‘Torah’ and a ticking time bomb

ITEM: A lawsuit filed by more than 50 former charedim alleges that the State of Israel denied them a basic education, making it nearly impossible for them to find jobs and live normal lives.

This lawsuit may well be the most important story coming out of Israel in 2015 — existentially far more important than any other.

Absent a dramatic shift in demographics, Israel’s charedi sector will become the dominant Jewish one in the state’s economy in about 25 years or so. According to Israel’s Economics Ministry, slightly more than half of the nation’s charedi men now are unemployed, mainly because they lack the basic skills they would need in order to get a job.

This is a ticking time bomb. According to a 2010 report by the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies (named after the late local New Jersey philanthropist Henry Taub), in just about a quarter-century from now, Israel will have trouble hiring qualified street sweepers, much less finding the engineers, physicists, researchers, technicians, and doctors it will need. Its military ranks also will be severely depleted.

“When the charedim become dominant, where will all these come from?” Tel Aviv University economist Dan Ben-David asked after the report was issued. Ben-David was the center’s executive director until last February. “A country with security troubles such as ours does not have the luxury of going bankrupt,” he told the daily newspaper Yediot Achronot. “We will not be able to maintain an army to defend us, or fund the equipment we need. If the charedim continue to receive the same education [as they are getting now], I have no doubt Israel will not be able to exist in two decades.”

On paper, the state is not denying charedi children and teenagers a basic secular education. In fact, it pays charedi schools to teach their students English, basic science, simple math, geography, and history. The schools take the money, but most do not teach the subjects. The state turns a blind eye to it, because Israeli governments need charedi support to stay in office.

The state, by the way, also pays the salaries of the charedi teachers who are supposed to teach these subjects. You cannot teach, however, what you do not know. In 2010, Yediot Achronot distributed 10 questions to 25 charedi teachers to test their qualifications. The questions, taken from government lesson plans for grades one through three, were absurdly simple. Among them: What is the fourth word of the Hatikvah? On which continent is Israel found? What does the word “Saturday” mean? What is the square root of 81? Who was Napoleon Bonaparte?

The average test score among the 25 teachers was 59. Ten of them missed at least half of the questions (including the one about the Hatikvah, to which one charedi teacher on the government payroll reportedly responded, “I don’t know and I don’t want to know”). Seventeen of the 25 did not know what “Saturday” meant.

The textbooks used in these schools only exacerbate the problem. English textbooks, Yediot Achronot reported, are virtually nonexistent. The basic “science” text is “The Nature of Creation.” An alleged biology text about the human body, it contains such tidbits as “when you smell something bad, you mustn’t recite a prayer or quotes from the Torah,” and, “When God saves a man’s body from something bad, the bones on which the body stands must thank Him.”

Whatever the fate of the lawsuit, the real issue is the charedi aversion to secular education of any kind (a problem that exists in charedi communities in the United States, as well, which accounts for the extreme poverty rates in those communities). They will fight tooth and nail against any attempt to enforce the education laws.

Since charedim are supposed to be the most careful when it comes to observing Jewish law, it is fair to ask whether this aversion is rooted in Jewish law.

Charedim will tell you that it is. Secular education is forbidden by “the Torah,” in this case broadly defined to include the Oral Law, not just the written one.

Thus, for example, at the very end of the Babylonian Talmud tractate Kiddushin (82a), “It was taught: Rabbi Nehorai said: I abandon all trades in the world and teach my son only Torah.” His reason is this: A trade will serve a person only until he is no longer able to earn a living, at which point he will sink into poverty and starve. “But the Torah is not like that,” Rabbi Nehorai explained. Someone who studies Torah all day will be sustained even in old age.

Never mind that earlier in the same tractate (29a), it states as a rule that a person must teach a child a trade. Never mind that a similar view, expounded by Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai in BT Berachot 35b, is rejected outright by the Babylonian sage Abaye, who noted that those people who followed Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai were unsuccessful. Never mind that objective evidence supports Abaye, or that Bar Yochai himself was well versed in the knowledge of farming. (See Mishnah Shevi’it 2.)

What the charedi should be mindful of, however, is the overwhelming majority of talmudic opinion and rulings requiring a basic secular education. “Great is the study of the Torah together with a worldly occupation,” said Rabban Gamaliel III in Pirkei Avot 2.2, “for the effort a person expends in pursuit of both banishes sin from the mind, whereas [the study of] Torah without a secular occupation leads to nothing in the end but sin.”

So important is this, the Talmud says, that even on Shabbat a parent may arrange for a child to learn a trade, or to read books, for these, in fact, are “the business of heaven.” (See BT Shabbat 150a.)

If we American Jews truly care about the future of Israel, we must take every opportunity to lobby the Israeli government to set aside “the business of coalition politics” and start paying serious attention to “the business of heaven.”

About the Author
Shammai Engelmayer is rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel of the Palisades. He hosts adult Jewish education classes twice each week on Zoom, and his weekly “Keep the Faith” podcast may be heard on Apple Podcasts, iHeart Radio, and Stitcher, among other sites. Information on his classes and podcast is available at www.shammai.org.