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Most Distinctly -- Chronicle Online/The WORD 09/15/22

Weekly On-line Rabbi's D'var-Torah

September 15, 2022

19 Elul 5782


Parashat Ki Tavo

The New York Times’ front-page (above the fold) article on the low level of secular education in some New York Hasidic schools has elicited strong reactions from all sides. Some have suggested that if parents knowingly choose those private schools with those curricula, everyone else should butt out. Others believe that if these schools take public money, they have an obligation to produce educated citizens. These are American arguments. I want to look at this situation through a Jewish lens. I think these schools are wrong from a Jewish perspective because they have an obligation to give their students the skills to survive and thrive in our society. In the Babylonian Talmud, the rabbis were discussing a father’s obligation to his son (yes, they were a little sexist nearly 2,000 years ago!). Here’s what they came up with: “A father is obligated with regard to his son to circumcise him, and to redeem him if he is a firstborn son who must be redeemed by payment to a priest, and to teach him Torah, and to marry him to a woman, and to teach him a trade. And some say: A father is also obligated to teach his son to swim (BT Kiddushin 29a).” The first four are religious obligations, and we should not be surprised. However, the last two—a trade and how to swim—might be surprising to some. It’s clear that the rabbis expected Jewish parents to give their children the skills necessary to earn a living. But, what do we do with the obligation to teach them how to swim? I’ve always interpreted it to represent all the skills one might need to get by in the world—“street smarts.” And when a yeshiva (academy) agrees to educate a child on behalf of his parents, the yeshiva takes on this responsibility. It seems pretty clear from the test results of the students in these Hasidic yeshivas (keep in mind, these yeshivas do not represent ALL orthodox yeshivas!) that the administrators and teachers are not fulfilling their responsibilities to the students or the parents. They are producing a generation of graduates who do not have the skills necessary to function in our modern information technology-driven society. So, if the New York Times article pushes these schools to improve their secular education, that will be a good thing. However, just because I agree with the content of the article and I hope it will spur positive change, that doesn’t mean I was completely happy with the article. I think the editors of the New York Times ignored several important factors in their article. First of all, orthodox Jews have been the targets of antisemitic violence in the New York area. The New York Times itself very recently reported that violence against visibly Jewish people was at an all-time high (click here). It seems to me that printing an article like this, which reinforces the other-ness of orthodox Jews while also suggesting that they are inappropriately taking public money for their schools (Jews and money??) might have the unintended effect of encouraging more violence against the Jewish community. In addition, the New York Times article did not explore the historical experiences of these Hasidic communities that might have led them to this approach. For example, the Satmar community was almost completely exterminated during the Holocaust. When a small remnant came to the United States, they came with a great mistrust of the government. Over time, their community became more and more insular. We might not agree with their approach, but the New York Times could have provided more context to help readers understand the community. In this week’s Torah portion, Moses gave the Israelites some instructions for when they arrived in the Promised Land. They were to set up pillars and write words of Torah on them. He specifically said that the writing must be “most distinctly—בַּאֵר הֵיטֵב.” In other words, the elders need to make it as easy as possible for the people to read the words of Torah. Another translation is “explained well.” The Hasidic yeshivas of New York that are not providing a proper secular education to their students are not fulfilling the obligation to explain things well for their students. However, the New York Times could have been more careful in the way they wrote about the situation. They would all do well to make sure that their words are written and taught “most distinctly—בַּאֵר הֵיטֵב.” Shalom, RAF.

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