Saturday, March 3, 2007

Let The Women Be Breadwinners

I’ve been called a Haredi basher, but after reading the latest rabbinic decree against haredi women’s education in Israel, it seems that it is less important what I am called and more important to note that these poor (literally) women are being bashed and degraded by their own rabbanim. According to a new decree issued under the auspices and influence of Harav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, shlita, haredi women can no longer pursue academic degrees in education in Beis Yaakov. This new policy will limit their earning power and potential as well as their career development. Naturally, this will keep these Torah families in the cycle of poverty which they had hoped to break.

This decree has nothing to do with yiras shamayim and it has nothing to do with tznius. It has nothing to do with halacha, it has really nothing to do with hashkafah. It has nothing to do with the threat of the zionim or chilonim infecting these nashei chayel. The decree has everything to do with the ability of the rabbanim to maintain their control over these bright and motivated women. There is a rabbinic adage that says “bina yeteira nitna l’nashim”. Roughly translated this adage means that women have a greater native intelligence than men. The Rabbinic Committee for education took this adage seriously enough to feel the threat of women once empowered by education. These rabbis have probably taken note of the fact that modern orthodox women, after being out in the cold for so long, have finally come in. They are well educated, in both secular and Jewish subject matter and are pressing for serious scholarly positions within the Jewish community framework where they can impact the most.

To avoid this paradigmatic shift in the haredi community the Rabbinic Committee for Education apparently felt the need to take this draconian measure for the following reasons:

· There was a growing aspiration for careerism among women, a trend that was against religious principles.
· Rabbi Elyashiv told Yated Ne’eman that teachers will take all sorts of courses with out the “great rabbis being involved in every detail of what is being taught and who is teaching. Without supervision and a direct setting of the curriculum, it is inevitable that courses might be littered with heresy.”
· Israel’s Minister of Education recently set a new guideline that teachers in seminaries must have a master’s degree. This limited the number of haredi teachers who could teach in seminaries, since few hold master’s degrees. As a result more and more courses were being taught by “foreign lecturers.” “Some of these lecturers belong to the Mizrahi stream, and others to great shame, are secular through and through…there is danger here of contamination”.

The reasons provided by the committee are the excuse for the action. If you read, however, between the lines, the subtext indicated that there is a palpable fear within the hierarchy of a paradigmatic shift within their community as was among the modern orthodox women. How is careerism in conflict with religious principles? What in Jewish Law proscribes a man or women from achieving knowledge and skills? On the contrary, the better her skills the better the teacher she becomes and the more effective. On the contrary, our tradition (Rambam) teaches that the highest form of tzedaka is not in giving money but providing a means whereby one is no longer dependent on handouts. This would include cultivating careers with opportunity for growth. A person wishing to achieve a B.A. and acquire more and better skills as a teacher ought not to be misconstrued as careerism. And whom are they teaching. These devoted and dedicated women aren’t, for the most part teaching the “chilonim” or the “zionim”. They are staying within their own communities, teaching their own, raising a new generation of yirei shamayim, but with the better skills than before. How is that contrary to religious principles?

The rabbis are employing the tactic that without their direct involvement in curriculum and course selection heresy will infiltrate the curriculum heresy. That is an old canard used in order to instill fear and to bolster the siege mentality. That tactic was used unsuccessfully in resisting the use of the information highway and the internet. This has clearly failed. One only has to take note of the customers at internet cafes around Israel and one will see that there is a huge and growing number of haredim buying time at these internet cafes. As a matter of fact there are cafés where for the sake of privacy, each computer is now set into a cubby hole, to guarantee the privacy of the user. This was designed for the haredim. One only has to visit the main reading room at the National Library at Givat Ram’s Hebrew University Campus to see haredim using the internet in order to access information. This was unheard of twenty years ago! Clearly then, scare tactics don’t work. It accomplishes nothing other than drive people into the underground creating a subculture.

The need for these rabbis to micro mange the curriculum reminds me of some kind of inquisitorial standards being applied. The intent isn’t altruistic, but indicative of the need to exercise their control for no other purpose than to prevent progress. I’ve written about this in three previous postings: A Trojan Horse, Dec. 21, 2006; Dissent and Daas Torah, August 17, 2006; and The Hubris of Daas Torah, August 7, 2006.

The Rabbinic Committee for Education fears that as a result of the new criteria for being an instructor established by the Ministry of Education, their pupils will be exposed to teachers who are affiliated with Mizrahi or worse. All this tells me is that these rabbis have little or no confidence in their own seminary students. If the rabbis are afraid that their own student - teachers can be that easily “turned” by teachers of another political/religious persuasion, then they have a transparently flawed educational and religious system. The rabbis should welcome the challenge. Perhaps their own seminarians can convert the shmootznikim to their camp!

All of this points to their true motive. The rabbis believe that if the present trend continues they will have created an educated class of women raised with some critical thinking, exposed to knowledge and the wisdom of teachers. That could result in an intelligent and vocal group of people who in the future will voice their growing disaffection with the inequality of life predetermined for them by the rabbinic leadership. As one haredi teacher cried out after hearing of this decree said “The humiliating decision to shut down courses landed on me like a thunder on a bright day….I cry out: You give the men, who study Torah, no chance to provide for their families….I am not trying to decide in this loaded issue, the purview of this generations great rabbis, but everybody is saying ‘let the women be the breadwinners’ and I have no qualms with that. I’d just like to honorably provide for my family and earn my daily bread.”