What does burying the dead have to do with raising reading scores in public schools?
A bill now before the New York State Legislature would strip away the powers of the elected members of Rockland County’s East Ramapo Central School District Board of Education and hand those powers to a state-selected outside monitor. The district’s board is made up of nine members, seven of whom are charedi.
What prompted the bill was a report issued by the New York State Board of Education, based on the findings of an appointed fiscal monitor, Henry M. “Hank” Greenberg.
What Greenberg found was horrifying.
The Ramapo district is home to 33,000 children of school age. Of that number, 9,000 students — most of whom are Latino, black, or Haitian — attend public schools. Nearly all of the remaining 24,000 students attend “private schools,” which in the district’s case is a euphemism for a network of 60 yeshivot.
By virtually every educational measure Greenberg used, the East Ramapo district does not measure up, only down. For example, 46 percent of the 33,000 students in grades three through eight registered “well below proficient” in reading skills, while 38 percent were merely “below proficient.” Only 14 percent were “proficient” and only 2 percent fell under the “excels in standards” column.
In math, 55 percent of all students in grades three through eight were “well below proficient,” while 32 percent were merely “below proficient.”
If someone needs it to be spelled out, this means that in East Ramapo, 85 percent of children in grades three through eight are incapable of simple arithmetic computations.
As to why, “Beginning in 2009, [the] Board made draconian spending cuts to public school programs and services in order to balance its budgets.” Then, after cutting teachers, assistant teachers, administrators, social workers, and guidance counselors, and putting a freeze on the purchase of new books, equipment, and supplies, the board diverted much of the savings to the yeshivot.
“Most disturbing,” as Greenberg put it, the “Board appears to favor the interests of private schools over public schools.”
That brings us to what burying the dead has to do with raising reading scores in public schools.
In the Babylonian Talmud tractate Gittin (61a), we are taught:
We provide support for the poor of the non-Jews along with the poor of Israel, and visit the sick of the non-Jews along with the sick of Israel, and bury the dead of the non-Jews along with the dead of Israel, in accord with the Ways of Peace (darchei shalom).
In other words, you might think that Jews need to be concerned only about other Jews and their needs, but in order to live in peace with our non-Jewish neighbors, the Talmud says in Gittin, we do for them what we would do for our own.
There is nothing peaceful about the East Ramapo situation, however. Meetings of the school board “tend to degenerate into verbal brawls,” Greenberg wrote.
The excerpt from Gittin seems to imply, however, that we need to be concerned with the needs of the non-Jew only if not doing so could have disastrous consequences.
That indeed was the world in which the early Sages lived. Anti-Jewish riots — often with fatal results — were not uncommon, and the slightest slight could set them off.
By the close of the talmudic period, however, meaning around the year 600, things had improved somewhat, and halachic rulings reflected that. For example, Jewish physicians were told they had to heal all who were ill, without distinction, and they could not charge a fee if their patients were poor.
Jewish communities established norms of behavior that included visiting anyone who was ill, Jew or non-Jew, and giving charity to everyone in need. They also established communal philanthropies, and some of those funds went to support the needs of the general non-Jewish community.
Darchei shalom, the path of peace, was no longer the motivator; darchei Torah, the ways of the Torah, was. In his commentary to BT Bava Kamma 37b, the 13th century French scholar and author Menachem Meiri explained as much:
The “double standard” approach implied in the Gittin excerpt above and elsewhere (including in a passage further down) in the early stages of talmudic development referred, he said, “specifically to the nations that are not constrained by the ways of religion and morals,” which is another way of saying they do not obey the so-called Seven Noahide Commandments.
However, the Meiri said, “whenever they [the non-Jews] do observe these seven mitzvot, their legal status with respect to us is the same as our legal status with respect to them, and we must not favor ourselves in matters of law. And given this is the case, it goes without saying that this [equality] holds true for the people constrained by the ways of religion and morals.”
Understand what the Meiri is saying: non-Jews may be righteous, in part, because of their beliefs, not in spite of them.
That was revolutionary.
Rabbi Yaakov Emden (1697-1776) went even further. The Talmud, he noted, said that despite black-letter Torah law that required that all lost objects had to be returned to their owners, a Jew could keep an object a non-Jew lost. Emden explained:
“The Israelite was not obliged to restore the lost object of the non-Jew because the non-Jew, too, did not return the Israelite’s lost article. But this only applies to those nations that knew no Creator or Torah, meaning, they had nothing in common with us. However, it is long known that the present day nations who believe in the principles of the Torah” — meaning Christians and Muslims — “cannot be regarded as strangers by us.”
Clearly, then, in addition to being a Chilul Hashem, a desecration of God’s holy name, what is going on in Ramapo violates everything the Torah — and the Judaism that flows from it — stands for.
What makes it worse is that the people doing this proclaim loudly that they are the only authentic Jews because they practice Judaism as God intended.