Wasserman
Wasserman: “I am for academic education, it’s just that everything gets exaggerated and loses proportion.” Photo by Tali Mayer
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Rabbi Avraham Wasserman teaches in a hesder yeshiva (where religious studies are combined with army service ) in Ramat Gan and is the leader of the Gvurat Mordechai Orthodox congregation in Givatayim. About 10 days ago an article he wrote entitled "A little stupidity: On the search for a career and too much education" was published in the "Olam Katan" leaflet distributed in religious Zionist synagogues.

In the article Wasserman criticized the practice of encouraging young people to seek university educations even if they are unsuited for higher education. He wrote that "exaggerated enlightenment" harms "the basis of human existence," and also leads to such phenomena as long bachelorhood and single mothers.

Rabbi Wasserman, are you against university education?

Of course not, it's impossible to conclude that from what I wrote in the article. I am really not against it. I am for academic education, it's just that everything gets exaggerated and loses proportion, and then it comes at the expense of something else, and is likely to get spoiled itself too.

Just like overeating, or getting too much exercise. In this matter, it happens the minute that a university education becomes a higher value, and in practice everyone is brought up, is taught in this atmosphere where you have to get a higher education, an academic degree, because if not, you are apparently not ... serious and you don't count socially.

Have you seen this loss of proportion in your surroundings?

I see it in Israeli society in general, and we live in Israeli society. Today, a national religious family of any stripe feels that it must receive at least a bachelor's degree to support its children. Paying for it indicates that it is an existential necessity. Look, I am one of the people who are doing this. I too do as everyone else does, and I don't regret it.

My children are students of higher education, and from my point of view that's fine but it's trendy. It has become part of the trajectory almost like kindergarten and [primary] school.

What do you suggest?

My argument is terribly simple: any exaggeration is a bad idea. Public discourse today, and some of the laws too, have taken the matter of education too far. A person who for some reason does not have a degree, and his friends do, almost automatically feels second class. This should not be the case.

How does this contribute to long bachelorhood and single mothers?

[Schools] are not solely responsible, but there's no doubt that they contribute heavily to a problematic situation which is not only ours, but the whole world's. The extreme impulse to get an education means that people concentrate primarily on developing an individual career and less on what I called "the naturalness of life," the most elementary parts of living, having a family out of the concern for continuity, and the naturalness of parenting. These have been suddenly shunted aside, and in certain cases are very "out."

Is it worth it to go backwards to arrive at "naturalness"?

I don't think we have to go backwards. When Jean-Jacques Rousseau called for a return to nature, I don't think he was interpreted as someone who wanted to go backwards, not to burn books, heaven forbid, not to stop studying, but to develop onward.

No one thinks that the minute the subject of emotional intelligence took center stage a few years ago, that it constituted a retreat. We developed, found another area, a fascinating area, where life flows. Masses of young people, after being released from the army, travel to South America and to the East. They are seeking something which they sorely miss, and that is a natural life. They don't find any great education there, it's not Harvard; they find life that flows, natural and calm - things that their life does not supply. Does this look like going backwards? I don't think so. On the contrary, it is progress. These are people who seek new channels that speak to them about their lives.

So would you advise your students or your children to attend university?

I advise them to go, absolutely, if it is for them. Everyone doesn't have to run there in a herd. I myself studied at Hebrew University, where it may be remembered that Rabbi Kook spoke at the opening ceremony and paid a high price for it in the ultra-Orthodox world. About my own children - if it interests them, and they feel it contributes to their lives, then definitely yes.

What is your opinion of the special academic programs for national religious students?

These programs arose out of the needs of both sides, that is, those who want to develop higher education and those who seek to gain it, and a public that was important to the colleges really had certain demands about some matters so that the studies and the atmosphere would better suit it, and there is no doubt that this is a good thing.

Doesn't this trend contribute to the segregation of some of the national religious public?

This is a matter of style and taste. There are those who prefer Ben-Gurion University, because it is characterized by an interest in social topics, and those who prefer the Technion.

I don't see this as segregation, but [providing] something comfortable for a particular population, [tailored] to their agenda, their values. In the end, they won't work in another country or planet. They will work here.

Would you recommend a religious campus to your students who want to study at a university?

If it suited them, yes, of course. I don't think this is dictated in advance; everything depends on suitability.

Is there a difference when it comes to men or women?

There are no sweeping differences, not even between men and women.

I imagine a large portion of your congregation in Givatayim have degrees. Do you think their children will also? How did they respond to your article?

There haven't been responses yet, so I have no idea. And about whether their children will have degrees - they already do.

Is this a last stand by rabbis to curtail the phenomenon?

I wouldn't say it's a battle. I expressed a position, which may very well contribute to the discussion and to the thinking of young people about the question of what I see as central to life, and what is less so. And so I ended the article by saying that in my eyes, it is positive and even vital that when asking small girls and boys what they want to be when they grow up, the answers will be "a good father" and "a good mother."