“If there is no flour, there is no Torah; if there is no Torah there is no flour.” Ethics of the Fathers (3:22)
The first half of this saying, coined by Rabbi Elazar Ben Azaria, who lived in the first century CE, has been the subject of much media attention in recent months. A wave of caustic criticism has been heaped on the haredi population for stubbornly clinging to an educational system that enjoys extensive funding from the state, but that is producing an ever-growing number of Talmud scholars who lack the basic skills needed to earn a living.
But not much attention has been given to the second part of the ancient rabbi’s pithy statement: The sorrowfully inadequate level of Jewish studies provided to our nation’s secular schoolchildren.
Our founding fathers understood the centrality of the Bible to the Jewish people’s connection to the land. In 1937, for instance, David Ben-Gurion told the British Peel Commission, saddled with the job of ending conflict the between Jews and Arabs, that the Bible was “the Jewish people’s mandate” for the land of Israel.
Israel policy makers, educators and IDF commanders have come to appreciate the strong correlation between a solid Jewish education and patriotism. Religious convictions aside, without a strong Jewish identity, Israeli citizens cannot be expected to make the necessary sacrifices demanded of them in a Jewish state surrounded by enemies. Nor can they hope to create an original Jewish culture.
But despite the appreciation for Jewish learning and Jewish identity, the reality today is far from ideal. Just two hours a week of Bible studies are required by the Education Ministry. According to minutes from a Knesset Education Committee meeting in March, many secular state schools teach even less, sometimes as little as one semester during all of the last three years of high school.
Often this is the first subject to be abandoned when time constraints arise. Bible teachers lack proper training and the requisite passion needed to bring to life the ancient text. Meanwhile, other Jewish subjects, such as Mishna and Talmud or Jewish philosophy, are completely optional.
All this is despite the recommendations of the 1994 Shenhar Commission, which explicitly called for more state-funded Jewish studies in the state school system. We fear that a new commission appointed by Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar and headed by Prof. Binyamin Ish-Shalom will face a similar fate.
Meanwhile, privately funded initiatives such as TALI, a Hebrew acronym for Tigbur Limudei Yahadut (enhanced Jewish studies), and the Hartman Institute are filling the vacuum, proving once again that private initiative always beats state-funded projects.
TALI, with an annual budget of just under $2 million, funded principally by North American Jews, works in cooperation with 40,000 families and hundreds of teachers to introduce a pluralistic, liberal version of Judaism and prayer into the secular state school system on the preschool and elementary school level, while Hartman works with 50 junior high and high schools.
The only education minister who agreed to fund TALI was the late Zevulun Hammer (National Religious Party), who argued that a little liberal Yiddishkeit is better than no Yiddishkeit at all. Previous and subsequent ministers have distanced themselves from TALI, either because their secular sensibilities led them to oppose any form of Jewish particularism or because of their own or their coalition members’ Orthodox parochialism.
Dr. Eitan Chikli, executive director of TALI, says that the fund, with
90 elementary school and 70 preschool members, is stretched to its
limit. Supply cannot catch up with demand.
True, some secular schools are ideologically opposed to the teaching of
Judaism. But many secular Israelis who reject Orthodoxy are
nevertheless open to liberal approaches to Judaism, as is clear from
the rising interest in non-Orthodox educational frameworks for adults,
such as Alma Hebrew College, Bina Center for Jewish Identity and Elul,
all of which are privately funded.
An absurd situation has been created in which the State of Israel funds
haredi schools that produce graduates who lack the occupational skills
and the Zionist ethos to integrate into Israeli society, while it
refrains from enriching secular schools with Jewish studies. This
counterproductive policy must end.