Making Sense of Charedi Rabbinic Ban On Higher Education For Women

Last week in Israel, there was a gathering of Charedi rabbis who banned college for women outside of of the “Beis Yaakov” system. Being that I am neither Charedi, nor Israeli, this news did not feel very impactful to me. The Orthodox rabbis that I go to (I’d describe them as “centrist” or “right-wing Modern Orthodox”) are very much in favor of college for both women and men. But I started hearing from women in the black hat/yeshivish/Charedi world who were up in arms.

These women used words like “existential crisis” and “betrayal” to describe what this ruling meant to them. Many of them explained to me that a ban on college felt so extreme and so far from reality that they didn’t know how to reconcile the fact that rabbis who they had been taught are the leaders of the generation could say such things.

Several people asked me to write about this topic, so I did some research. I have friends who are leaders in every part of the Orthodox Jewish world who I respect very much, so I went to my yeshivish contacts in the U.S. and Israel since I figured they’d have the inside scoop on this story. None of the rabbis and layleaders I spoke to wanted me to put their name on the information they gave over to me, but this is what I learned:

  1. There was no quote from the asifa (gathering) from the highest level rabbis. Rav Steinman (who everyone I spoke to seemed to agree is at the top) was not at the event. A quote by Rav Steinman about college was included in the article, but many people told me they doubted the veracity of it. They said that big rabbis are constantly being misquoted. This is something I have heard before. I have no way of knowing if it’s true in this case. I tried to have people get more info. We haven’t gotten it yet.
  2. A second big rabbi -Rav Kanievsky – was pictured at the asifa, but there is no quote in his name. One rabbi explained to me that Rav Kanievsky would never go against Rav Steinman, who this rabbi also believed would never make such an extreme statement.
  3. Another contact said that this gathering was merely a political strategy so that different parts of the Charedi and Chasidic world could gain more political leverage against a group they are voting against, and that the statement didn’t reflect the true beliefs of the non-Chasidic leaders.
  4. Then I was told that such a gathering and statement was not done to ban college, but rather was a strategy to make sure that change happens at a pace that the community can handle. The rabbi explained that people in the Charedi world need to learn how to safely balance both worlds. According to one of the rabbis I spoke to, already 10% of students in Israel who are in schools of “higher education” consider themselves Charedi. Hebrew University even has a Charedi students’ union.
  5. A rabbi can be great in his Torah knowledge and his righteousness and revered for both even if he’s not living in the same “world” many of us are. The rabbi who told me this idea explained that a great rav was once asked about playing basketball on a Jewish holiday. The person asking wanted to know if it was permitted. The great rav thought about it and wanted to know if the problem could be solved by simply placing the ball in the basket before the holiday, or in other words, the rav had never heard of basketball before! His Torah was great as were his personal character traits, but he was so removed from something as mundane as sports that he didn’t even understand the details of the question.

Here’s my take away:

  1. There needs to be a better system of reporting what big rabbis say. The fact that misreporting seems to happen so often is really troubling, especially when so many people put serious weight in the statements of these leaders.
  2. When I asked how this extreme ruling could have possibly happened, a few rabbis assured me it was “strategy” and needed to be “taken with a grain of salt.” The fact that there’s a system where some people understand what meetings and pronouncements really mean while others are left in the dark, having existential crises no less, is troubling. There needs to be a way for the community at large to understand what meetings and rulings actually mean.
  3. A rav can be a big rav but he need not be your particular rav, meaning the Lubvitcher rebbe believed in a literal reading of the creation account in the Torah, the Satmar rebbe believed that the state of Israel came about due to the sitra achra, and Rav Ovadia Yosef was not a fan of women wearing wigs, yet my rabbis and I disagree with these rabbis on all those topics (and these rabbis disagreed with each other!). Is it because these rabbis’ opinions were not important or their Torah was not worthwhile? Of course not! But there are many paths to Torah and we all can’t agree on every point.
  4. Asay l’cha rav (make for yourself a rabbi). Our sages teach that we EACH must appoint our own personal guide to help us find our spiritual path. Judaism was never meant to be practiced on social media! It is meant to be personal and we are meant to use our free will and discernment to find a spiritual guide whose philosophy we agree with and who understands the world in which we live. So if you’re still bothered by this ruling, go connect with a live rabbi who you respect and discuss it in real life. And if you haven’t found that spiritual guide yet – we’ve got a few great ones here we can recommend.

