Shas Letter Unlikely to Keep Women Out of Education

Leading Israeli education figure points to party’s own efforts to encourage followers - both male and female - to seek higher education.

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Rabbi Shalom Cohen.Credit: Kobi Har Zvi, B'hadarei Haredim website

“This letter will be forgotten as if it never were. The processes are so strong, the genie is out of the bottle, for the better, and nothing can turn back the wheel,” said Prof. Manuel Trajtenberg, head of the planning and budgeting committee of the Council for Higher Education in Israel. He was speaking about the recent letter by Shas party spiritual leader Rabbi Shalom Cohen against higher education for women.

Trajtenberg closely follows ultra-Orthodox higher education enrollment figures. He said he was not disturbed by the missive, on the letterhead of Shas’ Council of Torah sages, that read in part that “women students should not even think of enrolling in academic studies in any setting whatsoever, since that is not the way of the Torah.”

Trajtenberg’s remarks were made in a closed forum with students and reported to Haaretz. He told the students that the growing trend of Haredim who pursue higher education, especially by young women who are thinking about their future earning power, cannot be stopped. “I think the generation of rabbis who ruled with an iron fist in Israel’s Haredi world is gone,” Trajtenberg said. “No one can stop what’s happening on the ground. What I see is that the young generation definitely wants to remain Haredi, they won’t leave, but they don’t want to be poor. They don’t want their children to have the same fate. They understand intuitively that the insular world must eventually” open up, Trajtenberg said.

The letter has been the source of confusion within Shas. It contradicts rulings by Cohen’s predecessor and the party’s founder, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who died in October, and Shas leaders have actively encouraged both male and female followers to pursue higher education. Yosef’s daughter Adina Bar Shalom; Yaffa Deri, the wife of Shas chairman Aryeh Deri and Shas MK Nissim Ze’ev all operate degree-granting educational institutions. In a rare move, the Shas newspaper Yom Leyom withheld Cohen’s letter from publication last weekend, despite having been written by the movement’s highest religious authority.

But Cohen’s views have been welcomed in some parts of the Haredi world in Israel, and they have led to criticism of colleges for the ultra-Orthodox. In interviews to the Sephardi-Haredi radio station Kol B’rama and reports on Haredi websites, a number of people who identified themselves as Haredi students and spoke anonymously, said their spirituality had suffered as a result, whether because of the content of their studies or their contact with secular classmates and teachers.

There are currently around 8,000 ultra-Orthodox students in Israeli institutions of higher education. Their numbers appear to be growing every year, notwithstanding reports of a dip in enrollment figures for this year, presumably in connection to the new military conscription law. Last week education officials told Haaretz that enrollments have picked up. The Council for Higher Education did not provide exact numbers, but an official stated that the numbers “are similar to figures from recent years.”

At his meeting with the students, Trajtenberg said that while Cohen’s letter might cause a similar dip in enrollments, a more likely scenario was that the letter would be forgotten.