Approximately a month ago, Israel’s Ministry of Education published a new program entitled “Budgeting Criteria for Boosting the Study of English, Hebrew, and Mathematics in Charedi Institutions.” The initiative, which remains open for signing up, offers significant financial incentives to educational institutions for Charedi boys who will study the “core subjects” of Hebrew, English, and mathematics. This program departs from the standard demand from Charedi schools to study Israel’s “core curriculum,” a set that includes additional areas of study. The proposal was drawn up by representatives of the Ministry of Education together with representatives from the Belz Chassidus. While open to all, it is therefore referred to as the “Belz Proposal.”
When the initiative went public, it evoked harsh opposition from the leadership of Degel Ha-Torah, the Litvish political party that has run together with the Chassidic Agudath Yisrael for the past several decades, to the point of an explicit threat to dissolve the historic alliance. The saga ended when the parties signed an agreement in which Belz pledged not to accept the Ministry of Education’s offer. In exchange, a promise was given (confirmed, apparently, by Benjamin Netanyahu) to provide significant budget additions to “exempt” (from “core curriculum” studies) Charedi institutions and, should this not work out, the integration of Belz into the Chinuch Atzmai—the Charedi Independent Education System that receives full government funding.
In the present article I wish to discuss the issue from a Torah point of view and examine whether the opposition to the Belz proposal is justified. Based on this examination, I will raise questions about the nature of the opposition, as well as about the agreement—unfortunate, in my eyes—that the rival Charedi parties ultimately signed.
A Torah View of the Belz Proposal
A dearth of knowledge in basic areas of mathematics, Hebrew, and (perhaps most deeply) English presents a huge obstacle for the Charedi man considering his entry into the Israeli job market. The pretense that someone who has engaged in years of Yeshiva studies will easily succeed in vocational or academic studies has shattered against the brick wall of a painful reality. A majority, sadly, simply gives up hope of learning a trade worthy of its name with a decent income. Given this reality, it seems that from a purely Torah point of view, it is not difficult to establish that studies aimed at opening up occupational horizons are firmly anchored under the obligation of a father to teach his son a profession (Kiddushin 29a).
There is no need to cite the many quotes from the Talmud and other primary sources praising the study (and the practice) of a trade, to the point that Chazal categorize this as “choosing life.” These are well known and well publicized. Rather, I will go the short way and note the words of two of the greatest Torah luminaries of recent generations, rabbinic authorities who were generally known for religiously strident positions yet went to great lengths to explain the importance of studying a profession as a mitzvah and duty.
The first of them is Rabbi Elchanan Wasserman zt”l (Kovetz Shurim Vol. 2, no. 47), in a letter that bears the title “A response to a questioner from a well-known country.” The reference is to Germany, where the “Torah and Derech Eretz” method—the subject of the letter—was generally advocated. He opens his letter by warning against any studies that incorporate reading heretical material or involve the negative influence of bad company. Aside from these warnings, however, Rav Elchanan states unequivocally that such studies constitute a mitzvah:
If the study does not involve reading heretical books or connecting with non-Jews, and it is done for the sake of a trade to make a living, there is no prohibition in the matter, and studying a trade for the sake of making a living is a mitzvah. This is why we arrange even on Shabbos for a child to study a trade; given that a person must teach his son a trade, it is considered “a matter of Heaven.”
To leave no room for doubt and to preempt objections based on the opinion of Rabbi Nehorai who declared that he taught his sons nothing but Torah, Rav Elchanan continues to explain the position:
If he son’s soul longs for Torah and he has clear potential for Torah greatness, Rabbi Nehorai said that he leaves aside every trade and teaches his son nothing but Torah. Rabbi Nehorai did not disagree with the position that a person must teach his son a trade, and it is impossible to interpret his opinion such that all should be occupied in Torah and not in a trade, for this cannot come to pass before the coming of Moshiach, and the Torah states “gather your grain” […] on this there can be no dispute. […] Rabbi Yishmael taught that “choose life” refers to a trade.
Rav Elchanan’s teaching is as unequivocal as it is simple. Doubtless, he would have been surprised to see some of the strange inventions printed in modern-day pamphlets informing us that if only everybody engaged in full-time Torah study manna would descend from the heavens. The truth, unfortunate or otherwise, is that it won’t—certainly not (as Rav Elchanan states) until the messianic era. Ensuring one’s son studies a trade thus remains a full obligation upon every father, except those exceptional children who possess the capacity for greatness and whose souls long for Torah.
