Wednesday, March 05, 2008

A Moderate Rebellion

Are the Charedim in Israel going to be able to survive within the confines of the overly insulated strictures mandated for them? I think that the answer to this may in fact be yes, they will. Not by adhering to these strictures - at least not all of them - but in the breach of many of them. And there is increasing evidence that Charedim are now more than ever clandestinely violating those rules.

I’m not talking about dropouts. I’m not even talking about dropping Charedism. I believe that most Charedim still embrace its basic ideals and lifestyle. But they are beginning to realize that not everything is as black and white as they have been led to believe.

One of my biggest problems with the Charedi world in Israel is their attitude about secular education for men beyond the eighth grade. It is practically non-existent. But it is not forgotten.

The most recent manifestation of this is in the clandestine study of the English language. An article in Ha’artez demonstrates both the taboo of studying the English language and at the same time the realization by many in the Charedi world about its importance. To put it the way the article does:

"There's an awareness now of the importance of knowing another language," says S., an English teacher from Jerusalem. "Parents who don't know English want to give their children the tools they themselves never had, because you never know where life can lead you. They understand that a basic knowledge of English is no longer sufficient and that one must have a rich vocabulary and a reasonable level of conversational ability."

Charedim are now going to English classes in secret. They do so because they realize the need. And they hide it because they want to remain members in good standing in a community whose rabbis have forbidden its study at least for men.

One might ask, why should English be a forbidden study? Is this in fact the case? If so what’s the problem? Why the fear in being exposed as studying the English language?

Here is an excerpt that attempts to explain:

It might be because the study of English is associated with the strict prohibition against the study of foreign languages (except for Yiddish), imposed on Jerusalem's Ashkenazi community 150 years ago. The Haredi ambivalence toward the study of foreign languages is strongest in Jerusalem.

The rabbis realized long ago that a language is not just a means of communication, it is the ticket to the wider world. The prohibition was aimed at creating a mental barrier to secularism and assimilation. During the Enlightenment, many yeshiva students broke through this barrier. That is one of the reasons for the ban issued in Jerusalem in the second half of the 19th century… The ban was intensified periodically, whenever the rabbis sensed a growing threat to their community. During the British Mandate, for example, the ban was tightened due to the fear of teenage girls talking with British soldiers.

I understand these fears. None of us want our children to be exposed to negative influences. That’s why the Charedi world is so insular. But even if that is the reason for their insularity, it should not be good enough. That’s because it denies them the ability to communicate in what is increasingly becoming the common language of the civilized world. I’ve written about this and my love affair with the English language before.

It’s also a fact that knowing only Lashon HaKodesh won’t protect you from going off the Derech anyway. You don’t have to know English to do that.

It is just as ridiculous to forbid the study of a language out of fear that it may take one off the Derech as it is to forbid eating a candy bar because it might lead to obesity. One has to look at the cost-benefit ratio of whatever one attempts to do in life. Everything anyone does that has any benefit to it has an element of risk attached. If one were to deny all things that have any risk at all attached, no matter how small, there would be no progress… Even learning Torah has its risks: There are many ways of misunderstanding it and misusing Torah knowledge.

I’m sorry that there is so much fear about learning the English language. The taboo in Israel against the learning the English language seems to be so great that its discovery may lead to Shiddach problems. But I am nevertheless glad to see this kind of rebellion taking place. Because I believe that this is the only kind of moderate rebellion that will save Charedism from itself.