The ABC’s of Ignorance
Secular Education in the Chasidic World
When I was a toddler, even before my mother started curling my little payess around her finger and brushing it with a bit of sugar-water, she taught me the English alphabet (after I had mastered the Alef Beis, of course). By the time I was enrolled in pre-school I knew that c-a-t spells cat. And while religious studies were always the priority, my parents, bless their souls, always encouraged my voracious reading habits. Mostly those consisted of Yiddish books, and a smattering of material from Artscroll, Feldheim, and their offshoots, but here and there I’d chance upon a secular title, and they wouldn’t make much of it.
But I was lucky. My classmates, save those few whose parents had an iota of foresight for their children’s ability to navigate the world of jobs and careers, saw English classes more or less akin to how secular kids treat after-school Jewish studies: a bother; something parents and educators half-heartedly seemed to want but didn’t care for it to be taken too seriously. The children took their cues from the adults, and the adults showed their lack of interest by their inattentiveness to report cards, PTA meetings, and their lax approach to misconduct during English classes. The state of secular education for Chasidic boys, therefore, is, and always has been, a sham; we know it, they know, but few care to raise it as an issue of concern, let alone do anything about it. (Secular education for girls is, for various reasons, far superior to that of boys; a subject for another discussion.)
There are a number of reasons Chasidim shun all but the very basics of secular studies for boys. Most often heard—particularly by inside apologists or outside “experts”—is that Torah study is considered the highest value and therefore energy expended elsewhere is deemed wasteful.
Which, in my opinion, is just another of those mantras we often hear about our world, echoed back by outsiders in books, articles, and the media in general, statements that sounds insightful and profound, but which every insider knows is a vast over-simplification. But we’ll get to that in a moment.
Another reason is perhaps the subtle anxiety – in varying degrees, depending on the particular Chasidic group – that secular studies are inherently insidious, the road down which leads to laxity in religious observance, and the discovery of the allures and temptations of the outside world. (And, in very extreme cases, apostasy.)
But the most truthful reason is also the most petty and unreflective: They simply don’t care for it. It is a stance taken simply by default, with little attentiveness to its reasons or ramifications. It is neither doctrinal nor ideological. It is a meme, a cultural idea that has taken hold with the ideological depth of the shtreimel and bekishe, adhered to fiercely for only vague and contrived reasons.
There is little in Classical Judaism to support the Chasidic disdain for secular studies or for the language of their non-Jewish neighbors. Many a religious work from the Golden Age of Spain was originally written in Classical Arabic. Rashi, the medieval Biblical and Talmudic scholar, seems to have been quite familiar with medieval French. And Yiddish, the very language of the Chasidim, indicates that German was widely used by early Ashkenazi Jews. Jewish scholars and sages throughout history were frequently known for at least rudimentary knowledge—and sometimes even deep expertise—in the fields of medicine, mathematics, and astronomy. Not to mention those who engaged the works of the ancient Greek philosophers, even if only to be dismissive of them.
The historical basis for shunning secular studies lies in the reactionary politics towards the efforts of the Jewish Enlightenment to modernize world Jewry. The 18th century rabbi of Pressburg, Rabbi Moses Sofer, led the battle, particularly in the Austro-Hungarian region. His rallying cry, “Chadash Asur min Hatorah”, loosely translated for this context to: all innovation is forbidden by the Torah—an almost-comical homiletic interpretation on a biblical verse intended for an entirely different milieu in an entirely different context—was embraced by most of the conservative elements of Orthodox Jewry, who used it to shun any deviation from tradition in principle or practice. In this two-century-old battle lies the extremism of Chasidic society that is characterized by what would otherwise be very peripheral concerns: namely, adherence to cultural trappings that have little basis in theological or doctrinal principles, including matters of dress, speech, and other forms of demonstrative separation from secular culture.
Today there is no Jewish Enlightenment. The serious ideological challenge to Orthodox Jewry that was once deemed a threat that required circling the wagons and declaring an unambiguous policy of with-us-or-against-us is long gone. But the remnants of that battle are still a mainstay of the Chasidic worldview, an unfortunate backward-gazing stance that holds an entire society captive to closed-mindedness and insularity.
