Thank you, Sasson, for opening up your doors to address this fundamental Jewish issue at such a critical time in history.
It is unfortunate that external pressure from some of the non-Jewish governments in which Jews find themselves is prompting this discussion, but perhaps what will come out of this struggle will be a great salvation for Jews all over the world.
What is prompting the renewed interest in Jewish education is the threat of governments, those of New York State and of England, dictating the amount or content, respectively, of secular education required in religious schools. Obviously, this has irked many religious Jews who are used to the curriculum of their children’s schools being more or less decided by the schools alone, with minimal interference from the outside.
Sadly enough, these government requirements are nothing new.
The rabbis of Eastern Europe had to contend with similar attempts by their host nations to require the yeshivas to include whatever subjects they deemed necessary. The famous Volozhiner Yeshiva even closed its doors because it would not succumb to government curriculum requirements. As Shlomo HaMelech said, there is nothing new under the sun.
But something about this contemporary attempt is particularly jarring. How can it be that such threats to the relative autonomy in educational affairs are being perpetrated in two of the largest Diaspora concentrations of religious Jews? Moreover, this is occurring in Western nations that take great pride in their freedom of expression and liberty! While the duplicity of these otherwise “democratic” governments is certainly cause for complaint, in order to truly understand the real, ultimate issue, a Jewish approach must instead focus on the real source of this trial: why is Hashem subjecting us to this?
Nobody nowadays is privy to prophesy, so there can be no authoritative voice that can provide that answer with certainty. But we Jews know enough about our history and about G-d’s exactitude in providing measure-for-measure opportunities to return to the proper path, so perhaps we can suggest some areas to explore.
One thing to make clear is that Torah, the cornerstone of what constitutes Jewish education, is not merely our particular focus of study.
Learning the halachos, the rituals associated with the prayer service, how to decipher a page of Gemara, delving into the Torah’s commentaries—while they are all important aspects of Judaism that every Jew must be familiar with, acquiring knowledge of them is not what compromises a Torah education.
As the transmitted knowledge of G-d, both the Written and Oral parts of Torah, a Jew’s involvement in Torah connects him to G-d in a real way, and so as important as gaining more knowledge of Him is, the ultimate goal of Torah learning is the dedication and always striving to know more.
Such a pursuit requires purity of purpose and constant involvement; incorporating other subjects and other involvements is a direct contradiction to that never-ceasing immersion in getting to know as much of what Hashem revealed about His ways as one can while in this world. Once Torah education is understood in this light, then it is clear that any adulteration of this process, whether it be with non-Torah content or with blocks of time taken for other matters, destroys the whole purpose of Torah education.
“Very nice ideal,” some might argue, “but the station of Jews in the world is one in which they need to understand the societies they are living in so that they can compete and get jobs to pay for all the needs of a Jewish lifestyle.”
This is also not a new claim; Yirmiyahu HaNavi had to respond to a similar argument when he chastised the generation before the destruction of the First Temple as to why they weren’t involved in Torah (see Rashi to Shemos 16:32).
While it is true that providing for one’s family is not a responsibility to be shirked, and the reality of Western society is one in which adequately doing so requires more training than the simple professions of yesteryear, the issue is more what is deemed the priority of Jewish education.
Is preparing one’s children for the rigors of society the most important aspect of Jewish education or a secondary focus? How important are the secular subjects to a Jew’s well-rounded Torah education in the long-run? What should be the focus of a child’s education during the years when he’s likened to a sponge—that which will be his acquisition for eternity or that which will help him deal with the material needs of this temporary station known as “this world”?
These are the very difficult but very crucial questions at the heart of this issue.
Just one last point to ponder: throughout Jewish history, non-Jewish governments have always exerted pressure upon us only as a result of our turning away from Hashem. We blame ourselves for the destruction of our Temples (see Yoma 9b), not just the evil whim of sinister tormentors. Hence, if we find that non-Jewish governments are requiring us to incorporate secular and anti-Torah education into our curriculums, it seems sensible to at least consider that we might have brought this upon ourselves by perhaps placing primary importance on such things.
In the words of Mesilas Yesharim, “the way a person wants to go, G-d leads him,” and so He will give us what we want, though not necessarily as we want it. So while the current situation is undoubtedly a challenge, it’s also an opportunity for every Jew to reassess his own dedication to the ideal true Torah education.
Notwithstanding the work to be done on the ground, considering the above may be what is truly asked of every Jew at this time to free our brethren of this terrible attack upon our autonomy and to be able to continue to serve Hashem as we truly desire to do.