A second great luminary I wish to cite, who in many ways adopted the strident positions of Rav Elchanan Wasserman concerning modernity and Zionism, is Rav Yitzchak Ze’ev Soloveitchik zt”l, the “Rav of Brisk.” In his Chiddushei Maran Riz HaLevi, a work that he wrote himself (as his sons note in the preface), he also addresses Rabbi Nehorai’s statement whereby he would teach his children Torah alone, writing as follows:
Rabbi Meir ruled that a person should teach his son a clean and easy trade, following the opinion of Rabbi Yishmael that Torah study should be incorporated within a framework of Derech Eretz. As for Rabbi Nehorai, this is a completely different matter, for although the halacha is that a person must teach his son a trade, there is another way, which is that of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. […] The halacha thus follows the teaching of Rabbi Meir, while for his own son he chose the alternative way and taught him Torah alone.
Two of the greatest luminaries, neither of them “moderates” by any stretch of the imagination, thus endorse studying a trade as a general rule, aside from exceptional cases.
What flaw, then, can be found in the Belz proposal to incorporate rudimentary general studies—specifically, Hebrew, English, and mathematics, subjects essential in the modern day for learning a trade—into the school curriculum for boys? Surely, such studies involve no concern for heresy; neither is there a concern for mixing with non-Jewish or non-religious (indeed, non-Belz Chassidim) students. Neither is there a concern, as some have suggested, for the “long arm of the Education Ministry” taking control of Charedi schools. Funding is contingent on testing, of course, but nothing beyond this: the schools remain in the absolute control of Belz. Moreover, decades of government supervision of girls’ education demonstrates that Israel is not the secularizing monster as initially feared. What, then, can be the concern?
The only caveat worthy of raising is the potential damage noted by the Netziv in his Meishiv Davar (Vol. 1, no. 44). The Neziv discusses a situation in which the non-Jewish authorities require general studies in Jewish schools, and writes that we should accept such demands and be wary of harming the community as a whole. However, he proceeds to add that students who engage in general studies are unlikely to emerge as great Torah luminaries, those who can give Torah instruction to the masses, for such greatness requires total dedication to Torah:
One cannot become a Torah giant while also studying general studies. Those Torah leaders who were also well-versed in general subjects studied them before they immersed themselves in Torah, or after they were already accomplished Torah scholars, but not together.
This is a point worthy of consideration. However, it is possible (as common outside of Israel) to include general studies at the high-school age while encouraging young men to immerse themselves in Torah study at the post-high-school age so that the concern of the Netziv would not apply. Moreover, we have seen many young men who studied mathematics and English grow to become great Torah luminaries, including some of the leading Roshei Yeshiva both in Israel and (certainly) abroad. To those who deny this is possible, I would suggest doing just a little homework.
To conclude this chapter, a short anecdote. A few years ago, probably on the fortieth anniversary of the death of Rabbi Shmuel Rozovsky zt”l, an issue of the Shabbos Kodesh supplement of Yated Neeman (Hebrew) was dedicated to his memory. One article described the power of his genius: he learned English as a child, and though he barely used the language he remembered it and employed it to good effect when abroad due to his illness. A second article in the same issue noted the depth of Rav Shmuel’s immersion in Torah study: although he studied English as a child, he remembered nothing of it when he was abroad due to his illness.
Be the case as it may, Rav Shmuel studied English as a child, and this did not prevent him from becoming one of the greatest Torah scholars and teachers of his generation.
Opposition to the Proposal
In light of the above, the opposition to Belz’s decision to include general studies in its curriculum seems implausible. Is it possible that Degel HaTorah’s leadership should coerce Charedi society in its entirety to refrain even from a modicum of general studies? Even if they are concerned for the development of the next Litvish Torah luminaries (based on the Netziv’s concern, as noted above), does this justify imposing the same standards on everybody, all parts of Charedi society? As we have seen, the path of teaching one’s son Torah alone is not a path for the general public, and it renders our society economically unsustainable.
Moreover, let’s assume that Belz is acting inappropriately by wishing to teach their sons a trade. Is this just cause to exclude them from the political fold, from running jointly on a single list for the Knesset? Surely, United Torah Judaism ought to be “united,” bringing together a range of groups even if they do not all follow the same strictures. There might be some added explanations for why the Belz proposal is somehow flawed, but would such reasons justify excluding an entire congregation from the unity of Torah Judaism?
In the continuation of the above-mentioned response, Rav Elchanan strongly censures German Jewry for studying secular studies for their own sake (rather than for their instrumental value), as well as for their cultural assimilation into German culture. Nonetheless, the founders of Agudath Yisrael were specifically German Jews, university graduates who were raised on the foundations of “Torah and Derech Eretz.” Did anybody think that because of their method and background they should be expelled from associating with the God-fearing Jews of Eastern Europe? Is the goal of gathering Charedi Jews into one association not great enough to contain different shades? One can certainly oppose the Belz proposal, but should such opposition lead to division and exclusion?
