Call for education reform in Haredi world

(h/t failed Messiah)

Knesset Member Rabbi Haim Amsalem is at it again.  He wrote an opinion piece arguing for a need in the Haredi community to study the sciences.  His primary argument is the age-old idea that if it was good for Maimonides and others, it is good for the Haredi world as well.  His argument comes on the heels of the naming of the Nobel Prize winners, of which a few were Israeli.  Two things strike me. 

1.  He is the same Rabbi who came out vehemently against the conversion backlash and annulment of conversions by the Haredi courts a couple of years back.  He has tremendous concerns about the outlook of the Haredi community in its relationship with the rest of Israeli society if it continues on the path it has followed since the establishment of the state.

2.  His primary argument about other great figures in the past is one often used to justify the needs of a well-rounded education.  To me, the argument is lacking as those like Maimonides lived in a world much different than ours and to say that because they studied science, so should we, is distorted.  How do we know what a Maimonides would do today.  Maimonides cannot be a model because in those days, science and religion were one and the same.  The idea of non-religious, non-sacred studies was not a category.  In our times, we have a “divide” between secular and holy studies. 

Professor Dan Shechtman’s Nobel Prize win is wonderful news for the New Year. However, a recent article by Professor Ron Aharoni argued that the picture produced by from the recent Nobel wins, as if Israel is a scientific paradise, is distorted.

Aharoni claimed that the State of Israel chose to invest its resources in the study of the Torah, which he says is no more than an “ancient book of laws.” He created a complete distinction while presenting two options: Either religion or science. Yet I believe that presenting these options as “black or white” also creates great distortion. Dividing the world into two is unnecessary and wrong.

Generations upon generations proved that we can have it both ways. The greatest rabbis in history mastered the sciences as well and made a great impression on the world. There is no shortage of examples: Rabbi Levi Ben Gershon (Gersonides), in addition to being a great scholar who wrote a commentary on the entire Bible, was also a scientist, doctor, mathematician and philosopher.

Another noteworthy figure was Rabbi Abraham Zchut, who was a historian and astronomer and studied at the Salamanca University. He was known for upgrading the astrolabe, an instrument used to make astronomical measurements. Just like Gersonides, he was honored by having one of the moon’s craters named after him.

We can of course make note of other giants such as Maimonides, Nahmanides and many others, who combined Torah and high-level science.
 
Restore the tradition

The Torah, our ancient book of laws, is the Jewish people’s constitutive document. Thanks to it we survived for thousands of years while other ancient peoples around us disappeared. Just like we must not neglect scientific studies at this time, we must also not neglect Torah studies, heaven forbid.

Yet just like not everyone is fit to be a math or physics professor, researcher or lecturer, not everyone can be a great scholar or rabbi. For most of the ultra-Orthodox public, a path that combines Torah studies with a dignified job is proper and suitable. Only a select haredi group should dedicate all its time and energy to Torah studies.

In recent generations, a false perception was entrenched as if one must study nothing but Torah. This resulted in a holy war being declared against core studies and of course against academic studies. However, there are broad questions in the Talmud and Halacha that cannot be studies without a deep, broad sciences education.

Shunning non-religious studies led to the haredi public’s inability to secure dignified jobs and, for lack of any other choices, kept thousands of unfit students at yeshivot and advanced Judaic studies programs.

This perception must be changed by providing relevant information and education. Meanwhile, the impossible economic realities of the ultra-Orthodox public are also having their effect.

The time has come to restore the tradition of our forefathers. We are no wiser or more righteous than Maimonides or Gersonides. Maybe in a generation or two we shall have a Shechtman with a black kippah and a beard.

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2 Comments

  1. Although your present tense observation is largely correct, that we separate ‘holy’ and ‘profane’ subject concerns; who says we must do so? I think we can say that Rambam or Ralbag, etc. wouldn’t agree to such distinct divisions; and would still advocate a study of the arts and sciences as completing the pursuit of Torah.

    • I think we both agree that the distinction is artificial. The question is more of how the Haredi community can envision a lack of distinction. There would be a need to retell the story of our history. The Enlightenment ideas of dividing categories would need to be uprooted and the Haredi world would need to feel unthreatened before they truly recognize the value in those subjects in their education system.

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