For the past few years, advocates of yeshiva education reform have vociferously complained that Chassidic yeshiva boys are not receiving the kind of secular education required by New York State law.
Contrary to certain narratives pushed by PEARLS (Parents for Educational and Religious Liberty in Schools), this issue pertains exclusively to Chassidic yeshivas. It is common knowledge that these yeshivas have at most 90 minutes of secular instruction at the end of the day. A small minority of Chassidic yeshivas do not teach any secular subjects at all.
One of the first comprehensive studies of Chassidic education in the United States was written by Robert Mark Kamen, entitled, Growing Up Hasidic: Education and Socialization in the Bobover Hasidic Community. The book, based on Kamen’s field work during the 1974 school year, explores the Bobov school system.
At the time, following eighth grade, each boy could choose whether to continue studying secular subjects. If he opted not to, he had to obtain permission from both parents. Kamen reports that in 1974, very few Bobov yeshiva boys received a New York State high school diploma.
As time went on, it seems the school policy changed. Written permission from parents was no longer required, and, by default, from ninth grade on, the yeshiva only provided Torah instruction. Most Chassidic yeshivas eventually followed the Bobov model. Secular subjects, usually consisting of basic English and math, stop entirely after eighth grade.
State Senator Simcha Felder recently sponsored an amendment to safeguard the current yeshiva curriculum. This amendment, which passed New York’s Senate at the 11th hour, essentially considers the “critical thinking” aspects of Talmud study a substitute for a more robust secular studies curriculum.
The logic behind this amendment goes something like this: Students studying Talmud for many hours a day learn to think critically by means of a rabbinic version of the Socratic method and therefore don’t need to spend much time studying math, science, history, and other secular subjects.
Yet, even if students learn to think critically, they don’t learn how to compose a grammatically-correct essay – in English, Hebrew, or Yiddish. A student could have excellent critical thinking abilities, but if he can’t put his ideas down on paper, they are difficult to evaluate and communicate.
Secondly, while it’s true that the Talmud includes many mathematical equations and calculations, the average Talmud student does not have the skills to understand them. It is no secret that most chassidic yeshivas don’t teach their students, at least not in any depth, the two famously mathematically-challenging chapters in Bava Metzia, Eizehu Neshech and Hazahav.
One of the strongest arguments for better secular education standards, however, is the Talmud’s statement that a father is obligated to teach his son a trade. “Our Sages taught in a baraita: A father is obligated to teach his son a trade” (Kiddushin 29a). Rabbi Nehorai disagrees with the Sages – “I set aside all the trades in the world, and I teach my son only Torah” (Kiddushin 82a) – but his view was clearly not shared by the majority of the Sages whose ruling we are obligated to follow.
Chassidim are rightfully concerned about the corrosive influences of modern American society. They see secular subjects as a gateway to assimilation and apostasy. However, while the fear of assimilation is understandable, the success of the numerous non-chassidic yeshivas in teaching their children both Torah and secular subjects proves that offering yeshiva students a full secular curriculum is not an impediment to remaining a religiously-observant Jew.
Indeed, in a recent article in this newspaper, Avi Greenstein, a member of the executive committee of PEARLS, is quoted as saying, “The skills gained through the yeshiva system are why so many bachurim go on to top law schools.” This assertion is a prime example of PEARLS and others conflating chassidic graduates with non-chassidic yeshiva graduates. Many non-chassidic yeshiva students may go on to top law schools, but the same cannot be said about chassidic yeshiva graduates. Most of these lack the necessary reading comprehension skills to score very high on the LSAT.
The Chassidic community is at a crossroads. Choices must be made and some changes may be inevitable. Continuing to hide behind the problematic Felder Amendment will not solve its central problem, namely: How will Chassidic youth grow up to be self-supportive and productive if the status quo endures? It is incumbent upon the Chassidic community’s rabbis and leaders to arrive at a proper balance between Torah and secular studies.