In this context, the words of the Neziv in his introduction to the Torah seem worthy of quotation:
We can explain that during the Second Temple, there were tzaddikim and chassidim, as well as those who toiled in the study of Torah; however, they were not yesharim [just] in their dealings with others. Due to the baseless hatred, they felt towards each other, they suspected that those who disagreed with them on religious matters were Sadducees or heretics. This brought them to bloodshed under false pretenses and many other evils until the Temple was destroyed. This is the justification for the destruction: for God is yashar [just] and God could not tolerate tzaddikim like these. Rather, [God prefers] people who act in a way that is yashar even in worldly matters, not those who act crookedly even for the sake of Heaven; this causes the destruction of creation and the annihilation of the earth’s settlement.
What the Final Agreement Teaches Us
Thus far, I have presented the story as though the matter of the Belz proposal was dealt with by the different parties based on halachic instruction taken from our holy tradition. Somebody in the Belz leadership was studying the Shulchan Aruch HaRav, and upon reaching Siman 156 realized that there is an obligation to teach one’s son a trade, which translates today into mathematics and English—and thus the Belz proposal was born. Certainly, the assumption is a worthy one. The alternative is that Belz had (and has) no intention of studying general studies and only wished to procure government funding for their institutions. We must judge each person lekaf zechus, to grant the benefit of the doubt.
Yet, the agreement signed between the factions of United Torah Judaism included the following clause: “In light of the above, it is agreed that nobody will act in any way in partnership with the Ministry of Education to promote the plan that was published by the Ministry of Education and is currently on the agenda.” This means that the agreement unequivocally drops the program in exchange for a generous budget guarantee for exempt and unofficially recognized Charedi institutions. Should this not work out, the agreement guarantees Belz institutions entry into the Independent Education network.
Sadly, it turns out that it’s all about money! If the choice to adopt basic general studies was made out of a recognition that this is the right from a halachic or ideological perspective, would it be simply abandoned for the sake of money? Is it worth giving up so moral and just a move for the sake of having a Knesset representative as part of UTJ? Is it possible that the significant debate between the path of “I teach my son nothing but Torah” and “a person must teach his son a trade” will be decided by considerations of money and representation? are we saying that “if I manage to procure state funding for learning Torah alone, I will teach my children Torah alone, but if I don’t manage, I will choose the second option”? Sadly, this seems to be the reality.
Another aspect of the agreement—one that is especially problematic—is the pledge that even should Belz be accepted into the Independent Education system (the Chinuch Atzmai), which would formally obligate them to study some general education, the curriculum will not change from what it is today. Meaning, the agreement officially requires its parties to flout the law. How can we on the one hand make a public and open agreement to deceive the state and then roll our eyes in self-righteousness and complain about how the authorities do not trust us and apply severe standards of supervision?
As we come to days of teshuvah, I think the agreement is a wake-up call. We need to engage in much self-reflection and contemplation. We need to do teshuvah.
In conclusion, a word to my own community. It is our obligation, as individuals, as families, and as a society, to behave rationally and sensibly and ensure that as our young men grow up, they can support themselves and their families. This is both a religious and moral obligation; we cannot afford to flaunt it. Our current economic modus operandi cannot go on forever; it doesn’t take a scholar of economics to know it.
The Rambam writes as follows:
The way of sensible men is that first, one should establish an occupation by which he can support himself. Then, he should purchase a house to live in and then marry a wife. As the verse states: “Who is the man who has planted a vineyard, but not redeemed it…;” “who is the man who has built a house, but not dedicated it…;” “who is the man who has betrothed a woman, but not taken her [to wife]…” (Devarim 20:5-7). In contrast, a fool begins by marrying a wife. Then, if he can find the means, he purchases a house. Finally, towards the end of his life, he will search about for a trade or support himself from charity. Thus we find in the the curses: “You shall betroth a woman…, you shall build a house…, you shall plant a vineyard” (Devarim 28:20). This means that your behavior will be disordered so that you will not succeed in your ways. However, concerning blessing, it states: “And David was thoughtful in all his undertakings and God was with him” (I Shmuel 18:14).
Aside from their inherent importance, the Rambam teaches us a central lesson concerning blessing and curse. “Blessing” is when a person presides over his affairs sensibly and rationally, while “curse” implies the opposite, when affairs are fun unjudiciously and unreasonably. In the Rambam’s eyes, living one’s life in an unreasonable way while quoting all kinds of passages about total reliance on God is not the way of “blessing.”
The Belz proposal presents a lifesaver for Charedi society. We should be jumping on it with two hands. Yes, we ought to leave room for those exceptional students for whom “I teach my son nothing but Torah” is the appropriate path. But Israel, thank God, is one of the few places in the world that does not coerce parents concerning how to educate their children, and the opportunity to take this educational route remains open. The discussion at present it not over what parents need to teach children but over what the state needs to finance, and in the current situation, Charedi parents are effectively being coerced by the state to follow the route of zero general education. This is surely wrong.
We need to empower those God-fearing parents who wish to follow normative halacha and provide their sons with basic education. Certainly, their moral and correct desire should not be quashed by a system that prioritizes money, jobs, and political power.
Photo by Jeswin Thomas on Unsplash