The ABCs of Ignorance
When I was a toddler, even before my mother started curling my payess around her finger and brushing it with a bit of sugar-water, she taught me the English alphabet. By pre-school I could spell cat and hat—a great accomplishment, I like to think, considering that some Chasidic boys can barely spell basic English words by the time of their Bar Mitzvah. While my parents, too, emphasized religious studies as my educational priority, it was important to them that I do well during the two hours of “English” in my Chasidic Borough Park school.
I was lucky.
My classmates, for the most part, saw English classes the way I imagine other Jewish kids saw after-school Hebrew studies: a great bother; something parents half-heartedly want but don’t care enough to take too seriously. In my school, as in most Chasidic schools, 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 those “English” classes. As far as I know, general studies education for Chasidic boys continues to be what it has always been: A sham. We know it, educators know it, parents know it, but few care to raise it as an issue of concern, let alone do anything about it. (General studies education for girls is, for various reasons, far superior to that of boys; a subject for another discussion.)
Why is this so?
The reason given most often is that Torah study is considered the highest value for a religious Jew, and therefore all other kinds of study are bittul Torah—wasteful endeavors that divert time and energy from Torah studies.
Additionally, there is said to be anxiety about secular studies being 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 extreme cases, apostasy.
But the real reason, as any observer with a modicum of insight will know, has little to do with any of the above. The real reason is: Chasidim simply don’t care about the issue. It is neither doctrinal nor ideological, but a stance taken by default. A pattern that has taken hold with the ideological depth of a shtreimel or veisse zukken, adhered to for only vague and contrived (or even entirely unknown) reasons.
Chasidic disdain for general studies is bound with their disdain for non-Judeo languages.
“Aynglish, foy!” went the mantra among students at my Borough Park cheder. This linguistic disdain is, of course, a very new phenomenon. Many religious works from the Golden Age of Spain were originally written in Classical Arabic. Rashi, the medieval Biblical and Talmudic scholar, seems to have been quite familiar with medieval French, as evidenced by his many laaz notations. The very origins of Yiddish clearly indicate that the lingua franca of early Ashkenazi Jews was that of the general population. The Jews of of the second-temple period spoke not Hebrew but Aramaic. As for secular studies in general, countless Jewish scholars and sages throughout history were known for possessing at least rudimentary knowledge of the important subjects of the day, and some even for their expertise—medicine, mathematics, astronomy, and much else. Not to mention those who studied and commented on, say, Aristotelian philosophy, like the Rambam, the Ralbag, and others.
Whatever vestigial ideological basis there might be for shunning general studies and the local language probably lies in the reactionary ideology of the 18th century rabbi of Pressburg, Rabbi Moses Sofer, known as the Chasam Sofer. His rallying cry, his response to the Jewish Enlightenment, was “Chadash Asur min Hatorah,” all innovation is forbidden by the Torah, a homiletic interpretation of a biblical verse intended for a different milieu in a different context, but was quickly embraced by most conservative elements of Orthodox Jewry. Its meaning was simple: any deviation in practice—as mundane and as unrelated to halacha or minhag as it might be—was to be shunned.
It is this principle, a thoughtless, reactionary bit of nonsense, that supplied the underlying thought process that would ultimately keep Chasidim from playing baseball, wearing short jackets, or even, among some, riding a bicycle—or a “shaygetz bike,” as some would call it. The shunning of secular education and the insistence on Yiddish falls more or less into the same category.
But today there is no Jewish Enlightenment. There might be new challenges to Orthodoxy today, but the ideological challenges that once led to circling the wagons and to declaring unambiguous with-us-or-against-us policies are simply gone. And yet, the vestiges of that battle are still a mainstay of the Chasidic worldview, a backward-gazing stance that holds an entire society captive for no reason at all.
I will confess that this issue has crept up on me with some personal urgency. In trying to solicit submissions for this journal, Unpious, it has become obvious that the pool of Chasidic or ex-Chasidic writers with any degree of skill is very, very small. It is particularly poor among men; although even among women writers, while marginally better, it is hardly anything to swell with pride over. Of all the talented and intelligent and resourceful individuals in the Hasidic world, very few have learned to construct an essay in any language, even Yiddish, let alone English. The exceptions, while they certainly exist and are, perhaps, all the more notable, are precious few.
Of course, I don’t expect the Chasidic community to be sympathetic to my personal problems or the problems of those who leave the Chasidic world. Some might argue that it is precisely this endeavor for which Chasidim discourage English language skills: it becomes too easy to engage with outside influences precisely of this nature, and so the whole matter is best dealt with by keeping people as ignorant, unlettered, and unskilled as is humanly possible.
But it is this personal collision with the profound lack of basic education that reminded me of the utter failure the Chasidic education system. This failure has significant ramifications, including the fact that the economic system it forces upon its adherents is not only impractical (and perhaps doomed to implode sometime soon), but even outright cruel.
Many Chasidic young men (and by extension, their families and dependents) tell tales of wandering for years through an economic wilderness. The broad strokes are often the same: Boy gets married at 18 or 19, finds himself only a few short years later with a brood of children and little means to support them, and suddenly he’s in full-fledged panic mode. The anxiety cascades into a decades-long economic crisis: housing costs, followed by tuition costs, followed by wedding costs. He’s never had the foresight to prepare for his economic needs, because he was never guided by his elders to think of them. The community treats young men like babies thrown into a pool: forced to make it by sheer resourcefulness, or drown in the financial mess that looms just around next month’s mortgage payment. Most don’t drown; they learn to get by—often with a great deal of government assistance and other forms of communal largesse. But all of this comes with immense—and unnecessary!—hardship, to both body and spirit.
These are only the immediate and practical implications of education neglect. There are also, it must be said, the more fundamental issue: the bastardization of traditional values in the name of an unyielding and largely ineffective conservatism, adherence to which results in generations of human skill gone to waste. Lives potentially enriched by knowledge are stripped to the bone, left with a wasteland of decaying ideas, with ignorance, superstition, myth, conspiracy-theories, and group-think running rampant.
One might ask: What does any of this have to do with me? Since I no longer live in that world, perhaps it shouldn’t be any of my concern. In addition, part of withdrawing from a society means that you lose the ability to influence from within—often the only way change can be realistically achieved.
All of this might be true, and yet, I can’t help but ponder this very sad state of affairs, and hope that something, sometime soon, will change. Perhaps some within the community will finally realize the unseemliness of a society raised in such profound and deliberate ignorance. Perhaps they will realize that their current patterns offer them little gain—even by their own measures and calculations.
Perhaps some will realize the corrosive effect of education neglect on a society’s values. The Talmud says: One must teach his son a trade…. otherwise, it is as if he trains him in thievery. If I am ever inclined to ascribe prophecy to the sages, it is for this. The rampant financial improprieties of the Chasidic world are legend, and directly linked to its third-world economic model.
And perhaps, if for nothing else, some might realize that the esteem of the frum community rides to a very large degree on this issue. Perhaps, then, what the Chasidic world needs is a good old chilul Hashem to wake them up a bit.
The only question is: Do they not realize they already have one? Or do things have to get worse first?Printable Version