Monday, January 13, 2014

Are the Draft and Secular Education Really Anti Charedi?

There is a concept in Judaism that tells us that each generation is weaker than the last. What that means is that previous generations were much wiser about Judaism since they were closer to the original Mesorah given to Moshe at Sinai.

I believe that is certainly the case today. In my view - previous generations of Gedolim were far more cognizant of what Judaism entails than today’s rabbinic leaders. This does not mean that we don’t have an obligation to respect the views of today’s leaders. But it does mean the previous generation had a leg up on today’s generation.

Which brings me to the Chazon Ish,  Ben Gurion, and the Agudah of the early days of Israeli statehood. They made public policy decisions then that – were they to be followed today, there would be no animosity against what the Israeli government wants to do for them with respect to serving their country or in better educating their masses.

I was recently forwarded a document from 1947. It is a call by the Agudah for all Charedi residents of Jerusalem  age 17 to 25 to serve their country. It is based on assurances that all concerns of the Charedi community are met with respect to issues of Kashrus, Shabbos and a general religious atmosphere.

I don’t know if this was ever carried out. I tend to doubt it. Perhaps because their assurances were never fulfilled. Or perhaps because the subsequent agreement between the Chazon Ish and Ben Gurion where Charedim in Yeshivos would be exempt from service (called the status quo). But the clear point to be made here is that in theory the Charedi world saw no problem with Charedim serving their country provided their religious sensitivities were respected.

(Of course this call by Agudah exempted women. In my view a wise decision irrespective of religious reasons. I do not believe men and women should serve together in the armed services of any country for many reasons that are beyond the scope of this essay. But for men? No problem at all.)

Well now 66 years later, the government is again trying to equalize the burden of service upon all of its citizens. This is something I support.  They have once again promised to accommodate the religious sensibilities of Charedim. But the reaction to this in the Charedi world is evident almost every day  via the hateful rhetoric of Charedi politicians and even some Charedi rabbinic leaders. They treat it like Shmad – forced conversion to another religion. And compare government officials to the Czar of Russia or worse.

Interestingly even moderate Charedim some of whom actually served  are opposed to it because they see it as financially unviable for the government to accommodate the masses of Charedim that will be drafted. Which I believe erroneously leads them to conclude an ulterior motive of assimilating Charedim out of Charedism or worse – out of observance. 

I understand their concern and their rationale for it. But I do not agree. That’s because the government promised to try accommodate their concerns. It ought to be given a chance and not automatically be opposed, at least in theory. The focus ought to instead be on making sure that the government keeps its promises and work towards that goal.  

Some may argue that things are different now than they were then... that now the situation is much worse and the draft must therefore be fought with vigor. I think they are right about one thing. Things are different now. But not in the way they are saying. Things are different in the sense that much as it would like to, the government is no longer set on using the army for its melting pot assimilationist purposes. They have proven that by creating Nachal Charedi.  And they have promised to apply the same type of accommodation in drafting the Charedi masses.

Another thing that is being fiercely opposed by today’s rabbinic leaders is Limudei Chol – secular education. They insist that their high school students study Torah only. They therefore consider any attempt by the government to implement a core secular curriculum that includes subjects like, Hebrew language, history and science as Shmad.  Just as it was considered Shmad when the Czar tired to do it in Russia over 100 years ago.

But the previous generation of Gedolim didn’t think implanting secular studies was Shamd. They actually approved of the government doing so. What kind of Gadol approved of it? Try the Chazon Ish. A core curriculum was in fact part of the original status quo agreement. From Rafi’s Life in Israel blog: 
Education: complete autonomy of each education system will be guaranteed (as an aside, this arrangement is already in place between the Zionist Agency and Knesset Israel even now) and the government will not violate the religious status and religious conscience of any group of Jews. The State, of course, will determine the minimum obligatory courses, Hebrew language, history, science, etc. and will supervise compliance with this minimum, but it will give full freedom to every stream to manage education as  it sees fit, and will stay away from encroaching on their religious conscience. 
I have also noted in the past that even a Gadol such as Rav Yosef Chaim  Sonnenfeld permitted Rabbi Dr. Shmuel Auerbach (no relation to the current rabbinic leader by the same name) to establish - in the Yishuv HaYashan - schools with a core secular curriculum in order to counter the secular schools that were being established then. He feared that those schools would attract parents whose children would then be indoctrinated to abandon their religious beliefs and observances.

Today’s Charedi rabbinic leaders see only red at the mere mention of Limudei Chol. They consider it an encroachment on their rights to teach their children as they see fit.

Really? The Chzaon Ish didn’t think so. Rav Yosef Chaim didn’t think so. As long as these schools are given complete autonomy to teach their own Hashkafos – a core curriculum as mandated by the government was not seen as a problem.

I don’t know how this current cultural conflict will end. But if you look at how the great historical figures treated these two issues and combine that with the common sense approach that the rest of the observant world has about them today, I don’t see how they can possibly make any rational argument to support their cause.