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My father had an MD from Harvard. How could he deprive me of an education?

When I was 14 years old, my father gave me a small, tattered book that was printed in 1829 by the Maskilim, the Jewish secular intellectuals. The book was part of a journal published by the Enlightenment Movement in Eastern Europe called “Bikurei Haitim.”

When my father gave me the book, I was attending Oholei Torah, the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s yeshiva in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. As a follower of the rebbe, I was aware of the historical conflict between the Hasidim and the Enlightenment movement, which reached a peak in the time of the Tzemach Tzedak (1789-1866), the third Lubavitcher Rebbe. So I was hesitant to actually read this volume of “Bikurei Haitim.” I placed the book on a shelf and left it there.

By the time I finished my yeshiva studies at the age of 23, I was deeply troubled and unhappy. Throughout my yeshiva education, from the age of nine to 23, I studied only Torah, Talmud, and Hasidic philosophy. Per the rebbe’s directives, my parents sent me to his yeshiva, which did not teach any secular studies at all. While I took pride in being a part of the “Rebbe’s Army,” I was concerned about how I would make a living when I grew up. I managed to push these concerns out of my mind for many years, but following my rabbinical ordination, I decided that I wanted to enroll in college and began studying for the GED exam.

Having received no math instruction — not even basic arithmetic — at the age of 23, I began studying multiplication tables and fractions. It was very slow going and painful. The more I struggled with fractions and then basic algebra, the more dejected and angry I became. I couldn’t understand how my own father, a graduate of Columbia College and Harvard Medical School, could have sent me to a yeshiva that did not even teach the English language, let alone basic math and science. While my father was given the best secular education in the world, he neglected to provide me with even the minimal secular education needed to allow me to function outside of my hasidic community. The more I thought about this neglect, the more depressed I became.

Then I reminded myself of the small journal published by scholars of the Enlightenment that he had given me years earlier. I thought maybe I could find something in the journal that would speak to me, so I took the book off the shelf and began flipping through the pages. What I discovered on page 135 took my breath away. In the middle of a lengthy essay in Hebrew about the need for education reform in the yeshivas, Juda Jeiteles (1773-1838) wrote the following:

“Except for the Talmud, the yeshiva student is bereft of all worldly knowledge which is given by God; he doesn’t even know the name of his city. We recall the destruction such education caused, rabbim chalalim hepil. What happened to these yeshiva students once they became men? Those who excelled in Talmud study became isolated from other men and lacked the ability to socialize with regular society. Without a basic knowledge of worldly matters they were unable to articulate their thoughts on non-talmudic matters. They didn’t know the ways of the world. Everything that happened from Day One was a closed book. Simply put, the history of the world was foreign to them. Lacking any scientific knowledge of nature, they didn’t know what was below their feet or above their head. Even the history of the Jewish people and the names of the Judean Kings were unknown to them.”

Oholei Torah

I sat paralyzed as I read the rest of this painful essay. Jeiteles was not only describing the woeful state of yeshiva education in his day, but was also chronicling my own educational neglect. Not much had changed between 1829 and 1989 when my yeshiva studies began.

The bitter irony was that the father who was the cause of my own educational neglect was the one who gave me this very journal so many years earlier. It occurred to me that the Talmud had it right: “He who forbids is he who permits.”

To this day, my former yeshiva refuses to teach its students English, math, and science. But the days of shtetl living are long gone. Eventually, I am confident that a time will come when even the most rigid hasidic yeshivas will come to accept that every student deserves to be given the necessary tools to survive and thrive in our modern world.

Yossi Newfield is currently pursuing writing and religious studies. He lives in NYC.

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