Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Prof. Sam: Academic Pundit

For Haredim, the Bible is AWOL

When talking about Haredi education, the controversy almost always revolves around the lack of core subjects in their curriculum. But there’s another critical issue that has as much real-world consequence: above the earliest grades, teaching the Bible (Tanakh) simply doesn’t exist! And this impacts Israeli society in general, not just the Haredim.

Before explaining how this educational “hole” impacts their behavior in the contemporary world, it’s worth understanding how and why this came about. Biblical Judaism is Temple and Sacrifice oriented. There are no other houses of worship; communal prayer is likewise nowhere to be seen. Indeed, despite the exhortatory injunction to teach one’s children (ושִנַנְתֶם לבניך), amazingly there is not one example in the entire Bible of parents teaching anything to their children!

As best as scholars can tell, educational “institutions” do begin to emerge after the return from Babylonian exile, under Ezra. By the time of the first century CE we find the schools of Hillel and Shammai. For the Jewish masses, though, the Temple cult continued to be the center of their religious experience – until 68 CE. From then onwards, the Rabbis (even that “term” was a recent invention then) turned all their energies to the study of Jewish law. However, given the radically different situation the Jews found themselves in – no political sovereignty, no Temple, competing with a new religion (Christianity) that viewed the Hebrew Bible as “theirs” too – the Rabbis responded with a truly revolutionary approach: from the time of Moses (!?!) the Written Law (Torah) was supplemented by an Oral Law that “interpreted and explained” the “true” meaning of the Bible’s text.

Let it be immediately said that this was a brilliant move, for how else could the Rabbis “modernize” the Torah to make it relevant to the very new situation in which the Jewish People found themselves? Nor did they hide this “ploy”: they story of Akhnai’s oven makes this point clearly when the Rabbis actually tell God to “stay out of their Jewish Law rulings” (Bava Metziah 59ab).  And so, over the next several centuries, the Talmud emerged – a huge, original, fantastically acute compendium of legal argumentation (and occasional) religious law rulings. It is this Talmud (mostly Babylonian and not Jerusalem) that the haredim study exclusively and with the greatest intensity (they do include later commentators on the Talmud). The Bible is not even an educational afterthought, although of course they do “hear” weekly portions of the Five Books of Moses every shabbat in synagogue.

Why is this consequential? Here’s an example: this coming week’s Torah portion is be’Shalakh that starts with a battle and ends with another battle. In the first, God destroys Pharaoh’s army; in the second, the Israelites fight Amalek and beat them. Why this sharp dichotomy? The first battle takes place in Egyptian territory, where the Children of Israel are still considered to be slaves (and probably still consider themselves to be that too); the second is in the desert, where the Israelites are free from domination, on their way to national freedom and independence.

If the Bible “doesn’t count”, but only the Talmud’s approach is relevant, then we have a situation where the Haredim’s contemporary behavior is based on laws deriving from a situation of national helplessness (Roman rule etc). But the State of Israel is precisely the opposite of that, and the Bible makes it clear what politically independent Jews should be doing: fighting when need be, as they did against Amalek. Indeed, Deuteronomy (20: 5-8) enumerates who does not have to go to war – a newly engaged or married man who hasn’t yet built his house or planted a vineyard, or a coward. There is no “draft exception” whatsoever for a “scholar”.

Thus, the contemporary Haredi claim that תורתם אמונתם (“their study is their religion”), and therefore they do not have to serve in the Israeli Army, is clearly not based on any biblical precept; quite the opposite! At best, it is a function of the Talmudic period’s pacifist approach emanating from that period’s lack of national sovereignty, itself an outcome of twin disasters: the Jerusalem Temple’s destruction and subsequently Bar-Kochba’s disastrous campaign against the Roman legions.

So, for those who are trying to get some basic secular subjects (English, math) injected into Haredi education, I would add serious Bible study as another requirement, especially in the State of Israel. Just as the Rabbis back then changed course in light of their different, national circumstance, so too today they (and Israel as a whole) need some “course” changing (pun intended).

About the Author
Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig (PhD in Government, 1976; Harvard U) taught at Bar-Ilan University (1977-2017), serving as: Head of the Journalism Division (1991-1996); Political Studies Department Chairman (2004-2007); and School of Communication Chairman (2014-2016). He was also Chair of the Israel Political Science Association (1997-1999). He has published three books and 60 scholarly articles on Israeli Politics; New Media & Journalism; Political Communication; the Jewish Political Tradition; the Information Society. For more information and other publications (academic and popular), see:
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