Few things, if any, are more important for mainstream American Jews than general education in the Western arts and sciences. Education is prized for its instrumental benefits, as a necessary step in material and social advancement, and for the attainment of knowledge in and of itself. At a more basic level, education is the means for realizing the fundamental liberal Enlightenment values of critical rationality and the individual’s right to think for oneself can be achieved. The Haredi educational system, and the Hasidic educational system in particular, with its determined avoidance of general secular education, represents an emphatic rejection of perhaps the most central value for mainstream American Jews.
The Haredi educational system has come under public attack by an advocacy group founded by a Hasid who left his community, Naftali Moster. Moster grew up in a New York Hasidic home as one of 17 children and is a product of the Hasidic educational system. When he left his community after completing his yeshiva studies, he did not know what an “essay” or a “molecule” was and felt severely hampered in his, ultimately successful, quest to attain a college degree. Moster’s organization, Yaffed, filed a complaint with the New York City Department of Education (DOE)that Hasidic schools were not meeting state-mandated curriculum requirements. Unsatisfied with the DOE’s lackadaisical response, Yaffed has caused legislation to be introduced in the New York State legislature to provide regulators with the tools to enforce state curricular requirements for non-public schools. In an emotional address to his followers, the Satmar Rebbe (Rabbi Aaron Teitelbaum) attacked the bills, blaming disgruntled “snitches” intent on turning the government against the Hasidim. Teitelbaum maintained, quite accurately it seems, that the government has always left the Hasidim alone to run their schools as they wished, and that but for the work of these activists, it would have never cared to investigate what is or is not being taught in Hasidic schools. Other Orthodox groups, including the Modern Orthodox-leaning Orthodox Union and the Haredi Agudath Israel, have defended the schools.22
Yaffed maintains that Hasidic schools are remiss in not providing its students with the tools to compete successfully in the marketplace and to be able to earn a comfortable living. This is also how it markets itself to the Haredi community, posting on billboards the Talmudic maxim that a father is obligated to provide his child with a means for making a living. While true, this claim obscures a more fundamental point regarding the resistance of Hasidic yeshivas to the teaching of secular subjects. It is not simply a function of an intense devotion to the study of Torah, but rather a rejection of Western knowledge and of critical rationality: the willingness to subject beliefs and opinions to the test of reason and proof. Moster surely knows that once exposed to the study of secular subjects and of the English language, Hasidic yeshiva students may very well come to question religious belief and the constraints imposed by their community.