Monday, May 11, 2015

If Only...

R' Yoshe Ber Soloveitchik - A Gadol in Torah and Mada
As if to underscore the value of a secular education to Orthodox Jews, I received the following note from a non Jew who is apparently familiar with the US intelligence community. He happened to read yesterday’s post about Jewish education. Here in pertinent part is what he said: 
A surprisingly large number of intelligence analysts are Jewish. (This may be due to the increasing technical complexity of this field.) Among those , we have a significant number who are Orthodox Jews. This week I was in Los Angeles. One of our radar surveillance experts is Orthodox. I visited his home and met his wife and children. His children go to a Orthodox day school: Yeshiva Aharon Yaakov-Ohr Eliyahu. There, their  very long day is split between Hebrew and religious studies and secular topics. The secular part of the curriculum is vigorous and would match any private school.  The religious studies part also seems to be quite intense. They have a lot of homework at night. I met the principal, Rabbi Goldberg. I was impressed. If this school is typical of Jewish  religious schools, then you have nothing to worry about. 
It is a matter of great pride for me to see how Jews – especially Orthodox Jews treat education. We obviously place great value on it. And education like the one at this particular school is evidence of that.

Now I don’t know anything about Yeshiva Aharon Yaakov-Ohr Eliyahu. But based on this gentleman’s observation, I surmise that it is a Centrist or Modern Orthodox Yeshiva high school. This is the kind of school that would bring great benefit to the Charedim in Israel. The tools gained in the study of Gemarah are an advantage that non Jews and secular Jews do not have. And when that is combined with an intensive secular studies program, the fruits are on display for the entire world to see. And that is a Kiddush HaShem.

Of course no one is suggesting that Charedim in Israel would ever consider having Yeshiva high schools with intensive secular studies. Even in the unlikely event that they would ever agree to a core curriculum - they would never go that far because in their view it would take away too much time from Limudei Kodesh. But imagine what life would be like for Charedim in Israel if they did. The possibilities are unlimited. Charedim would be the envy of the secular world. At least as far as academic achievement and job prospects are concerned (if not lifestyle).  Aside from the primary and obvious benefit of substantially  bettering their material welfare, the outreach potential is huge. Beyond anything we could ever imagine.

The counter to this by the right might be that such intensive study would dilute the quantity and quality of Torah study. That would seem to be obvious. The less time you spend studying Torah the less you know. How are you ever going to produce Gedolei Yisroel?

To me the answer to that is also obvious. (Although I’m sure that most Charedim would reject the following anecdotal analogy – if only for Hashkafic reasons.) 

Truly great minds in Torah can handle greatness in Mada as well. One has to look no further than Rav Yoshe Ber Soloveitchik.  I saw it in a documentary about him. When as a young man Rav Soloveitechik went off to study at the University of Berlin to eventually get his PhD in Philosophy -as a scion of the great Brisker dynasty he used to get visits from a variety of the great European Gedolim. They obviously disapproved of his educational choice. Going to University in those days was considered near blasphemy because of all the Apikursus taught there; the anti Torah environment; and the fact that it took away too much time from Torah study. Very few Orthodox Jews went to college in those days.

During the course of those visits they would eventually engage in discussions of Torah. Those Gedolim were shocked at the breadth and depth of Rav Soloveitchik’s Torah knowledge. They asked him how he had the time to study Torah to the extent that he had so much knowledge of it? Rav Soloveitchik answered answered that he studied Torah the same time they studied Torah.  When they spent time speaking Lashon Hara about him, he spent that time studying philosophy.

The point of this somewhat humorous anecdote is not that he studied only when they were speaking Lashon Hara about him. That’s as ridiculous as the popular urban legend that the Vilna Goan only studied Mada in the bathroom. Rav Soloveitchik’s point was that this is how he spent his leisure time away from Torah studies – leisure time that a every human being needs to be able to relax and refresh himself.

Even if the right were to concede this point, they might still argue that there aren’t too Rav Soloveitciks around that could master both Torah and Mada. To that I would say yes, They are right. But how many Gedolim are there anyway? How many can master even the Torah they spend studying 24/7? Not too many to say the least.

The point being that not everyone can be a Gadol. And in my humble opinion, not everyone should try. The best use of anyone’s time in the goal of serving God is to use his own God given talents in that regard. And not everyone has the same talents. That’s why some people are artists and some are mathematicians.  Some are brains surgeons and some are great literary figures. Some are computer geniuses and others are great mechanical engineers. Some are great Talmidei Chachamim and some are great Outreach people. Everyone has a unique talents that should be exploited for the sake of God and man… and not sublimated to a singular goal which is the same for everyone. Because that is what causes dysfunction.

We Jews have a great education ethic. It ought not to be squandered in pursuit of the unattainable. How does this relate to the Israeli Charedi ethic of full time Torah study in perpetuity to the exclusion of all else?  All you have to do is look at their situation right now. The answer is self evident. Wouldn’t it be advisable to pursue a multi track program where Limudei Kodesh is an integral part of everyone’s education but where those students better suited to other pursuits are given opportunities to pursue them too?

I know this is a pipe dream for Israel… and increasingly so even in some American Yeshivos who look Eastward for Hashkafic guidance. So the idea of a great academic program to go side by side with a great Limudei Kodesh program will not happen anytime soon in any Charedi Yeshiva even in the US.

But at the very least they should not force everyone into the same box. That in my view can have devastating results.  Results we see in the increasing numbers of those dropping out of observance and worse. Dropouts that have occurred because they were never given an opportunity to find themselves utilizing their God given talents in other fields. And instead were forced into classroom situations where they could not possibly compete or even function. Is this the future we want? Are we that willing to pursue the present Charedi paradigm even at this great cost? Judging by the way Charedim on both sides of the ocean seem to be going, I guess the answer is yes.