Orthodox Jews and Secular Education

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There have been several articles written recently in the mainstream media about the poor secular education in parts of the Orthodox Jewish world, particularly in certain Hasidic circles. In one piece, a man from a Hasidic community (who is no longer religious), describes how his secular education was lacking so greatly he was unable to make a living when he left his parents’ house and ended up on the street. Besides the fact that the idea of a capable, intelligent, healthy man not being able to take care of himself due to his lack of education or skills is heartbreaking from a human perspective, it is also extremely problematic according to Jewish law. Parents are required to equip their children with the skills and/or education they need to make a livelihood. If they don’t give over this knowledge to their children, the Talmud explains that they have taught their children “theft.” There is also an idea brought down by Maimonides that a person must avoid doing things that will burden others to support him financially. Tzedaka (charity) is a wonderful thing, but it is only meant for those who cannot help themselves.

I am not an expert on the Hasidic world. There are differences, nuances, and exceptions within the various communities, therefore I don’t know how widespread the aforementioned problem is. My sense though, is that unfortunately, it’s more common than it ought to be. For the record – there are NO perfect Orthodox Jewish communities. Each have their strengths and each have their struggles, but when articles like these come out, because the nuances of the Orthodox Jewish world are mostly lost on people outside of the Orthodox Jewish world, outsiders are liable to think that poor secular education (often leading to poverty or unemployment) is an “Orthodox” thing. And that couldn’t be farther from the truth. There are many Orthodox Jews sitting in top universities all over the world. There have been several male and female Orthodox Jewish Rhodes Scholars and Supreme Court Clerks, and there are Orthodox Jewish professionals at the tops of their field in a wide range of careers from across the spectrum of Orthodoxy.

Whether or not there is value in secular knowledge is a bit of a debate within the religious Jewish world. The Talmud teaches “there is wisdom among the nations,” and Maimonides, a great 12th century rabbi who is universally accepted, was a doctor to the sultan and a big fan of Aristotle whom he studied and quoted in his books. However, when the Enlightenment occurred in the 18th century and Jews were finally allowed to leave the ghetto, a debate ensued. Is it better (i.e safer) to stay separate from the world, partaking in only Jewish knowledge, or is there a value in mixing with the world and learning (kosher) secular subjects in order to enhance our appreciation for Torah and God’s universe? (This is a very brief description of how Modern Orthodoxy began.)

In my circles, higher education is not only permitted in order to earn a livelihood, we believe that it can be beneficial to one’s understanding of Torah. Because I come from a family that values secular education, I was delighted to see that there was a place for this kind of thinking within Orthodox Judaism. However – this concept of Torah U’Madda (Torah and secular studies) is not a free-for-all. We still need to be selective with what we’re exposing ourselves to. One of the downsides of the Torah U’Madda model is that its adherents are not always careful enough about the secular media they consume.

There is another camp within Orthodoxy that believes in going to college, but only for purposes of gaining a livelihood. Liberal arts are generally avoided in these cases, and the male students often spend part of their day in yeshiva. There is another community where the men do not go to college but sit and learn Torah full time while the wives support the family, in some cases with college degrees. It should be noted, however, that the ketubah (the Jewish marriage contract) requires a husband to support his wife. A woman can choose to work outside the home or not work outside the home, but according to Jewish law, a man is only off the hook in terms of working if his wife agrees to it.

Finally, there are those who are completely against a college education – they feel that many of the subjects are heretical to Jewish thinking and going to college is just not “done” in their community. People in these circles either go to vocational schools or make a living in jobs that do not require a college degree, such as sales, real estate, a family business, or retail. Then, of course, there are the people I mentioned at the beginning, who are neither given a proper secular education nor the skills to make a living in some other way.

While I personally believe that secular knowledge enhances my service of God, I am open-minded enough to accept the different paths within Torah Judaism including those that do not believe in partaking in secular knowledge. However, no matter what path a community chooses, giving over the ability to make a living is a must for all observant Jewish parents and any time this fails to happen it’s a travesty.

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Allison is the Founder and Director of Jew in the City. Please find her full bio here.

