Thursday, April 08, 2021

It's About the Message - Not the Messenger

Satmar Rebbe of Williamsburg whose schools offer little if any secular studies
I hate this video! (See below) Even though I agree with everything it says. The idea behind what the 2 individuals in it are saying is that Jewish children deserve to have a basic secular education. I don’t see how any rational person would disagree with that. 

Except that in certain Chasidic yeshivas - and increasingly in some non Chasidic Lithuanian style yeshivas - they do disagree with it. Those schools never had and will not have a secular studies curriculum. Or they are reducing and in some cases completely eliminating their secular curriculum. 

They might make the counter claim that they are educating their students with the basics. They just define the basics differently. And that their students get many of those basics as part of their religious studies curriculum.

So if I agree with the message of this video, why do I hate it? Because it is counterproductive to what it intends to achieve. Which is to get those children the education they deserve and need in order to function in the 21st century. Especially when it comes to making a decent living. 

Those schools will argue that the intent of a Yeshiva is to educate their children religiously. And to learn as much Torah as they can - as a religious obligation. To that end they will focus entirely on religious subjects saying that in our day, there is so much to learn that even if one spends day and night studying for the rest of their lives, they will never cover it all. So that any diversion into other subjects, no matter how vital it may seem, will end up sacrificing valuable Torah study time. 

This is the Hashkafa of the Lithuanian style Yeshiva system known as the ‘Torah Only’ school of thought. They will add that the only reason they ever offered a secular curriculum was to satisfy state education requirements. They have however recently come to believe that they can get away without satisfying those requirements, As evidenced by the Chasidic schools that have been doing that for decades. 

The Chasidic school of thought is similar. Only they do not insist that one must study Torah full time. They believe in working for a living after a relatively short period of time studying Torah after marriage.  

The problem with that is that they don’t have enough education to get a job that even comes close to supporting their large families. Leading them to rely on welfare as a permanent means of supplementary income. Which has had a tendency to be abused in all too many cases. Additionally they believe that a secular studies curriculum will be a corrupting influence on their students. Fearful that they will be forced to offer studies that are anathema to their values. Like sex education that teaches about premarital birth control. Or equating gay sex prohibited buy the Torah with heterosexual sex that is permitted by the Torah.  

As I indicated, there is not the slightest doubt in my mind that the 2 people in that New York Times video are entirely correct. The students in schools that do not offer a decent secular education are being short changed. Big time. 

My problem with this video is not with the message. It is with the 2  people sending it. Let me hasten to add that it is absolutely not personal. I don't know Beatrice Weber at all.  She seems to be very sincere and I have no reason to doubt that. Chaim Levin is someone that should be somewhat familiar to long time readers here. He has gone through a lot pain in his life (incidents which are beyond the scope of this post) and has survived quite nicely - becoming a strong advocate for important causes. 

In both cases the spokesmen are renegades. Not that this should make any difference to their message. It doesn’t. But they left the communities in which they were raised. Complaints by renegades are rarely if ever given credibility when they criticize their former communities. They will always be accused of having an underlying negative agenda. Thus discounting and ignoring their message and continuing to defend those communities.- claiming that this is what they really want.

Their arguments are based on the the First Amendment right fight to teach their children religiously as they see fit. In essence denying then the education that these religious advoctes  have themselves benefitted from having attended Yeshivos that had decent secular studies curricula. Which enabled them to become the succesfull lawyers now defending those schools. Even while admitting they would never send their own children to them. 

They also argue that much of the secular curriculum deemed necessary for life in the 21st century is actually incorporated into their religious studies. Adding that if one compares the relative success in life of these Chasidim with their counterparts in public schools offer a full time secular studies curriculum – the Chasidim will always fare better. 

That may be true if one factors in the sorry state of public school education in the inner city. But if you look outside of those areas, that comparison falls flat. Given a similar study ethic, public school students as a whole will easily do better – at least in terms of their earning potential as well as understanding and executing their civic responsibilities. They are in essence fighting for the right of their religious schools to deny their students the same education that they - as religious Jews - have themselves benefitted from. Schools they freely admit they would never send their own children to.

The problem with this video is it plays right into the hands of those defending those schools. As renegades from their respective communities their credibility is rejected with claims of an underlying nefarious agenda. And that they are using the New York Times video platform to make the state enforce a newly constructed education mandate that would harm all Yeshivos. Even those with an outstanding secular curriculum. That should be fought tooth and nail. 

I agree with that. I even agree that it would be best that they put their own house in order; fix the problems internally; and to keep the government out of it. The problem is they will not do it. They have had decades to try and they ignored it because their belief system tells them to ignore it. Even as they had deceived NYSED (New York State Educataion Department) into believing they do not ignore it. 

What would instead have some real impact is if dissatisfied parents that are not renegades - and  have not left the fold made a video like this. Parents that will articulate exactly what was in the video. And include a long list of mainstream parents that agree with them – wishing to give their children an education long denied them. If enough parents sign on to this (it doesn’t have to be a majority – just a critical mass) it  will not  be ignored. Those defending those schools will not be able to say that this is what all their parents want as a religious right.  

If we could disabuse these defenders of that notion it will take the wind out of their sails. And they might realize their fight might actually be against the will of huge numbers of people from that community. People that do not want to leave their Chasidus. But  that do want their children to be educated. 

Sadly this is very unlikely to happen. Parents fear being ostracized if they express views contrary to the long held traditions of their Chasidus. Which is constantly being reinforced by their educators and rabbinic leadership (Chasidic Rebbes). 

Fear is a strong motivator. So the fight goes on, and their children will suffer the consequences.