Despite Decrees, Jewish ultra-Orthodox Women Still Quietly Studying for Degrees

Infighting pushes some ultra-Orthodox rabbis to ban university studies for women, but many female students say the decision puts them in an impossible situation and vow to keep learning.

Two Haredi women at work at a high-tech firm in Modi'in Ilit.
David Bachar

Leaders of the Agudas Yisroel and Degel Hatorah parties gathered in Bnei Brak recently to discuss academic studies for women with the principals of ultra-Orthodox girls’ high schools. Rabbis called for Jewish women to desist from studying in any higher education institutions, including religious seminaries, that offer an academic diploma. They also stated that offering the bagrut (matriculation diploma) in high school is strictly forbidden, and students should not be taking matriculation tests independently.

Yet behind closed doors, educated women from the ultra-Orthodox (or Haredi) community seem to have their own opinions on the matter.

“I am sure the rabbis are wise and great men,” said Malka, a mother of seven now pursuing a master’s degree at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Like most women interviewed for this article, she asked that her real name not be used.

“They’re saying academia is dangerous for us. In our community, we protect our society by closing ourselves. And in academia I see it myself – it’s too open, there are problems there,” she continued. “But learning in girls’ high schools without getting a degree is very expensive, and for nothing, because they don’t get jobs afterward. I don’t agree with this decision. They’re saying a woman shouldn’t study, and also not work, and also should provide an apartment upon marriage? It’s not logical.”

In addition to banning university studies for women, the rabbis also warned both men and women of the dangers of the high salaries that come with degrees. “The furnaces of this generation are burning more than the furnaces of Auschwitz,” said Rabbi Aviezer Piltz, referring to how secular education threatens the Haredi community.

Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman sent a letter to the conference participants in which he insisted that girls be educated solely in the “framework of Bais Yaakov” – the elementary and secondary school system started by seamstress Sarah Schenirer in Krakow in 1917, which was established to teach Jewish girls both religious and secular subjects within a Jewish environment.

Three ultra-Orthodox women at work, at a high-tech firm in Modi'in Ilit.
David Bachar

Secular danger

The conference’s resolution points said there was “great danger” in studying secular subjects and learning from secular teachers. Rabbi Chizkiyahu Mishkovsky cited a story saying it is better to steal money in order to earn a living than to send a woman to university. A thief can repent and return the money, he explained, but one studying secular studies will never be able to remove this from her soul.

The decision comes on the heels of much infighting in the Haredi community over the future implementation of a draft law that will conscript ultra-Orthodox students into the Israeli army.

With more extreme Haredi factions forbidding their students to enlist at all costs, the moderate factions – who are permitting some Haredi male students to join the army – are now under fire for their religious leniency. Thus, the moderate Haredi leadership had to make their own bid for legitimacy to prove their commitment to the Haredi way. And it seems that ultra-Orthodox women and their academic degrees are caught in the cross fire.

“I think a girl who grows up in a kolel family [in which the father goes to a yeshiva for married men], growing up without money, wants to at least work herself,” says Malka. “The leaders are giving us a test that people cannot stand through. It won’t work. I know many rabbis who say privately to people, ‘Continue working, continue succeeding and earning. Many boys want a wife now who has studied and who will bring in a good livelihood.’”

This is a common cultural phenomenon in religious communities (and is not unique to Judaism): Leaders occasionally come out with a statement; the people nod, and then quietly continue as they have always done. Statements like these are less actual policy but rather, take on the nature of general, vague political statements. These sorts of gatherings aim to raise awareness about an issue that concerns the leadership. “It’s not practical, it’s just declarative,” one woman tries to explain.

An ultra-Orthodox woman works at a computer, at a high-tech firm in Modi'in Ilit. A photo of a rabbi looks down on her.
Eyal Toueg

Sara, a young mother and lawyer pursuing a master’s degree at Hebrew University, told Haaretz, “Almost everyone who approaches Rav Shteinman personally for permission to study, he says yes. There is a difference between making a general policy for the community versus individual policies for people. Many people have stopped going to rabbis for personal decisions – and that’s why we need statements like this, that say we are loyal to our core values.”

So what happens when nearly everyone must receive private dispensations to continue doing as they had done? For one thing, education will remain a subject of discretion, the uncomfortable, non-ideal path of those who want a higher standard of living– something one is forced to do in order to survive.

Borne from fear

Rabbinical decisions like these attempt to secure the reliance of communities on their rabbis, keeping rabbis relevant in the everyday lives of their followers. Yet when food needs to be put on the table, tuitions paid and dowry-apartments purchased, the establishment’s attempts to control the masses seem to fall flat.

“The ban on smartphones and the introduction of ‘kosher phones’ actually worked,” says Malka. “But this is another story. This is about our livelihood. The problem is not so much banning academia, but more about the decision to forbid high salaries.”

The decision seems to come out of fear: fear of secularism, of education, of women as the “foundations” of the home interacting with the world beyond and becoming, as one woman told me, “less deep and less concerned with Yiddishkeit.” And fear of materialism. The poverty of the ultra-Orthodox community has been one of the most empowering tools for religious leadership. But today, as more Haredim turn to work, the picture is changing. “These days, with the Internet, it’s impossible for the Rabbinate to rule ... lead us, I mean,” says one woman.

“It’s unbelievable how they’re distorting Judaism,” a Haredi-Israeli woman wrote on a private Facebook group for religious women. “First they wanted men to study and women to support them – something that is clearly not the Jewish way. And now they want women to not earn or study too much either, just so the man will lead the house. It’s insane!”

Perhaps this rabbinical ruling is an attempt to bridge the Haredi gender gap. Here, the distance between the lives of men and women is growing wider and wider. Enter the home of a Haredi family and you’ll find girls who are studying English, algebra, chemistry, European history. The boys, on the other hand, spend their days entirely steeped in religious texts. That dissonance only deepens as they grow: women may go on to study, work, lead lives outside their communities, while their husbands continue to live within the walls of the yeshivas.

It is this insurmountable distance that rabbis may be trying to bridge here by pulling women back: If husbands come home and can’t understand what their professional, breadwinning wives are talking about, their male pride may, heaven forbid, be threatened – and this imbalance will forever undermine men as the head of the house.

Sara wonders aloud if perhaps the rabbis merely want women to be more careful, to simply be conscious of the need to be cautious in the secular world. “The rabbis have two alternatives,” she says. “Either to say something is forbidden entirely, but then everyone will ignore you and do it anyway – or to kasher it as much as possible. It’s like the Internet: First, leaders came out against it, but people used it anyway – it’s human nature. So they came out with kosher Internet filters. It’s a process. The Council for Higher Education will have to work with Bais Yaakov seminaries to introduce degrees into their programs, to raise their education standards. It’s only a matter of time.”

Miriam Ben-Zeev, a retired professor of history from Ben-Gurion University in Be’er Sheva – and herself Haredi – voices the same hopes. “This would require the close cooperation of institutions and establishments, and one may wonder whether both parts may feel the need to work together,” she tells Haaretz.

It seems that Haredi women are not giving up on their degrees so fast – no matter what. Especially as they see their careers as central to a larger spiritual mission. “I took the decision to let [my daughters] get the best degrees they can because I hoped they would marry Torah learners, so they should earn their families’ living,” says Ben-Zeev.

“I don’t think there will be a realistic change out of this decision,” Malka says firmly. “I’ve asked people – they shrug, they continue to study, they will send their daughters to study. If you ask me, yes, I’ll send my daughters to study, God willing.”