When I think of the role that Charedim play in the Jewish nation, my best analogy is unfortunately treif – the oyster and its pearl.
On the one hand, I see Charedim as the oyster – the carriers of our most precious national treasure, the Torah, and the guardians of its authentic transmission from generation to generation amidst the swirling vicissitudes of ever-changing post-modern culture.
On the other, I see Charedim as the pearl itself in so far that the real essence and value of Charedi life is on the inside. The media seem to get Charedim very wrong with too much focus on the outer material trappings, the oyster’s unglamorous external shell, to further the analogy. The true beauty of Charedi life can be found in their inner spiritual world which is hard to understand or value without actually participating in that world. I myself have only been blessed with a partial exposure, but that exposure has shown me a very different insight than the one which I would otherwise have obtained from the media.
That is not to idealise the Charedi world as perfect – Charedim are still very much human beings like the rest of us with our foibles and flaws. It is also not to portray the Charedi sector as uniform – any words that describe Charedim as a whole are by their nature an over-generalisation given the diversity in the Charedi world. And nor is it to imagine the Charedi world as static and unchanging – all the time, change is happening, but it is happening in the inner spiritual domain far earlier and to a much larger extent than in the outer material world.
Many non-Charedi Israelis these days seem to be outraged with Charedim on various fronts. Two I would like to address in this blogpost and the next are the exemption from military service for those in full-time Torah study and the content of Charedi education. I will start with the latter, providing a perspective, and then making a modest suggestion.
By way of background, I am a non-Charedi ba’al teshuva who has experienced some of the very best that secular education has to offer in the UK and Europe through elementary and high school as well as in undergraduate- and graduate-level tertiary education. (Thanks go fully to my parents, and also to Hashem who decided it would be like this – I take no credit at all.) Nonetheless, we have chosen, in several countries, to send our children to Charedi/Torani over secular and mamlachti dati (MM”D) schools. The point of this blogpost is not to disparage in any way secular or MM”D schools – they may be the right choice for many families – but rather to defend the reputation of Charedi learning.
In my experience so far, for our children, the main advantages of a Charedi over secular education have been threefold:
- Identity – Charedi education provides a strong sense of what it truly means to be Jewish in an otherwise confusing world in which an unstated universalising ideology tries to suppress distinctiveness and diversity. As a result, our children are passionate in their learning with high levels of motivation. They have high levels of comfort, appreciation and healthy pride in all the ‘fun little quirks’, and increasingly also, the deeper meaning, of what it means to be Jewish and observant, while having the broadmindedness to accept that non-Jews, and non-religious friends and relatives, may not act or feel the same way.
- Values – Charedi education is inherently values-based. It does not strive to pass on an unstated post-modern ideology of truth-subjectiveness. It teaches clearly that certain values and character traits are objectively good – being thankful, performing acts of kindness, humility, giving charity, loving and helping your fellow, giving your best, not giving up, accepting setbacks and bouncing back, etc. This is great for character, although like all children, ours still have their moments (and I wouldn’t want it any other way). Reading the media, one might think that Charedi education is big on scriptural minutiae and small on values, but that is very much not the case.
- Thinking – our children have been taught how to think, more sharply, and much earlier, than in the secular education I experienced. Critical thinking skills they have learned include the ability to articulate questions, the confidence to speak up with them, and the dignity they receive because those questions are taken seriously by their learned teachers; also the capacity to listen and to process answers, and the all-too-rare willingness to live with cognitive dissonance, i.e. to be able to weigh up two contrasting opinions, not only to decide between them, but to also accept the truth in both (‘these and these are the words of the living G-d’). Reading media coverage on Charedi education, I would not have sensed this even in the slightest.
What seems to me to be misguided in the criticisms of Charedi education concern underlying assumptions firstly about relevance and secondly about directedness.
It seems to be assumed by the critics that certain subjects are more relevant to the child than Torah learning. In my own secular studies, through elementary and high school, and even during under-graduate and graduate studies, I can say that less than 5% of the content matter is now relevant to me today. The capacity to think is much more important, and this has been the real driver for me of on-the-job learning throughout my professional career, including learning new techniques, adapting new skills, and becoming proficient in new technologies. Teach a child to think critically and they can master anything quickly. Unfortunately secular critics seem to equate critical thinking with the tendency to disrespect the old and bring in the new – in this line of thought, Charedim cannot be critical thinkers and still accept the yoke of the Torah and its commandments or the leadership of the Rabbis.
This, in my experience, is not the case – critical thinking complements respect for Torah and the Rabbis because it is Torah and the Rabbis that impart the skills for critical thinking in the first place. Remember with modest pride, ours is a culture that delivered universal primary education nearly 2,000 years before any other nation, and the very person who drove that outcome served as the Kohen Gadol (the High Priest) at the Temple in Jerusalem.
I can also say that many of the talmidei chachamim I have been privileged to engage with can (much) more than hold their own with me when debating issues and ideas, not only on directly Torah topics but in all kinds of areas. This is not because they had a superior education than my own (at least as measured in secular terms). Rather, it is because they have engaged in critical thinking from an earlier age and much more intensively and consistently throughout their lives.
It also seems to be assumed by the critics that in order to make useful contributions to society, one needs to educate children directly in those subjects they will need when they grow up. In fact, Torah covers everything. Torah is life, the universe, and everything in the realm of materiality and spirituality. There is scarcely any subject not in some way imparted through the study of Torah.
What are the challenges? In my view, the challenge is not too much but too little Torah.
What do I mean? The government has a core curriculum that it requires schools to fulfil. In the Charedi/Torani world, these curriculum subjects are known as ‘limudei chol’, secular studies. It means language, mathematics, and some science-based learning.
The paradox is that language, mathematics and science are all integral to learning Torah. However, in the Charedi world they are treated as something external and imposed. And that is because they are external and imposed.
In the Charedi world, Torah learning has to be ‘lishmah’, for its own sake. The challenge with the core curriculum is that it is required, not for the sake of Torah, but for other purposes.
However, the core curriculum subjects could just as easily be taught ‘lishmah’, for the sake of Torah learning. And they should be.
Who can understand the hermeneutic principles used to analyse Torah without advanced linguistics?
Who can evaluate the myriad complex Torah laws of agriculture without knowledge of natural science?
Who can rebuild the Beit HaMikdash, may it happen soon, without applied mathematics and engineering?
For those who are worried about Charedi gainful employment and contribution to the nation, I say this: teach someone to analyse Torah and they would have no problem quickly learning how to analyse balance sheets, financial reports and legal disclosures; teach someone to manage fulfilment of the Torah laws of agriculture and they would have no problem quickly learning how to manage farms, the environment and water resources; and teach someone how they would go about rebuilding the Beit HaMikdash and they would have no problem quickly learning how to design and build cities and infrastructure.
So my modest suggestion – let us consider redefining in the Charedi sector the teaching of the ‘core curriculum’ as another dimension of teaching Torah ‘lishmah’. This should have the intent that it would actually promote analysis of Torah, application of the Torah laws of agriculture, and the rebuilding of the Beit HaMikdash, among others. Importantly, also ‘Torah lishmah’, it should have the intent to bring the flowering of Torah throughout every aspect of our lives, breaking down the barriers between ‘kodesh’ and ‘chol’, so that, as the Prophet says, ‘the earth will be filled with knowledge of the Glory of G-d as the waters cover the sea’.