Comments

  1. I am sorry that so much credence is given to the revelations of Jews with an axe to grind. I am chassidic and have not been religious my whole life. Some of my students were born Orthodox but are looking for a deeper intellectual and emotional experience through Torah. I recieved a high quality secular education from my parents. Ihave personally seen how non Jewish literature can dull one’s sensitivity to modesty and kedusha (holiness), how philosophy can confuse those who have problems with differenciation and western values and Torah can be so intertwined that it can be forgotten which tskes precedence and conflicts between them have caused some modern to reject Judaism as immoral. Yes our education system is misunderstood. For 20 years a man of Torah character is built. A man who can be an engineer, mudician or any other kosher occupation but without compromising yirat shamaim (fear of Heaven). If a child reaches 7th grade not ready for algebra he can quickly be brought up to speed. If he reaches bar mitzva without a firm base of yirat shamayim it will be extremely difficult to achieve. My children learned minimum secular studies. After yeshiva it takes 1-1 1/2 years to matriculate and from there to college. 12 of chol takes 1 1/2 years at 18-20.

    • Thanks for your comment, Rivka. I don’t personally know the man in the article I spoke about, but if my parents had not provided me with a way to make a livelihood and I ended up homeless, I’d imagine that I’d be bitter too.

      Like I said – I don’t know how widespread this problem is, but when kids are not given a way to support themselves – it’s a major major problem.

      In terms of Western culture corrupting one’s mind – I agree that partaking of secular culture should not be a free-for-all. We need to be discerning in what we consume. But the idea that exposure to the outside world will automatically make a person not religious is problematic to me in two ways. The first is something I heard from my rabbi at a recent class he gave. He said that if we’re so worried about what they have on “the outside” it tells the kids that what we have isn’t powerful enough to stand up to it. Again – not a free for all – but also not being scared out what’s out there.

      The second point is that although there are people in the modern Orthodox world who leave the fold, look at the number of people in the right wing communities who are feeling so squelched that they also go off the derech.

      As I said – every community has its strengths and every community has its weaknesses. I wish the Modern Orthodox world was more careful about what it consumed at that the Charedi world allowed its kids to choose more modern circles if that’s what spoke better to them.

  2. Eric Kaplan says:

    this post talks as if the unit exercising choice is the community and paints a picture of orthodoxy as tolerant because it allows a variety of compromises on the relative values of a Torah versus secular education. But actually communities don’t choose, only individuals within communities choose. Specifically the powerful choose for the less powerful. If you’re a child in a community where the elders have chosen that you don’t get to learn secular subjects because it will contaminate your mind with heretical ideas, then your freedom has been curtailed, because you don’t get to know what you’re missing, or the possible objections to the religious ideology that you are being taught.

    • Thanks for your comment, Eric, but I think it’s safe to say that parents in all walks of life make choices for their children. That’s just how life works! There are many parents in the Orthodox world who choose secular studies as part of their choice. To play devil’s advocate, growing up as a secular Jew, my parents didn’t choose Torah learning or living for me and I suffered greatly because of it. They gave me everything in life except one key element – purpose to life!

      Besides all religious Jewish parents giving their kids the ability to be able to make a living, there is one thing I would also like to see. I wish parents in communities that did not offer higher education would allow their kids to make such a choice (in a Torah context) if the kids were interested. I read about a girl whose mother threw her out of the house at 16 because she wanted to go to college. I was HORRIFIED when I read it. Horrified that a mother would ever throw a child out and even more horrified that it was over an issue that could have been dealt with in a Torah context.

      I wish other Orthodox Jews had the open-minded approach that there’s more than one path in observant Judaism. I agree that this is a problem.

