Does Studying the Talmud Make You Smarter? Data Dispels Old Myth

The ultra-Orthodox reject the importance of studying math or English in school with the claim that 'what you learn in 12 years of school, we make up in six months.' But statistics prove otherwise.

Students at Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem.
Illustration: Students at Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem. Gil Cohen Magen

The teacher enters the classroom: “How much is two plus three?” he asks. The students immediately answer five. The teacher asks: “How much is two times three?” The class shouts out six. The next question: “How much is one-half plus three?” Blessed silence.

This is not of a third-grade class. It is a true example from a special preparatory program for ultra-Orthodox (or Haredi) men at the Technion, Israel’s institute of technology in Haifa. Most of the students in the class are aged 25 to 27, and their knowledge of math, as we can see, ends with fractions – more or less at a fourth-grade level.

Their knowledge of physics and science in general is almost nonexistent, but their most vulnerable point is a complete lack of knowledge of the English language. Many do not even know the English alphabet.

Because of this enormous lack of knowledge in almost every area of learning, the Technion does not place these students in its regular preparatory programs, which are intended for those who do not have a full matriculation certificate but still want to be accepted at the Technion. The ultra-Orthodox do not even meet the minimum level of the preparatory programs.

Instead, they spend their initial four months in a pre-preparatory program to prepare them for the regular preparatory classes. The two intensive courses that are required to bring them up to university level last nine months.

The ultra-Orthodox community has a very positive self-image. They are convinced, and have convinced others, that their yeshiva studies teach them logic and how to think and learn at a very high level. “The yeshiva teaches the students how to learn,” they often say.

This approach leads many in the Haredi world to maintain that there is no need to teach the so-called core subjects (primarily math, science and English) in the Haredi school systems.

“Everything you learn in 12 years of school, we make up in six months of a preparatory program,” says Avraham Kadosh, a Haredi man who has a law degree and is a CPA, as well as being a licensed tax and financial adviser. “The way in which Haredim study allows them to succeed in life, because we teach how to learn,” he says.

Kadosh is not the only Haredi who completed his education at a relatively advanced age and joined the workforce, partly due to the enormous efforts the government invests in training for Haredim in their 20s and 30s. The Haredi preparatory program at the Technion, for example, is paid for by the state and includes living allowances for the students.

In addition to the Technion, other institutions that provide programs aimed at the Haredi community include the Haredi campus of the Ono Academic College, the Jerusalem College of Technology (Lev Academic Center) and Sela College; all of which train ultra-Orthodox men and women in a profession, as well as awarding college degrees.

The common view among the Haredi elite is that the adult training provided by the government is a great success – and it makes the campaign to teach core subjects in Haredi schools unnecessary. After all, they manage to complete in six months what the rest of the students learn in 12 years.

Don’t confuse us with facts

The problem is that the statistics do not seem to back it up this self-esteem. A month ago, the Central Bureau of Statistics published the results of a huge study, conducted in cooperation with the OECD, which examined the skills of adults in Israel in 2014 and 2015. The results, all 200 pages of them, are fascinating in several aspects, not least the data comparing the skills of Haredi adults to non-Haredim in Israel.

A preliminary analysis of the report by the Bank of Israel was presented to the Knesset this week. It was titled, “No gap exists between Haredim and non-Haredim in mathematical ability and reading ability, but a significant gap exists in [problem] solving ability in an information processing environment.”

That would appear to validate the Haredi conception that their skills in math and reading are just as good as those of everyone else, but the title is deceptive.

A careful look at the tables contained in the report highlights the root of the problem: The respondents are divided into four groups, from the lowest performing to the highest performing. In the lowest performing group, the Haredim are identical to the rest of the Jewish population – in other words, they do not perform less well. But a large gap opens up between the Haredim and the rest of the Jewish population in the higher performing groups.

In the highest performing group, the percentage of Haredi men with appropriate math skills is only 9.7%, compared to 17.5% of Jewish men who are not Haredim.

In reading skills, the gap is even larger: The number of Haredi men in the highest performing group is so low that it falls within the range of statistical error and is not even reported by the CBS. That compares to 12% of non-Haredi Jewish men who have such skills in this group.

In other words, the data show that the Haredim are no weaker than everyone else at the bottom end of the scale, but they are much weaker at the top. The reason the central bank’s title is deceptive is that their study is based on averages.

On average, it is true that Haredim are no less skilled in these areas than non-Haredim. But when the Bank of Israel examined the abilities of non-Haredim by age groups, they discovered why the average is deceptive: The ultra-Orthodox community is very young, and on average the young have better skills. So the age distribution raises the average of the results of the entire Haredi community.

When the Bank of Israel compared the skill sets according to age groups, the true state of Haredi society was revealed: Adult Haredim are almost equal in their skill levels (a gap of only 0.6%,) but the younger Haredim under age 40 are well behind their non-Haredi peers, with a gap of almost 13%. That means the divergence in skills is growing quickly, because young Haredim today no longer learn the core subjects at all – while some of the older Haredim did.

How do these numbers fit in with the numerous success stories about Haredim who completed their education at a more advanced age? Once again, the answer lies in the gap between the averages and the extremes.

“There is no doubt that the Haredi elite, who study in the elite yeshivas [such as ] Mir, Hebron or Ponevezh are brilliant,” says Dr. Neri Horowitz, a scholar of Haredi society. “They are the scholars of Haredi society and they do study at a high level – but they are an elitist minority.”

The average Haredi is much less successful than the elites. Research conducted for the Council for Higher Education (by Eitan Regev of the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel) showed that only 50% of Haredim who start a college degree finish it. That is a huge dropout rate. Among Haredi women, who study in general seminaries in their high school years and some of whom even take matriculation examinations, the dropout rate is only 30%.

Prof. Chaim Sukenik, president of the Jerusalem College of Technology, which specializes in training Haredim, also reports a 50% dropout rate. It is painful, he says. “These are Haredi men who decided to make the effort to be accepted into [college] and they are filled with motivation – but nonetheless, when they enter academia with knowledge of the four arithmetic operations and without knowing the ABC, it is hard for them to survive.”

Enormous potential, but a huge gap remains

The 50% dropout rate for college degrees is particularly worrying because these are people who have already been self-selected. They have already been through the academic preparatory programs intended for Haredim.

So how many Haredim make it through the preparatory programs? Prof. Dan Zilberstein, who is in charge of the preparatory programs at the Technion, reveals the bitter truth. In the regular preparatory programs at the Technion, taken by Jews and Arabs who have not completed their matriculation certificate, some 70% pass. By comparison, the two-course Haredi preparatory track has only a 35% success rate. This, by the way, is after the Technion has selected only the most appropriate students, the ones it believes are likely to succeed, for the courses.

“We checked,” says Horowitz. “There are 200,000 Haredim who work, 772 of whom are men working in high-tech professions.” For Haredi women, the number is 4,300, but most of them earn no more than 5,500 shekels ($1,430) a month. In other words, even the women are working in the low-tech professions.

“True, Haredim are highly motivated, and the studies in yeshiva equip them with the ability to study, but nonetheless they do not have a chance to compete with the nonreligious, certainly not for senior positions,” says Horowitz. “They will succeed in integrating into work at the middle levels, mostly in jobs inside the Haredi community. Their potential allows some of them to close some of the gap, but the gap remains, and it is large.”