Religious Affairs: In a class of their own

Why are SSTO educators who teach sacred subjects in the state religious school system continuing to work in a blatant breach of strike etiquette?

October 11, 2007 18:22
Religious Affairs: In a class of their own

religious pupils 224.88. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

While Ran Erez led the Secondary School Teachers Organization (SSTO) in a massive nationwide strike this week, effectively paralyzing more than a thousand secular junior high and high schools, at many state religious schools it was business as usual. As on any other school day, young men and women thronged the buses and streets leading to the yeshiva high schools and ulpanot (girls' high schools); religious teachers, including members of the SSTO, could be heard from outside the classroom windows hammering out their daily lessons; and a general atmosphere of bustle and purpose pervaded the corridors and playgrounds. "We are not strikebreakers," said Rabbi Haim Druckman, chairman and spiritual mentor of about 60 Bnei Akiva yeshiva high schools and ulpanot. "I want to make it clear that we are not opposed to the strike. But we have a religious duty to teach Torah." Druckman issued a directive to teachers in his schools that while all secular studies should be discontinued in accordance with the SSTO strike, all religious studies should continue as usual. As a result, about 17,000 10th, 11th and 12th graders in religious schools continue to learn, albeit for fewer hours. Teachers of religious subjects who belong to the SSTO are faced with a conflict of values. Many religious educators identify with the objectives of the strike: They, like their secular counterparts, want a salary raise. They also recognize the need, as members of the SSTO, to show solidarity with their fellow workers. After all, they belong of their own free will to the union, and enjoy all the benefits won for them by it. But they also have a religious obligation to continue to teach Torah. According to Jewish tradition, even in the most extreme circumstances, young students must not be allowed to forgo their Torah studies. As stated by Rabbi Yosef Karo in his Shulchan Aruch, the definitive codex of Jewish law, "It is forbidden to keep children from learning Torah even to build the [third and final] Temple." Even in the end of days when the Messiah is on his way and the destroyed Temple is in need of adroit hands to get it rebuilt quickly in preparation for the final redemption, able-bodied children and teachers must keep up their daily regiment of Torah study without interruption, even if it means delaying the building of the Temple It's a no-brainer, in this context, that a mundane strike, justified as it may be, must not be allowed to get in the way of the teaching of the holy word. The religious educator's dilemma is acerbated further by the fact that he is not really supposed to be paid for teaching Torah in the first place. In fact, it is forbidden to receive a salary to teach Torah. "I gave you the Torah free of charge," states God in a midrash. "I expect you to teach it free of charge as well." True, teachers of Torah are paid salaries. Rabbis realized it was impractical to expect educators to work pro bono. So they allowed payment, but only in the form of compensation for refraining from doing something more economically lucrative. Nevertheless, Judaism's underlying message is that ensuring Jewish tradition gets passed on to the next generation takes precedence over most everything else, including righting the wrong of low teachers' salaries. AS A result, SSTO educators who teach sacred subjects in the state religious school system continue to work in a blatant breach of strike etiquette. "We are very disappointed with the religious secondary schools," said SSTO spokeswoman Keren Shaked, who added that their defection is hurting the union cause. "A strike is a strike. Every sector has values that are close to its heart. For the religious, it is Torah studies. But where do you draw the line? If they can claim that Torah studies override union solidarity, I can argue the same about something else, say, preparation for IDF service. Besides, I don't see religious educators working during the holidays." Avi Gisser, chairman of the State Religious Education Council and the rabbi of Ofra, said in response that there are certain agreed-upon values which take precedence over the goals of the strike. "In the Arab sector, the strike has been postponed a week out of respect for the Id al-Fitr holiday," he said. "Schools that traveled to Poland for the March of Living are also not on strike. If we can show sensitivity to the religious needs of the Arab population or to the value of Holocaust education, why can't we do the same for Jewish culture?" But according to Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, head of Ateret Yerushalayim Yeshiva and a leading religious Zionist halachic authority, Jewish law is not unequivocally opposed to strikes, even when they disrupt Torah studies. "There are times when it is permitted to do something which appears to be a transgression if it brings about the wanted result," he said, citing Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, one of the most important halachic authorities of the second half of the 20th century. Feinstein argued that a strike was permitted at times when teachers were so concerned about their low salaries that they were unable to concentrate on their teaching. In such a situation, a strike could be justified because in the long run it actually helped improve Torah study by relieving teachers of their economic worries and allowing them to devote all their energies to teaching. But he stressed that utmost caution must be exercised before permitting a strike, since disrupting children's Torah study was a grave matter. Aviner said that the advice he gives religious educators is to continue to teach Torah, but to do so outside school, in a synagogue or at home. "That way you are not openly breaking the strike and, at the same time, you can continue to teach Torah." ANOTHER POINT of dispute among rabbis is whether or not there is an obligation to teach girls Torah during a strike. Rabbi Baruch Frazin, principal of the Tzvia ulpana in Herzliya, said that all of his SSTO teachers, less than half of his total teaching staff, are striking, including educators who teach Torah. "There is no justification for breaking the strike to teach girls Torah," he said. "Girls have no obligation to learn Torah. Meanwhile, the strike is completely justified, with important goals." However, Rabbi Eitan Eisenman, head of the Tzvia-Noam chain of schools, disagreed. "I think Frazin is making a mistake differentiating between boys and girls," he said. "Today girls are also obligated to learn Torah so they can strengthen their faith and learn basic halachot. In most schools we make no differentiation; both boys and girls will continue to learn Torah despite the strike." Shalom Granit, an economic adviser for the Histadrut's National Teacher's Union (NTU), estimates that the religious sector's defection will definitely weaken the impact of the strike. "But what is really hurting SSTO's chances of success is the fact that the NTU is sitting this one out."

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