Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Rav Aharon Feldman’s Lament

R' Aharon Feldman, Rosh HaYeshiva - Ner Israel
Yesterday I had the unfortunate experience of listening to Rav Aharon Feldman’s condemnation of Rabbi Dov Lipman. Rabbi Lipman received his rabbinic ordination from Ner Israel in Baltimore, the Yeshiva which R’ Feldman now heads.

I was terribly pained by what I heard since I consider Rabbi Lipman a courageous man – a hero who as a self described Charedi – nevertheless stood up for a little girl from a Dati Leumi/Religious Zionist family in Israel that was spat upon and called a whore by extremist Meah Shearim type residents of Bet Shemesh.

This did not go unnoticed by the media – and more importantly by an upstart politician by the name of Yair Lapid. He asked Rabbi Lipman to join his newly formed party, Yesh Atid. Rabbi Lipman accepted. He is now a member of the Israeli Knesset.

What is Rabbi Lipman’s sin? It is his position on Limudei Chol (secular studies) for Charedim. He said in an interview that if it were up to him, he would close down any Charedi school that does not offer a basic core curriculum of secular studies.*

If one listens to Rav Feldman’s recorded words (available below) one can hear the pain in his voice. I can understand why someone so married to the system of Charedi education in Israel might feel pain about this. Charedim do not believe in providing secular education of any kind in their schools for their male students beyond 8th grade. Even in elementary schools the only secular education students get is basic arithmetic and Hebrew grammar.

What I do not understand is the harshness of his condemnation. Disagreement?  Yes. But condemnation??!

Rabbi Dov Lipman, MK
It isn’t only that he was condemned.  The words used by R’ Feldman are among the most hurtful a religious Jew educated in a yeshiva could hear. He called Rabbi Lipman a Shana U’Porush! This epithet is usually reserved for people who have learned Torah, understand it, but nevertheless reject its teachings. He also called him a Rasha. The word Rasha is usually reserved for people who try to destroy Judaism. As in Haman HaRasha in the Book of Esther.

Coming from a man who heads a Yeshiva that facilitates their students to go to college while attending their school – it is a bit surprising to hear this. But not entirely.

A few years ago, I think it was at a Torah U’Mesorah convention, Rav Feldman was challenged to defend his Yeshiva’s policy of having a secular studies program and having all kinds of relationships with local universities so that Ner Israel students can attend them and get legitimate degrees efficiently.

Rav Feldman defended his Yeshiva. But in the process he lamented the fact that Yeshivos in the United States do not have a track that allows exceptional students to skip all secular studies. He pointed to his own grandson in Israel who in high school mastered all of the Tosophos in Meseches Kesuvos learning them by heart at age 16. He ended by claiming it is therefore unlikely for America to produce someone like his grandson in high school.

Rav Feldman had made Aliyah many years ago and his years in Israel surely influenced him. He has obviously adopted the Israeli Charedi paradigm of high school education as the optimum one. This - even though he presides over a Yeshiva with a reputation of excellence in secular studies, and the fact that he was himself an exceptional student of Limudei Chol growing up in Baltimore. (I wonder if he now regrets the time ‘wasted’ on Limudei Chol? I doubt it.)

To his credit, Telshe Rosh HaYeshiva, Rav A.C. Levine, responded to him and stood up for secular studies in high school. Telshe, he said, has always had a policy of including secular studies all the way back to its founding in Europe. He then challenged anyone to say that his Bachurim in Telshe were any less Talmidei Chachamim because they studied Limudei Chol in high school.

I doubt that R’ Feldman would call R’ Levine a Shana U’Porush or Rasha even though his Yeshiva, Telshe, is exactly the paradigm Rabbi Lipman has called for in Israel. This is something I have called for too. (I guess that makes me a Rasha too.)

That said, I do not agree with Rabbi Lipman*. I would not close down Yeshivos if they did not offer any secular studies. But I would not necessarily fund them with taxpayer money either. The point is that not only is Rabbi Lipman not a Shana U’Porush and Rasha, he is a man who is consistent in his views that the Charedi educational paradigm must change for the good of the country and the good of the Charedi world in Israel.

Rabbi Lipman is L’Shma. There is no doubt about that in my mind. This is a man of character who is now being vilified for his beliefs. Beliefs based on the very same Torah R’ Feldman believes in. Rabbi Lipman does not want to destroy the Torah community. He wants to save it! Does he deserve to be called a Rasha for that – even if Rav Feldman believes he is wrong? It continues to be difficult for me to understand the level of animosity toward those who suggest even the slightest implementation of secular studies into the Charedi school curriculum.

As if to add insult to injury, the American Agudah has called for a day of prayer – protesting any change in the curriculum of the Charedi schools in Israel; and protesting the proposed budget cuts to the Charedi world. The American Agudah is comprised of many Roshei Yeshiva that have the very same curricula that they protest being added to Charedi schools in Israel!

I can understand that they sympathize with Israeli rabbinic leadership on this issue – even if they do not abide by that standard for themselves. But to pray that their own educational system not be implemented is praying against something they believe in! Would not Rav A.C. Levin not make the same argument for students in Israel that he made for his own students?

One might answer that Israel has its own standards and that asking them to reduce the time they spend on Limudei Kodesh is ultimately wrong in a world where 'Torah Only' is touted as the best way for a Jew to live. As legitimate as Limudei Chol is, it should never replace Torah study already in place. But if that is true, then Telshe should have as its goal to eventually wean their students entirely off any secular subjects. I do not think that is going to happen.

Rav Feldman says that Rabbi Lipman’s claim that he learned his Hashkafos in Ner Yisroel from the Rosh HaYeshiva, Rav Yaakov Weinberg – is false. That R’ Weinberg would have never approved of someone threatening to close down a Charedi school in Israel. I’m sure that’s true. But I also doubt that R’ Feldman’s Hashkafos are the same as  R’ Weinberg’s.

That Rabbi Lipman advocated closing schools* is just an extension of beliefs learned in a Yeshiva that values secular education. He did not depart from the Torah’s ways and he is not a Rasha for trying to implement educational policies based on his Hashkafos. I only wish Rav Feldman would recognize that.

Click here for download of audio (From Matzav - approximately 4 minutes)

Rabbi Lipman has clarified his position today in the Baltimore Jewish Life. He was misquoted. Here is what he actually said:
The Israeli government should not fund institutions which don't teach basic math and English.  Yeshivos which don't do so will not be closed down but they won't receive government funding.  It should be pointed out that there are numerous yeshivos which already take zero government money and continue to flourish.
Not a bit surprising.