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.