  3. With respect to Rivka’s comment, they do not have to study non-Jewish literature, philosophy, etc. (subjects that will “corrupt” them) but they can make themselves useful by studying math, chemistry, physics, computer science, etc. If, like you said, most were able to be “quickly be brought up to speed” after seventh grade, and actually did bring themselves up to speed, that would be one thing, but the fact of the matter is that many do not, either by their parents’ choice and/or their own. In Israel (as well as the US) the ultra-orthodox are substantial welfare recipients, in large part because the young men do not get “quickly. . . brought up to speed” after seventh grade, but rather “study” at the yeshivas in perpetuity and are fruitful and multiply. Studying at a yeshiva is not going to put food on the table and provide for 3,4,5,6 etc. kids. Sure, there are some ultra orthodox that do find a balance and manage to work or have businesses and study but a substantial number do not. Many of the guys lounge around the yeshivas into their 30s, 40s, 50s, the wives are at home trying to take care of the hoards of kids, and the state picks up the check for living expenses. They mooch off of the system, which is, in large part, supported by the work of the secular to modern orthodox, the entrepreneurs, doctors, computer scientists, etc. The ultra orthodox are trying to emulate the way of life of their forefathers. Well, modern day Israel and the US are not the pale of settlement. And actually back then the chasidim had to work. They sustained themselves by farming, working as cobblers, seamstresses, etc. My ancestors were chasidim but, as far as I know (based on family oral history), they worked (owned farms and worked the land). They had to because the Czarist government certainly was not going to support them. The gripe Rivka people have with the ultra-orthodox today is not so much that they do not study secular subjects per se, it is that they do not contribute to and help to sustain the society around them. Like many people on welfare, they have become ok/comfortable with modest monthly welfare check. Their rabbis essentially sanction this by encouraging them to make full-time study their calling in life. I understand encouraging a select few, who truly are gifted, but that should be the exception.

  4. This is a great discussion! Thanks for writing an excellent JITC article. I’m jewish and recently sat next to a young orthodox woman on a flight from Israel. She’s from Brooklyn and was very friendly. She’s 17 and studying in Jerusalem for one year. She was quite open-talked about her upcoming wedding and just her life as a young orthodox woman. Her secular education was extremely limited. I’m a math teacher so we talked about this very subject, My only observation was-she could barely fill out her customs form in terms of spelling, writing. I helped her with it. It may have been an exception and no, I shouldn’t judge. I couldn’t help but wonder-is this common?

    • This is an interesting point you raise – filling out the custom form. I had the same question about being able to fill out forms at the doctor’s office or having enough math skills to manage your finances. I asked a rabbi if there were any Torah sources that say that a parent has to give his kid the skills to be able to survive in the world – not just in the livelihood sense, but getting around in areas like this. He couldn’t point to any specifically but as my teachers in seminary told us students: the Shulchan Aruch (the Code of Jewish law) is a four book volume, but the fifth book of the Shulchan Aruch is “seichel” (sense). And I think the common sense thing is to make sure that your kid can take care of himself, even if you choose to not partake of secular cultural.

  5. I am a chassidishe college graduate and professional in NYC. The issue is balance. Our parents came to the US willing to work and do what it takes to recreate a life. they wanted to live and leve with thier values. There cannot be torah values if there is no thorough years in besmedrah for boys without college. however, once a child is 20 years old the responsibility is on HIM to get an education. you cannot blame parents schools , the system, etc for your own failures. As an adult if you lack education and skills you should o out and get a life. We need to look at the immigrants from the former USSR etc. it does not take that long to get up to par and ge a decent job. Yes chages are warranted in our community (just like in any other) but come on blaming the system is inaccurate.

    • Thanks for your comment, Chaim. I love that you mention “balance.” I believe balance is what is needed in both the modern Orthodox world and the Charedi world. It’s great to hear from a Hasid who has done what you’ve done. How common is the path you took in your particular community? How hard was it to take the education you had been given and be ready for college? The people who I’ve heard complain about the system say things like 7th grade reading and math skills make them not able to easily get to that next level. I was extremely prepared when it was time to apply to college so I don’t personally know what someone with less preparation is up against. I very much believe that a person has to take control of his own life, but at the same time, I think the Torah places some of the responsibility on the parent to get the kid on the right track.

      • I can not specifically answer for Chaim, but what I can say is that my husband was educated until 7th grade. It took him until he was about 25 and with a lot of encouragement, to get his GED. When he realized that he can pass, with a 3 month prep course, he got himself together, and today is well on his way, to finishing his BSN in Biology with the hopes to getting into Medical School. There is a need for change, but for someone to feel limited by their past is foolish. Although Gemarah, does not help much when it comes to college, the drive that it gives, helps a lot! The chances of one getting into an IVY League school is probably slim to none with a GED, none the less, pushing on and succeeding is completely up to the individual. That being said our children are all placed in schools which at the very least allow our children to get Regent Diploma’s, and we do our part in explaining to the children that if they are intelligent enough to do well on their Hebrew subjects, they need to match their secular subjects, because just in case, they don’t want to become Hebrew teachers or Rabbi’s I want them to be able to support themselves.

