The school year has begun, and with it, the annual demands that haredi schools start teaching the core curriculum – spearheaded this year by no less a personage than Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar. In theory, this makes sense: Israelis want haredim to join the work force, so they want haredi schools to teach subjects needed in the modern workplace, like English and math. There are only two problems: There’s no evidence that the core curriculum is actually necessary for this purpose, and considerable reason to think this demand actually undermines efforts at integration.
Ten years ago, before any evidence to the contrary had accumulated, this demand was perfectly understandable. But in the interim, several haredi colleges and army programs have been opened for men educated on the Talmud-intensive haredi curriculum rather than the secular one. And all have proven markedly successful.
Indeed, the media have been filled for years with testimonials from army officers and college lecturers who work with these men, and all say the same thing: The haredim may not know English or math, but they know how to learn – how to spend long hours poring over difficult material until they have mastered it. And consequently, remedial crash courses enable them to make up the gaps in their knowledge.
Ranan Hartman, the head of Ono Academic College, for instance, readily acknowledged in a 2010 interview that haredim come to his college “lacking even a basic knowledge of English and mathematics,” and raising them to the level of non-haredi students via a one-year preparatory course isn’t easy. “But there is something in the haredi educational system that makes people want to study,” he said. “That thirst jump-starts this process and narrows gaps.”
Col. Asher Fogler, who helped created the haredi unit of Military Intelligence, concurred: His soldiers’ years in yeshiva, he said, “inculcated them with the ability for higher learning.”
Granted, the gap might be less bridgeable were state schools doing a better job of educating their students. But as Israel’s dismal results on the last PISA exam make clear, they aren’t: Out of 64 countries, Israel placed 36th in reading and 41st in math and science. That, too, has been the subject of numerous laments by academics in recent years: In the same 2010 interview, for instance, Hartman noted that 35 percent of his college’s law students “have degrees from other universities and their command of English is catastrophic.”
As long as the secular education system is failing even on its own terms, whereas the haredi system is succeeding on its own terms while seemingly doing little worse in secular terms, it’s hard to justify demands that haredim replace their own curriculum with the state’s. As one leading haredi rabbi, Aharon Leib Steinman, said in 2010, how can the state “have the gumption to give us recommendations on education” when “they know that the secular education system has not succeeded?”
And precisely because there’s no good justification for it, the persistence of this demand makes many haredim suspect the real motive isn’t to help them integrate, but to make them stop being haredim – which is a major threat to the integration effort.
Haredi colleges and army programs have succeeded precisely because they allow the haredim to remain haredim: They offer separate-sex classes or work areas, food that meets haredi kashrut standards, daily Torah study, etc. As one officer in the haredi air force program correctly noted, “the greatest threat to the project would be if they leave the army as non-haredim” – because then, others wouldn’t enlist.
It’s true that as yet, only a minority of haredi men either serves in the army or attends college. But progress has been dramatic: haredi college enrollment has more than quadrupled over the last decade, while Shahar, the army’s flagship haredi program, jumped from 38 enlistees when it started in 2007 to 530 in 2010. Yet if haredim come to view integration efforts as a conspiracy aimed at making them abandon their own religious lifestyle, their response will be to circle the wagons, and this progress will be reversed.
But there’s another reason why demands for a secular core curriculum are particularly problematic for haredim: haredi society’s supreme goal is to produce great Torah scholars. And it’s hard to become a great Torah scholar without a strong early grounding in Talmud – the kind that can’t be achieved when 75 percent of the school day is devoted to secular subjects.
Many Israelis tend to dismiss this concern because the other half of the haredi formula for great Torah scholarship – that it requires being a full-time, lifelong yeshiva student – is so patently historically false. Many great Torah scholars throughout history were extremely well educated secularly and had full-time secular professions: Rambam and Ramban were both doctors, Rashi was a vintner, Kehati was a bank teller, etc.
But it’s harder to find examples of great Torah scholars who didn’t have a strong early grounding in Talmud. Over the past several centuries, most great Torah scholars emerged from the heder system, which, like today’s haredi curriculum, was Talmud-intensive. And while two of the greatest scholars of the Talmud, Rabbi Akiva and Resh Lakish, began Torah study as adults with no background, they are very clearly identified as exceptions rather than the rule.
Ultimately, it will be impossible to integrate the haredi community if the haredim themselves don’t cooperate. And such cooperation will be unachievable if non-haredim expect the haredim to make all the concessions: The rest of us have to be willing to concede something, too.
We can’t compromise on either army service or work; the haredi population is growing too fast to make doing without them feasible in either endeavor over the long run. But we can compromise on primary and secondary education: The haredim have proven that their curriculum isn’t incompatible with subsequent integration into the army and the work force, and it’s of vital importance to their own goal of producing great Torah scholars.
At some point, haredim and non-haredim will have to strike a grand bargain. The core curriculum is the concession the rest of us should be prepared to offer.
The writer is a journalist and commentator.