its residents having immigrated from English speaking countries – mostly North America.

While there is a sort of uneasy truce among them – at least publicly - the extremist element still exists and has little tolerance for Daatim privately. Even among their own they look with suspicion at those Charedim who do not toe the extreme Charedi line.

If Ramat Bet Shemesh is a microcosm of the larger Charedi world in Israel, then things might be changing a bit. That is represented by a new school there that is much like the American Charedi model. They teach Limudei Chol. Their secular curriculum is up to State standards and leads to a matriculation certificate.

What is unusual about this school is that it considers itself Charedi and has Charedi standards of religiosity. However their secular curriculum is completely opposed by their religious leaders. Its religious curriculum mirrors that of most American Charedi of schools with part of their long day reserved for Limudei Chol.

That would be all well and good if they would only be left alone by the right wing busy-bodies. These are the so-called Askanim who love to stir things up. They are not the extremists of Bet. But they are in complete sympathy – stridently so - with their religious philosophy. As it pertains to how much secular education should be taught in their schools - the answer is Zero! They prevailed upon Rav Elyashiv and Rav Steinman to ban the school – forbidding Charedim to send their children there.:

In April they signed a letter prohibiting studies in the yeshiva. "The boys will be successful only if they devote themselves to Torah and piety, without any intrusion of a foreign element"

The moderate Charedim of Aleph have obviously disagreed with these venerable Gedolim and have sent then there anyway. There are a handful of other schools like that in Israel - most notably Maarava. But they are all banned by Charedi rabbinic leadership.

This phenomenon is a rebellion of the most positive kind. These people will not allow their children to grow up to be unable to make a decent living. All the haranguing by the right is not going to stop this handful of brave moderate Charedim.

It should not be lost on anyone what it means for a Charedi to defy a direct ban by people they consider the Gedolei HaDor. It is part and parcel of the Charedi mindset that one must follow the Gedolim. Not doing so can easily discredit your credentials as Charedi. And yet these brave young parents continue to insist that they are Charedi despite their obvious rebellion.

This is a good thing. Not that I support rebellion. I generally don’t. But in this case, it makes eminent sense. I don’t need to rehash all the old arguments about why secular education is important. Been there and done that. Many times! The point is that now Charedim are taking steps in that direction. The only question is how many people will join them.

For those who don’t – will it be simply because ‘the Gedolim have banned it’ – end of discussion? ...believing that eliminating all formal Limudei Chol is a good idea? Or is it the social pressure? If it is the latter there is a chance that if there is enough of a groundswell they may come around.

It is sad that it has come to this. But the continued strident opposition by Charedi Gedolim of such schools weakens their leadership and I believe actually undermine their objectives. Increasing poverty can destroy their goals of Jews as a community devoted solely to full time Torah study.

Most Charedim will unfortunately still observe the ban on this school. Probably reluctantly. “The Gedolim have spoken!’ That is enough for them. ‘They know what’s best’. I hope that they will rethink this attitude. Because no matter how much they desire their own children to be Gedolim someday, the vast majority of them won’t be.

Very few make it to the top. At most some will end up as competent Talmidei Chachamim while others will simply just ‘go with the flow’ - not succeeding in their Torah studies and end up as unproductive members of society unable to properly provide for their families. And though some will be able to find decent jobs - poverty as a whole will continue to increase. And how many will simply flounder through life not being able to learn that well and untrained to do anything else?

I hope this new school somehow catches on. If enough parents send their children it will encourage others to join them. There is strength in numbers. I hate to paraphrase Karl Marx but I think his words about the workers of the world can be applied to the Charedim of Israel: ‘Charedim of Israel -unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains’.