Sunday, January 07, 2018

Secular Studies and Chasidim

Young Satmar Chasidim in Kiryas Joel
The lack of any realistic secular studies (Limudei Chol) program in most Chasidic schools is one of the more serious issues facing Orthodox Jewry. Serious because it affects not only the huge number of Chasidim themselves. But because it effects all of us one way or another. There has been a lot of ink spilled on this subject - some of it by me.

Some defend the right of  Chasidim to educate their young in any way they see fit as a matter of religious freedom. If as a religious principle they do not value a secular curriculum, they should not be forced to offer one.

On the other hand there are those like myself who believe that they are seriously shortchanging their young by refusing to educate them in basic secular subjects which in no way contradicts the Torah. Nowhere in the Torah or its commentaries does it say that Limudei Chol is forbidden.

While I have no conclusive proof that they are hurting their young with this attitude, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that they are. This policy has been in effect for well over a generation. That has produced a welfare class of unprecedented proportion. A class that is encouraged to take advantage of the welfare system to the max as means of financial support. Which all too often invites crossing the line into fraud. 

Aside from that - there is the massive number of Meshulachim that visit shuls on an almost daily basis – sometimes as many as 6 or 7 at a time - asking for charity. They are not all from the same location. Nor do they even know each other. Some are from cities in the US (mostly on the east coast) and some are from Israel. But most of them do have one thing in common. They tend to be Chasidim.

I do not doubt for a minute that they need the money. These are not rich people deceiving everyone. Most are as needy as they say they are. Many of them have large families to support and weddings to make. But it seems that asking for charity has become a profession for them. It is their job - their  Paranasa.

It is true that Chasidim do work and do not buy into the ideology that all men must stay in Kollel for as long as possible  The problem is that because of their lack of a basic education, good jobs are not  all that available to them. Unless one is somehow a talented businessman with an innate ability to understand how to succeed in business (even without a good secular education - and there are more than a few Chasidim like that like the always mentioned owners of B&H) most Chasidim have to settle for low paying jobs. When collecting charity becomes more profitable than working for a living, who can blame them for choosing the path of Meshulachim - even if it is an undignified way to make a living? 

Let me hasten to add that some Meshulachim are legitimately in need for specific reasons (e.g. the serious illness of a child) and are not doing it for a living. But I do believe far too many of them are. 

While the focus of late has been in Chasidic enclaves in the United States, the JC reports that the same kind of thing is happening in the Chasidic enclaves of England.

Why is there so much resistance by these Chasidic groups to a basic secular curriculum? Most non Chasidic Yeshivas offer it.Some better than others - but the vast majority offer something. Why are Chasidim so stubborn about it?

I can only speculate about the reason. But I think it has something to do with not trusting the government. Which stems from a long history in Europe where governments treated Jews badly. It is no secret that European countries like Russia and  Poland have long histories of antisemitism (which still exists as far as I am concerned - albeit more subtlely). Jews were consistently persecuted. 

While religious Jews of all stripes were persecuted in Europe, it seems that Chasidm internalized it more. An internalization they brought with them when they immigrated en masse to the US after the Holocaust. I believe that this attitude still exists – albeit somewhat less than it did in Europe. I think they still see the government as the enemy of Judaism. As such anything the government tries to do they see as undermining it. In their mind they are still fighting the battles of European antisemitism.

Chasidic leaders and their followers understand that America is different… and that they have political clout here that did not exist in Europe. To that extent they will exercise their clout in the form of block voting. Especially in local elections where their numbers count more. They will generally deal respectfully with politicians that visit them. But in their heart of hearts they still see the government as an anti Torah force to be fought with all their might. No matter how beneficial to them government intentions really are, they simply don't believe them. They see 'shmad' - government attempts to disabuse them of their religious beliefs and practices.

It is my considered opinion that this attitude and the political clout they carry is why they still do not offer a secular studies program… and why their resistance has met with success thus far.

I therefore do not see much change happening. The aforementioned dynamics will simply not allow for it. Which in my mind translates to an increasing welfare dependency which statistically means an increasing level of fraud. It will also likely mean an increasing number of Meshulachim seeking charity as a means of making a living.

This is how I see things now. How long will this system be sustainable? Is it a matter of time? Will the system collapse of it’s own weight when even an honest use of the welfare system is no longer enough?And there are even more Meshulachim visiting Shuls on a daily basis? Who knows…