A recent letter in which Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Shalom Cohen ostensibly banned haredi women from attending academic colleges has aroused consternation both within and outside the movement.
Late Shas founder and former spiritual head Rabbi Ovadia Yosef explicitly approved the establishment of institutions of higher learning designed for haredim, including the one founded by his eldest daughter, Dr. Adina Bar-Shalom.
But Cohen’s letter banning such studies, which was leaked to haredi news website Kikar Hashabbat on Monday, contravened Yosef’s approach.
“Female [high-school] students should not even think about undertaking academic studies in any framework, because this is not the way of the Torah,” Cohen wrote in the letter earlier this month, saying that the content of such courses and the teachers at the academic institutions were not in keeping with Torah principles.
Speaking on Army Radio on Tuesday morning, Yaffa Deri, who is the wife of Shas Party leader Arye Deri and manages a haredi institution of higher learning herself, said she was surprised by the letter, but opined that Cohen had not had in mind the colleges she runs when he wrote it.
Deri said she had consulted with senior rabbis, including Cohen, about the college and that it was ideologically sound for haredi girls. She added, however, that if Cohen were to instruct her to close the college, she would comply.
Bar-Shalom, who was not speaking to the press, founded the Haredi College in Jerusalem in 2001. There are currently some 8,000 haredi men and women in higher education, the result of a sharp increase in academic studies in the haredi community over the last decade in a trend advanced by institutions such as Bar-Shalom’s.
Yesh Atid MK Aliza Lavie heavily criticized Cohen’s letter, saying it was a huge step backward.
“It is extremely troubling to see that the first official letter of Rabbi Shalom Cohen [as president of the Shas Council of Torah Sages] tries to take us back many years, and completely contradicts the heritage of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, which manifested in the clearest possible manner through the wonderful work for the academic education of haredi girls [achieved by] his daughter Dr. Adina Bar Shalom, and his [Yosef’s] blessing,” Lavie said in a statement to the press.
Lavie described Cohen’s comments as “the swan song of rabbis who are losing influence over their communities,” and added that she herself, as chairwoman of the Knesset Committee for the Advancement of the Status of Women, would help fight to broaden education for haredi girls.