The Rabbis and the Saw

Paradoxically, the situation of the girls in ultra-Orthodox schools is better than that of the boys. A lot better. The boys are designated to spend their lives studying Torah, while the girls are left the burden of supporting the family. Therefore, the schools for girls are thought to be more open and a lot better than the schools for boys in the ultra-Orthodox - haredi - world.

The boys' curriculum is confined to religion. The girls need to work in the future and instead learn regular subjects, after which they can study for a bachelor's degree at one of the haredi seminars for teachers. Then they can teach in one of the ultra-Orthodox education systems.

That reality has changed the balance of power in haredi society. The women are established as the breadwinners, and are more independent within the family. The desire to protect the men and leave them ensconced in the world of Torah has led the omen to accumulate power, education and status. Perhaps too much power, education and status.

That may be one of the explanations for the backlash.

At the start of the year, the Rabbinical Council for Education, which is the rabbinate's mechanism to set policy that influences most segments of haredi society, announced that the party was over. The rabbis flung chains over study at the women's teacher seminars. They claimed that the studies at the seminars were lasting too many years and that the women were therefore delaying getting married and procreating.

No more bachelor's degrees at the seminar, the rabbis ruled. The girls could study until being certified as teachers, but there is a catch: after two years the girls have to take a break, get married and only then could they continue onto the third year.

The rabbis also ruled that only certified teachers could teach at the seminars, and that means, ultra-Orthodox teachers with little education. Teachers with a Master's degree, who until now had taught specialty subjects such as special education, would be banned.

At one swoop, through education, the rabbis have cut off the advancement that ultra-Orthodox women might have wished for. Without a bachelor's degree, most potential advancement within the education system is barred to them, and so are commensurate raises in wage with rank.

Since the women are the main breadwinners, what the rabbis have done is cut off the potential earnings of the only breadwinners in haredi society. Thus has haredi society chosen, eyes wide open, to impoverish itself, all in the name of religious extremism.

What enabled ultra-Orthodox society to do this was naturally the capitulation of the Education Ministry before the dictates of the rabbis.

The Education Ministry is the one that finances the seminars. It participates in paying their teachers, and wages for teachers are a function of their education. The rule among secular teachers is that a bachelor's degree is essential to obtaining higher pay. Until now the ultra-Orthodox women teachers could take advantage of that too, by obtaining degrees at the seminars. After the intervention by the rabbis, a degree has become a far-off dream - but a raise in pay may be another story.

Although the ultra-Orthodox women teachers will, from now on, have no bachelor's degree, this month the Education Ministry agreed not to hurt their pay. For their sake, the ministry created a whole new rank, "Rank 1", which links their pay to that of teachers with a bachelor's degree. The rank will only apply to the ultra-Orthodox sector.

The women teachers have lost at least a year of education; the faculties will have less educational background; and the range of courses that they teach has been censored by the rabbis. But for the purposes of pay, the Education Ministry has recognized them as possessing a regular bachelor's degree.

In parallel the ministry agreed that lecturers at the seminars would have no formal academic education. The extra knowledge that they need to teach at a seminar for teachers, can be obtained through specialization, under the full supervision of the rabbis.

The rabbis set out to curb the education of the haredi woman, and her employment options too, and the State of Israel, via the Education Ministry, let them do it. The budgets of the Education Ministry will continue to finance pay for the ultra-Orthodox women teachers as though nothing had happened, though their basic education, their skills and their capacity to find work outside the ultra-Orthodox education system has badly diminished. With that, haredi society is sawing off the branch on which it sits, and the Education Ministry paid for the saw.