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Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Prof. Sam: Academic Pundit

Ultra-Orthodoxy and ‘Secular’ Education: An Oxymoron?

For several decades in Israel and the US, many ultra-Orthodox (Haredim) have refused to allow secular subjects to enter their educational system. That refusal has recently begun to come under attack and also break down. That’s due to external pressure and internal needs.

First, some background. Most of the great halakhic commentators and decisors through the centuries have accepted the study of secular knowledge. True, the Talmud states that one should not study “Greek knowledge” (Tractate Bava Kama, 82B), but as the Maharal (of Prague) explained, that refers to Greek (Hellenic) etiquette and manners, and not what was then called “external wisdom”. Indeed, Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakai, who saved Jewish scholarship after the destruction of the Second Temple by setting up the yeshiva at Yavneh, himself studied astronomy (Sukkot, 28A). The Rabbis even created a special blessing upon coming upon a person steeped in wisdom: “Blessed be thou our God, King of the World, that gave wisdom to flesh and blood” (Brakhot 58A)!

The greatest commentator of the Middle Ages, Maimonides, went so far as to say that anyone who relies on Faith alone and does not use his intellect and senses to understand the world is actually desecrating the name of God (hillul ha’shem)! A bit later, the Ramban (not to be confused with the Rambam: Maimonides) argued that one needed to learn practical knowledge in order to properly understand the decisions of earlier rabbinical decisors. Obviously, even more so the decisors themselves have to know how “Nature” works in order to make halakhic decisions.

So how did the ultra-Orthodox get to the point where they view such “external” knowledge as taboo? One has to view matters from their perspective to understand (not necessarily justify) the logic. There was not that much “science” in the days of the Talmud and even when Maimonides lived – and almost all the “knowledge” that did exist hardly undermined the Torah and what Jews considered to be sacrosanct. However, the scientific revolution of the past few hundred years changed that. The Earth is no longer the center of the universe. There were no “six days of Creation” but rather millions of years passed from plants to animals to humans – and even worse, humans are directly “descended” from the Great Apes! The Bible was almost certainly not written by one author. And so on.

This is all too dangerous for the Faithful as it puts Judaism’s core values into factual question. Secular wisdom that might have been acceptable and even good in Maimonides’ day was no longer tenable in the modern era. Indeed, rampant Jewish assimilation among the more educated segments of the Jewish population only reinforced this feeling among the ultra-Orthodox: secular studies are a mortal danger to Torah Judaism. (Parenthetically, this is quite different from mainstream Orthodox Jews, many of whom go to college and even obtain graduate degrees.)

And yet, modernity also led to another change. Of the hundreds of rabbis listed in the Talmud, only two were said not to have a “profession.” Torah study and working for a living were obviously not in contradiction – quite the reverse. But here too, working back then didn’t require much external knowledge. Perhaps a specific, practical skill (sandal-maker, farmer, trader) was necessary, but not anything that demanded being steeped in what was considered back then to be “modern wisdom.” Today, in the Information Age, without a broad-based education, including English, math, some form of science (social or natural), there isn’t much one can do (or earn) in the modern economy. Thus, the Haredim now find themselves between the rock and the hard place.

The “rock” is now also arriving from a powerful external source. A recent Times of Israel headline says it all: New York [State] proposes new rules for secular education in yeshivas, other private schools. Similarly, there is growing pressure by the State of Israel to introduce “core” subjects into elementary and high school yeshiva curricula, although here the attempts are more in the form of incentives.

Thus, the first break in the education ghetto wall cracked three months ago, as reported here in the Times of Israel: “The leader of the Belz Hasidic sect has approved the inclusion of core curriculum in its elementary schools, including math, science, Hebrew and English.” This in return for higher state subsidies of their school system – much closer to what regular schools receive from the Education Ministry.

The underlying reason for this opening is economic: the Haredi population is exploding and can no longer sustain itself on government outlays and overseas philanthropy. In short, their progeny have to find work – but there is little feasible work these days without some basic, secular education. With the Talmud and other, past halakhic luminaries legitimizing such an approach, it is theologically not too difficult for the Haredi leadership to justify their about-face.

The other front in Israel is higher education. Here there are an increasing number of colleges and universities that are opening programs for Haredi students – female and male (far more ultra-Orthodox woman work than men) – in “vocational” subjects such as Social Work, Computer Science, Economics (e.g., Accounting), and the like. Not that these don’t have their own controversies, especially the separated gender nature of the programs, with female lecturers barred from the male student programs. But the trend is clear.

Of course, the story won’t end there. Around the world, secular education leads to declining birthrates, modernization, and ultimate “assimilation” i.e., internalization of at least some secular norms. For the future of Israeli society, that will be a huge plus: less social cleavages and increased economic productivity. The very future of Israeli society is as stake given the present huge gap in the very high fertility rates among the Haredim and the rest of Israel’s population groups (high by Western standards but far lower than the ultra-Orthodox). So if you thought that this is a “side issue” among Israel’s other serious challenges, think again!

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. His new book is VIRTUALITY AND HUMANITY: VIRTUAL PRACTICE AND ITS EVOLUTION FROM PRE-HISTORY TO THE 21ST CENTURY (Springer Nature, Dec. 2021): The book's description, substantive Preface and full Table of Contents can be freely accessed here: https://link.springer.com/book/10.1007/978-981-16-6526-4#toc. For more information about Prof. Lehman-Wilzig's publications (academic and popular), see: www.ProfSLW.com
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