Opinion |

A Miracle in Beitar Illit: General Education in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish School

The decision to recognize the importance of complementing Jewishness with general education gives the students, Haredi society and Judaism in general a chance for renewal

Tzvia Greenfield
Tzvia Greenfield
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File photo: Students in an ultra-Orthodox high school, Jerusalem.
File photo: Students in an ultra-Orthodox high school, Jerusalem.Credit: Olivier Fitouss
Tzvia Greenfield
Tzvia Greenfield

Alongside the Council for Higher Education in Israel’s disgraceful move to approve academic programs that exclude women, Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit has paved the way for the state to support rabbinical tribunals for the resolution of financial disputes. Ostensibly, this is a welcome act of multiculturalism that will give Israel’s one million ultra-Orthodox Jews a forum “to settle civil business disputes by means of religious.” In practice, it is one more avenue for way to tighten male control over the lives of Orthodox and Haredi women.

The legal system created in Judaism when it was an ancient patriarchal society does not recognize female equality and independence. It determines, for example, that a woman belongs to her father and later to her husband; a woman is not entitled to her husband’s inheritance, which is reserved for her sons (or her husband’s brothers); women are dispossessed of their father’s inheritance, along with additional rulings that deny women very basic principles of justice. Women are the enslaved of the world, as the #MeToo revelations have also clearly demonstrated.

And so Haredi society, which is trapped in anachronistic concepts, is still determined to deny women equality and positions of power, and it covers this traditional and almost instinctive tendency with quasi-religious excuses. From the moment that rabbinical courts receive the authority to rule in disputes between men and women, Haredi women will have no avenue of escape.

The social and family pressure on them to surrender to the patriarchal systems that discriminate against them will be unbeatable. Therefore the willingness of legal scholars and academics to grant legitimacy and authority to institutionalized systems of discrimination, which repeatedly harm women in the academic world, in law, in the army or in buses, is inconceivable.

In light of this gloomy situation, the news about the Hasidic boys’ high school in the Haredi settlement of Beitar Illit, which includes secular studies and even has its graduates take the matriculation exams in English, math and sciences, is a sensation. Israel Rosner’s moving report this week on Channel 10’s investigative program “The Source” revealed something of a miracle. The willingness of the school’s founder and principal, Menachem Bombach, and his ultra-Orthodox students (and their families) to recognize the crucial importance of a general education and the importance of acquiring it at a young age, in order to be more well-rounded people who know how to behave in the real world, is unprecedented.

It’s possible that only Haredim will be able to really appreciate the daring and spiritual greatness being demonstrated by the students of the high school, and mainly the principal, who with his radiant personality looks like Akiva Stissel (the main character in the acclaimed eponymous television series about Haredi society) come to life, and finally fulfilling his true destiny.

Judaism has marvelous cultural achievements. It insisted on demanding moral order in the world and refused to see it as nihilistic chaos, or as the rule of force and violence alone. It believed in humanity’s ability to repair the situation, and it abhorred social Darwinism, as can be seen from the prophet Nathan’s angry words to King David.

But that’s not enough. In addition to Judaism’s inability to update itself, leading to anachronistic distortions, it took no interest in nature and certainly didn’t investigate the intellectual and rational dimension of human activity. The Jews had to learn that from the Greeks and their successors.

The willingness of Bombach and his students to recognize this fact, and to understand the tremendous importance of complementing their Jewishness with a general education, is therefore wonderful news. It gives them, Haredi society and Judaism in general a chance for renewal.