Wanted: A New Approach to Yeshiva Funding

The eulogists praised Rabbi Elyashiv for his disengagement from the world, which reached a point where he was not involved in the lives of his children, and didn’t even know their names.

The battle to conscript yeshiva students has been waged in the past decades mainly in legalistic language − by way of a discourse about equality − and with the ongoing involvement of the High Court of Justice. But this legal discussion ignores the main question that must be clarified: What should be the state’s order of priorities when it is asked to allocate funds for higher education?

Parents have a right to educate their children according to the values of their culture and their religious beliefs, and the state must provide them with suitable education systems. That is not the case when it comes to higher education. Recently a debate arose as to whether a university should be established in the West Bank settlement of Ariel. A central part of the discussion dealt with the question of whether the state should be investing money in an eighth university, or whether the existing universities are sufficient for the country’s needs. But when it comes to yeshiva students, such a discussion never takes place. The assumption is that what should dictate government funding is demand: As long as there are ultra-Orthodox men who want to study in yeshivas, the state must provide a budgetary solution to the demand.

But when the state is required to finance post-secondary level education, it is allowed to engage in a series of value-based considerations. For example, how does it assess the education being demanded, in comparison, say, with that provided in universities and colleges, religious Zionist seminars for women, the educational institutions of the non-Orthodox denominations, and secular batei midrash? It is in the context of such an assessment that we should contemplate the nature of the education being provided in Haredi yeshivas.

We had a glimpse of the nature of this education recently with the death of posek hador, the “arbiter of the generation” and the leader of the “Lithuanian” Haredi community, Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv. The eulogists described the rabbi as an extreme formalist whose decisions were based on halakha (religious law) alone, with no willingness to take into account anything about the world in which those decisions were supposed to be implemented. They praised him for his disengagement from the world, which reached a point where he was not involved in the lives of his children, and didn’t even know their names.

That constitutes a real return to the 19th-century world of Torah, which was angrily criticized by writers such as Micah Joseph Berdichevsky and Mordecai Zeev Feuerberg. This disengagement also stands in contrast to the practical wisdom of the decision-making model of Aristotle and its modern successor − the adjudication of the Anglo-American courts, wherein the decision-making takes into account the anticipated effects of a decision on the society in which the decision-maker is functioning.

And I have not yet mentioned the fact that adult education in the Haredi yeshivas excludes women from Torah study, and in doing so not only prevents them from participating in what, according to the ultra-Orthodox worldview, is the supreme religious experience, but also bars them from the opportunity to take part in political life and to fulfill roles as judges.

A critical approach to yeshiva funding is likely to give rise to some of the hoped-for positive results. It will not lead to mass conscription of Haredim, because there is no power in the world capable of that, and if it were to happen it would involve a huge financial outlay and a regression in the status of women in the army. But such an approach could create justification for a significant reduction in the budgets channeled to Haredi yeshivas for adults. This would require many Haredim to join the job market, and would be an important step in a proper ordering of relations between the state and the ultra-Orthodox community. It would also be an important normative statement on the part of the state.

Prof. Menachem Mautner teaches in the law faculty of Tel Aviv University.