Shas Spiritual Leader: Women Mustn't Even Think of Higher Education

Rabbi Shalom Cohen, who recently took over for the late Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, said academic study by women is 'not the way of the Torah.'

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

Rabbi Shalom Cohen, Shas’ new spiritual leader, recently came out against higher education for ultra-Orthodox women, a belated reaction to a 15-year-old education revolution in the community he represents.

Rabbi Cohen wrote in an official letter Shas party letter: “women students should not even think of enrolling in academic studies in any setting whatsoever, since that is not the way of the Torah.” According to the Hebrew-language Haredi website Kikar Hashabbat, which published the letter on Monday, it is the first official letter Rabbi Cohen has written since he took office about two months ago.

Though the letter specifically addresses the issue of female students, his objections apparently apply equally to men.

In the letter, Rabbi Cohen wrote, “We are witness to the fact that women students, graduates of religious seminaries, wish to enroll in academic studies. Our rabbis, the sages of Israel (may their merit protect us), were absolutely opposed to academic studies, even in Haredi colleges, since many of the lecturers are university graduates and do not have the purely Torah-based outlook in which we were brought up,” He added, “The material studied in the colleges is based on scientific research and methods that fly in the face of Torah-based views! Therefore, women students should not even think of enrolling in academic studies in any setting whatsoever, since that is not the way of Torah.”

Rabbi Cohen’s new policy goes against that of the late founder and previous spiritual leader of Shas, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who was a frequent guest in the first academic college for Haredi women established by his daughter, Adina Bar-Shalom, and who was an open supporter of academic studies for women. In addition, Shas chairman MK Aryeh Deri continues to boast of the support he gave Bar-Shalom’s Haredi College of Jerusalem when he was Shas’ chairman in the 1990s.

Rabbi Cohen’s statement joins attempts by the Lithuanian Haredi movement to put a stop to academic education among Haredi women. These attempts reached a peak in 2007, when the late Rabbi Yosef Shalom Eliashiv, the leader of the movement, imposed a series of decrees on schools, the foremost of which was the abolition of the academic tracks that had begun to gain a foothold in the post-secondary Haredi teachers’ seminaries.

Despite Rabbi Cohen’s firm statement, his letter appears unlikely to stop Haredi women or men from attending academic institutions. Just a few months ago, Haaretz published a study showing that roughly one-fifth of Haredim aged 25 to 39 had academic degrees or were in the process of earning them — an increase of 41 percent compared to data from 2007. The increase was even sharper among women.

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