I will admit that this issue has crept up on me with a degree of personal urgency, and it has to do with this very endeavor, Unpious.com. In trying to solicit submissions, it’s become painfully obvious that the pool of potential writers of decent quality is very, very small – certainly among men. Many an intelligent and talented individual, even one who is fairly well-read and has developed dissenting views from the mainstream Chasidic community, lacks the basic skills for developing and presenting a coherent essay in English.
But of course, I can hardly expect the Chasidic community to be sympathetic to the problems of the impious. There’s an argument to be made that it is precisely this kind of endeavor that would discourage Chasidim from emphasizing English language skills, lest it become too easy to engage with outside influences precisely of this website’s nature.
And that, of course, is part of the problem. Chastising a community for its values must come with an appreciation for the origin and basis for those values before trying to dissuade adherence to it. (Unless, of course, you are Abe Foxman, who, for instance, found it his business to chastise the Vatican for its refusal to remove part of a Latin prayer that affirms its commitment to proselytizing Jews. The absurdity should be obvious. Doctrinal issues cannot be argued against with talk of political necessity.)
It’s for this reason that I argue that the shunning of secular education has little basis in Orthodox tradition. And the problems I encounter in soliciting writers are merely the magnifying glass for highlighting the problem, but hardly the reason why I think it need be addressed.
Most importantly, adherence to archaic values that have long lost their raison d’être is all fine and good when it merely satisfies a sentimental attachment to a culture looked back upon fondly. In this case, however, it has significant ramifications, including the fact that this stance is not only increasingly impractical but sometimes even outright cruel.
As a young adult, already married with three children, I found myself desperately in need of a means for earning a living beyond the limited opportunities within the community. A friend, in similar financial straits, told me of a vocational course offered by an Orthodox organization in Manhattan, and we decided to both enroll. Since neither of us had high school diplomas, we were both required to take basic reading, writing, and arithmetic exams, aside from the standard aptitude tests given to all prospective students.
I passed the exams without any problems; my parents after all had encouraged me to take even my secular studies seriously. My friend failed miserably. Determined to persevere, he went home and sat down with his wife and asked her to tutor him in basic English and math skills. He took the exams a few weeks later and passed. But he didn’t last long. The course’s reading assignments were significant, and he was unable to manage it even with his wife’s tutoring. He dropped out mid-semester and went on to dabble in various entrepreneurial ventures, none of which were very successful. I went on to finish the course and eventually set out on a fairly successful career track.
Many a Chasidic young man could tell a similar tale, of finding himself one day with a brood of children without the means to support them, never having had the foresight to prepare for career or vocation, and never having had the proper guidance for the inevitability of such a situation. The community treats young men like babies thrown in a pool of water, forced to learn to swim on their own. Most don’t actually drown, but learn, with difficulty, how to sustain themselves somehow or another. But it often comes with immense hardships.
But of course, these are only the immediate and practical implications of education-neglect. There are, of course, more fundamental issue to be addressed: the bastardization of traditional values in the name of fierce conservatism, adherence to which results in generations of human talent gone to waste. Lives potentially enriched by knowledge and culture are stripped to the bone, left only with a wasteland of decaying ideas that are neither Jewish nor human, with ignorance, superstition, myth, conspiracy-theories, and group-think running rampant.
But I have to face the fact: I am no longer an integral part of that world; certainly not to those who still live within it. And part of withdrawing from a particular culture is that you lose the ability to influence from within. And there’s only so much receptiveness to voices coming from without—if there’s any at all.
But I still can’t help hoping that some within the community, specifically those who still cherish the core ideas of Judaism, the Chasidic movement, and the community lifestyle, will realize the shameful unseemliness of a community raised in deliberate ignorance, when doing so gains them little benefit, and when a little more reflectiveness can enrich not only personal lives, but raise the esteem for their lifestyle as a whole.Printable Version