Anti-Jewish? Not Really

Haredi philosophy has yet to offer a proper response to Maimonides' contention that secular studies are a mitzvah, and that one is obliged to engage in them.

Jacob Lupu
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Jacob Lupu

The High Court of Justice verdict, which ruled that, from 2007, budget allocations to Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) institutions that only teach religious studies are to be abolished, was met by harsh responses from leaders of the Haredi public. These leaders are attempting to present the decision as an anti-Jewish attempt to coerce them into "idol worship."

The Haredi leadership is concealing the simple historic fact that the attempts to integrate secular studies with religious studies began way back in the mid-19th century, in the heart of Haredi Judaism, having nothing to do with any coercive outside factor. What's more, Haredi philosophy has yet to offer a proper response to Maimonides' contention that secular studies are a mitzvah, and that one is obliged to engage in them.

In the years 1866-1876, Rabbi Simcha-Zissel (Broide) Ziv, known as the Alter of Kelm, ran a yeshiva institution for high-school-age boys, in which aside from Talmud, the students also learned subjects such as grammar, math and Russian. This attempt, carried out by the founder of one of the important currents of the Lithuanian yeshivas and an enthusiastic pupil of Rabbi Israel Salanter, founder of the Mussar movement, raised sharp objections in conservative circles, so much so that the Russian authorities were informed that the yeshiva was teaching its pupils to rise up against the government.

In 1882, Rabbi Isaac Jacob Reines, the rabbi of Svintsyan in the Vilna province, founded an innovative yeshiva in his community. Alongside religious studies, the institution offered Hebrew and general studies. The rabbis considered it an act of treason by a Jewish sage, who in their view was in league with adherents of the Enlightenment movement, who, they claimed, wanted to destroy the Torah world. Rabbi Reines reestablished his educational enterprise some two decades later in the city of Lida, at the same time as he was founding the Mizrachi movement.

Toward the end of the 19th century, Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Spector, the rabbi of the city of Kovno and the greatest rabbinical leader of his generation in Eastern Europe, founded the Etz Chaim Yeshiva and the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Yeshiva in New York. The new yeshivas supplemented religious studies with secular studies, as a response to the new "market conditions" in the U.S.

In 1919, a new Chassidic Poland-type yeshiva was established in Warsaw, which continued to exist until the outbreak of WWII. The High Yeshiva-Metivta was founded by adherents of the Gerer Rebbe, who oversaw its activities. The curriculum devoted two hours a day to Polish, mathematics and history.

In 1938, Rabbi Moshe Avigdor Amiel, the chief rabbi of Tel Aviv, founded the New Yishuv Yeshiva. Along with religious studies, the institution also taught secular subjects. The yeshiva developed in the Haredi spirit, with its students abiding by the directives of the leading figures of the Torah world, even though Rabbi Amiel was a leader of the Mizrachi movement and an ideologue of religious Zionism. Rabbi Eliezer Menachem Shach, who would later go on to found the Degel Hatorah party, served as head of the metivta (religious seminary) of the yeshiva soon after his arrival in Palestine in the early 1940s. Although he decided to leave the yeshiva after pressure was exerted on him, the mere fact that Shach joined the institution's faculty is indicative of the sense of legitimacy he once placed in the combination of secular and religious studies.

Among Sephardim, there had never been any ideological objections in principle to the integration of secular studies with religious studies. This combination was offered in educational institutions in the lands of the Maghreb, the Mediterranean basin and Iraq. Nor are there any objections in principle in the teachings of Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef to the integration of secular studies, and in many of his rulings he sanctions this for those students interested in pursuing them. Nevertheless, all of the Sephardi yeshivas (for high-school-age students) acquiesced to the Lithuanian dictate, and do not teach secular studies in Israel.

In light of these facts, the Haredi contention that the High Court of Justice verdict essentially ruled that Israel is not a state of the Jews seems absurd. Following this same logic, the actions of the Torah giants cited above would not be considered Jewish behavior, either.

The inability of Haredi society to prepare its graduates to earn a living is the cause of its poverty, and thereby endangers the stability of the yeshiva world. Offering secular studies alongside religious studies will bring Haredi society back to the equilibrium that existed during the Golden Age of the Lithuanian yeshivas. Most Jews, then, set aside time for Torah study and earned a livelihood, with a minority (the gifted ones) freed from having to concern themselves with earning a living. They were supported by the members of the community, in exchange for devoting themselves solely to Torah study.

The writer works at the Jerusalem Foundation and is a researcher of Haredi society at the Floersheimer Institute of Policy Studies