Jewish studies just as important as secular studies - opinion

If yeshiva students are “functionally illiterate” in secular studies, many secular students in public schools have little knowledge of Judaism and are “functionally illiterate” in Jewish studies.

Classroom (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Although Dan Ben David’s concern (“Wake-up time,” JP March 30) about the lack of secular studies in many Orthodox Jewish schools in Israel is a serious critique, he fails to ask about something at least as equally disturbing: the lack of Jewish studies in Israel’s secular schools.
If yeshiva students are – as he describes – “functionally illiterate” in secular studies, many secular students in public schools have little or no knowledge of Judaism and are therefore “functionally illiterate” in Jewish studies.
Ben David’s critique is part of an attack on schools and yeshivot that focus on studying Torah and Talmud, as if that is not important in raising a family, developing value-based character, and learning skills that support Jewish communities. Why is seeking a connection to God less important than studying math and science? Can’t both be pursued according to the need and interest?
Why is joining the IDF, going to university, or working in a store or business more important than dedicating one’s life to studying Jewish texts? Why are they considered “a burden?” The Talmud is full of examples of great rebbes who were Torah scholars and also had a trade and understood the world.
Ben David is concerned that Israel’s “gross domestic product per work hour (labor productivity)” is relatively low and attributes this to the large numbers of students in Orthodox schools who don’t study secular subjects. But students who are interested in learning about software and computers, for example, can easily learn skills and many do. Moreover, there are other criteria for evaluating educational proficiency and productivity.
If, as Ben David asserts, “half of Israel’s children are receiving a third-world education,” who is responsible? Teachers? Parents? Rabbis? The Education Ministry? Why blame the “ultra-Orthodox?” Why doesn’t Ben David analyze the productivity of all workers in the economy, especially those in bureaucracies that produce little or nothing and industries such as advertising and public relations? How many consider their work meaningful?
The Israeli Left – led by the media and political parties such as Meretz, Labor and Yesh Atid – seek to create an anti-Jewish culture that despises religious Jews, especially those living in Judea and Samaria. For Tommy Lapid, Yair’s father, it was his raison d’etre. Blaming haredim is easy and convenient; they have set themselves apart and are considered anti-Israeli. They are presented as a “burden” and a threat to Israel’s survival.
“The primary discourse,” Ben David opines, “is not between Left and Right, between religious and secular, or between Jews and Arabs.” The “existential problem” is Orthodox schools, and the failure of Israel’s educational system to require a core curriculum based on his ideas. To implement this, he advocates government enforcement and constitutional legislation “that will set in stone Israel’s underlying tenets and make it difficult for anyone... to move us backwards.”
As Israel’s elections demonstrate, however, Israel is divided exactly along the lines that Ben David dismisses. The real existential question that he ignores is the Jewish content of Israeli culture. Israeli politics is a reflection of the struggle for the soul of our nation; our educational system is critical to becoming aware. That means appreciating our differences, engaging in dialogue, communication and cooperation.    
Along with others, Ben David argues that the system of kollel learning and rejecting modern educational content has become too large and economically unsustainable, and is increasing. He has a case. Should our society, however, support such learning as part of our national identity as a Jewish state? Instead of eliminating or restricting the size and number of kollels, they could be dispersed throughout the country and incorporated into local community projects. The real challenge for state institutions is to integrate and provide creative solutions, not castigate.  
Above all, we need to keep in mind that Israel was founded not only as a refuge for Jews, or as a technological power, but as the fulfillment of a divine plan of ingathering and to create an authentic Jewish society, commonwealth and culture – to be a “light unto the nations” – a genuine Zionist vision.