  6. You forget Hirschian Torah im Derech Eretz, which believes that secular education is valuable not necessarily because it can enhance our understanding of the Torah, and not only because it is necessary for one to earn a decent livelihood, but because Derech Eretz demands us to be generally cultured and educated members of our civilized society.

    • To answer the questions, it is difficult to get a good education and college degree with the education I got. I am b”h (thank G-d) blessed with a strong mind and encouraging wife so I was able to do it. I wish it would be easier, and I am willing to help create change in our community to help young adults gain knowledge and education so that they can earn a a honorable living. After all, our society has been producing mostly “luftmentchen”, and we need to change that. As far as rabbi hirsh, I personally am a Talmid (student) of the more Eastern European yeshivas who did not ascribe to that shitta (philosophy). I feel it is impossible to grow in torah for real without three or four years of solid learning, ie no college. However, parnossoh bederech covod and bheter is a basic jewish value, no matter where you come from. I pray to Hashem that we will soon come out of the shtetl and somehow merge strong learning with earning a good living in western society.

    • Thanks for your comment, Moshe. I didn’t state it explicitly, but the “college to earn a living” was my attempt to explain the Torah Im Derech Eretz approach. I had never heard the last part though – that being educated is part of living in society. I like that a lot. thanks!

  7. Allison, I think you are getting yourself into hot water on a topic you think you understand.
    Sitting in front of a computer screen and learning from some off-the-derech kids about this topic is extremely narrow minded from your side.
    Have you ever visited a Hassidic school to check how many hours secular studies are taught?
    Do you know that some chassidic yeshivas like Stolin the boys take the NY Regents?
    Please do some homework before you decry the “travesty’s” of the hassidic world…
    By writing articles like these you are just CREATING more misconceptions about frum, especially Hassidic Jews.

    • Thanks for your comment, Esty, but I don’t think I’m in any hot water. I gave a disclaimer at the beginning of the article that there are exceptions, difference, nuances in every community and that I didn’t know how prevalent the issue was. I think we need to listen to the off-the-derech people. Many of them have been hurt in one way or another and we need to hear what went wrong for them and try to make things better so they know we care about them and that we care to prevent the same mistakes from happening to others.

      As the Hasidic commenter Chaim said – his education was extremely poor – it was very hard for him to prepare himself for college and he would like to help improve the system because he acknowledges that the system needs some changes. I’m not criticizing the Torah or halacha – I’m criticizing the people (by the way – in EVERY community) who are falling short of living up to Torah. In the case of the homeless man I wrote about it, his parents failing to live up to their halachic parental duties left him in a very desperate situation. We are not a perfect people and if we’re afraid to acknowledge our shortcomings then we are in a whole lot of trouble as a people.

  8. Allison, and any readers, if you want to pursue a real understanding of TIDE (Torah im Derech Eretz), the best source is Rav Hirsch’s Collected Writings. Also of great interest is:

    These and Those, New York: Philipp Feldheim, 1966. 47 pages. (Although there are those who felt it already reflected a backing away of the Breuer’s community from TIDE as an ideal).

    There is also a recap in R. Meyer Schiller’s book The Road Back, which puts TIDE side by side with other hashkafos on these topics.

    Also see Professor Yehuda (Leo) Levi’s book Shaarei Talmud Torah, which for non-Hebrew readers is available in English as Torah Study: A Survey of Classic Sources on Timely Issues (Feldheim, 1990).

    These issues are by no means new issues (indeed, already addressed in the Talmud), and since they are critical to defining the shape of our service of God, are well worth an investment in an understanding that goes beyond simple contemporary socialogical observation.

  9. I so agree Allison-we must look at our shortcomings. I personally don’t think our community as a whole talks about them enough. A lot is swept under the carpet so-to-speak. I’m proud of my jewish roots.

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