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The Real Reason Ultra-Orthodox Rabbis Rail Against Women’s Education

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Recently, a number of media outlets have the statements of the haredi rabbinic leadership in Israel regarding academic study for women. Last Tuesday, a group of leading haredi rabbis met and declared that women should not study in any secular higher education institutions or obtain secular academic degrees. Coming in the midst of discussions of other hot button issues on women’s role in Orthodoxy, such as the debates over women’s ordination, many have interpreted this move as a way for rabbis to control women, keeping them uneducated and in their place. This reaction is a misunderstanding of the issues involved in this situation, and removes these statements from their context. While there are certainly gender issues within Orthodoxy, that’s not actually what is going on here.

This isn’t a gender issue. This is a secular education issue and a government control issue. Historically, the haredi rabbinate in Israel, since well before the founding of the State of Israel, has been vehemently against secular education. It has strongly resisted any attempts to institute secular education, especially from outside forces and especially with regards to men in the community.

But like other right-wing Orthodox communities all over the world, women tend to have a stronger secular education than their male counterparts. Whereas for men, there is a concern of “Bittul Torah,” the prohibition of wasting time that could be spent in Torah, there is no such concern for women, who have no commandment to learn Torah. On the contrary, leaders believe it better that women should obtain secular skills, so they can support their husbands learning in Kollel. Therefore, women in Israeli Bais Yaakov high schools learn secular subjects and continue on to higher education programs under the auspices of Bais Yaakov. However, women, like men, have long been forbidden from attending any educational institution outside of the haredi community.

Accordingly, there is very little new in this declaration. It did not roll back women’s rights, it restated the status quo — the community’s prohibition against attending secular educational institutions. But what precipitated this restatement? Apparently, two relatively recent developments. One, the government wants to play a larger role in supervising haredi girls’ schools (which are government funded and part of the government school system). Second, while Israeli Bais Yaakov high schools do not prepare their students for the Bagrut exam (the matriculation exam that allows students to continue on to a secular university), some students have been preparing for the Bagrut on their own and going on to study at secular institutions. Both of these developments are anathema to the haredi community.

That’s why this declaration was directed specifically at women. Because these concerns are not even remotely relevant for men. Haredi boys’ high schools are not part of the government system, so the government can’t intervene. And boys’ schools do not teach any secular subjects past the seventh grade, so there is no hope that graduates could ever pass the Bagrut or go to a secular college. That’s how the haredi leadership wants it. They don’t want any haredis in the secular education system.

This isn’t about keeping women in the home. The rabbis are not challenging the practice of women obtaining job and professional training within a “Bais Yaakov environment” (training that Israeli haredi men don’t typically receive in any context). Rather, they are criticizing anyone who leaves that environment to obtain the training. This is about keeping all haredis out of secular educational institutions and about community leadership maintaining absolute control over their educational institutions.

Some then will ask and have already asked how the leadership expects the community to sustain itself financially when men obtain no higher secular education and women’s options are quite limited. I don’t have an answer to that. But that is the core issue here, not gender discrimination.

All this being said, do these statements reveal an ignorance of or possible rewriting of the history of Bais Yaakov and its attitude towards secular studies? Absolutely. The original European Bais Yaakov school system was built and supported by Agudas Yisrael [Agudath Israel], the same organization that sponsored the gathering of rabbis that issued these statements against secular education. Bais Yaakov and Agudas Yisrael were both outgrowths of German Neo-Orthodoxy and influenced by the ideology of its founder, Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch. Rabbi Hirsch believed that secular education was a positive good that could help individuals strengthen their religious commitment and successfully address the challenges to Orthodoxy inherent in the modern world. The curriculum of the Bais Yaakov seminary, the flagship institution of the movement, contained a strong secular studies component, including pedagogy, psychology, German and Polish language, literature, history, geography, and reading German philosophers such as Schiller and Goethe. These courses were taught by German Orthodox academics, many with PhDs from secular universities, who Agudas Yisrael imported to Poland to bring some academic gravitas to the movement. But Bais Yaakov and Agudas Yisrael have long shed their ideological connection to Rabbi Hirsch.

In any case, the recent rabbinic declarations with regards to secular education are particular to the Israeli Bais Yaakov system and are not practically relevant to American Bais Yaakov schools. Here in America, the right-wing leadership may view secular education as a necessary evil, but they do still consider it necessary.

Leslie Ginsparg Klein is the Dean of Secular Studies at Maalot Baltimore. She previously taught at Touro College, Hebrew Theological College, Gratz College and has lectured internationally. She holds a Ph.D. in Education and Jewish Studies from New York University, where she researched the history and development of Orthodox girls’ education.

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