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  • Avatar photo Shades of Gray says on December 15, 2015

    I agree with you. A few points:

    1 ) This an Israeli issue as Dr. Leslie Ginsparg Klien wrote in the Forward, and irrelevant to any American, Charedi or otherwise.

    2) The Bais Yaakov degrees question and the Israeli government is not a new thing. There was a similar situation a few years ago (see “The Bais Yaakov Edicts – Are We Next?”, Cross Currents, 1/11/07 by R. Yitzchak Adlerstein and “Misguided reform”, in Mishpacha, 9/8/05, by Jonathan Rosenblum on the Jewish Media Resources website ).

    3) I also agree regarding the communication issue concerning statements attributed to Israeli gedolim. It’s not a new problem either, but I wonder if anything can be done about it.

  • Avatar photo Rabbi Pinchos Woolstone says on December 15, 2015

    Trying to stop women being highly educated both in Torah and general education is myopic thinking driven by scared self appointed leaders living in self imposed ghettos.
    Men of mediocacy.
    They will fail in their quest at isolationing people from G-ds world.

  • Avatar photo David Waxman says on December 15, 2015

    Apologists love to read between the lines. Fine, but that is not the point. Rav Steinmen and Rav Kanievsky didn’t put out any clarifications that they do not stand behind the decree.

    Yes, I get it that many in the Haredi world ignore these things and buy iphones and go to college. These decrees put on the official face of the Haredi world and they cannot be explained away.

    • Avatar photo Allison Josephs says on December 15, 2015

      Thanks for your comment, David. I guess my question is – do they even know this happened? Is R’Steinman on YWN and twitter where this is being discussed? Whenever I’ve made the same points I’m told that they’re not plugged in and don’t do PR statements. It is very frustrating. VERY. We don’t even know who said what…

  • Avatar photo Raizel says on January 27, 2016

    Rav Steinman is a very old man, we had him some years in our community. I didn’t have the impression he is very close to what bothers younger people in terms of economic survival and the like.
    Personally, even or because I am part of a very, very orthodox community, I find it scandalous that our rebbeim are young people and women not giving acces to higher education (religious or secular alike) to get into jobs to support our families much better. I believe if this trend goes on, and people will more and more break the walls of our shtetlechs, young people will break away. Also because not everyone is able to be a yoshev. It only creates bigottry if we go on like this.
    People are getting more and more informed and the chance to be educated on high levels is much better than ever before and we are shunned from it.
    This can’t be and will not be productive in the end and I also believe deeply that this is not the will of HKB”H.

  • Avatar photo moshe says on February 28, 2016

    This ban was not meant to be against all college, rather, it was intended against the colleges that teach things that are against what it says in the Torah . Lateley, there have been founded many new “Charedi” colleges that their purpose is to “change Charedi society and values” – and this is what the ban was about.
    Tha rabbis have no problem with college fo women as long as there is nothing against our values.

    The secular anti-Charedi media in israel had a heyday misquoting all the great Rabbis. There was never any ban on higher education for women.
    Almost anything that is reported in the secular media about Charedim is misquoted, and purposefully, to make Charedim look like some sort of quasi-jihadist Neanderthals.

  • Avatar photo Beth Jacobs says on December 3, 2017

    Thank you Alison!!!! I identify as chareidi, and I’d like to get an advanced degree, so this was bothering me for a long time. Your takeaways made me feel so much better!


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