In recent years, New York State has become the scene of an increasingly fierce battle over the provision of secular education in ḥasidic boys’ schools (yeshivas), a battle that brings to the surface many of the latent contradictions in liberal society. These contradictions, because of the ḥasidic community’s relentless growth, will soon enough have to be arbitrated one way or another both in New York and wherever else ḥasidic Jews can be found.
While there had been rumblings for decades about the quality of the secular education that ḥasidic yeshivas offer their students, the issue became one of state-wide political concern in New York after the founding of an advocacy group, Young Advocates for Fair Education (YAFFED), in 2011. The leaders of this organization—young Jewish men and women who had grown up in the ḥasidic community and made the decision to leave—alleged that they had been personally failed by an education that left them ill-equipped to pursue careers of their choice, and that many yeshivas were in flagrant breach of New York State laws requiring education provided by private schools to be “substantially equivalent” to that offered in the public-education system.
YAFFED successfully lobbied the New York State Education Department (NYSED) to change its laissez-faire policy and enforce rules that would require yeshivas to teach the full secular curriculum—which includes social studies and computer skills as well as English, math, and science—or face legal sanctions. The ḥasidic community has responded in two ways: by challenging the sanctions in the state senate, and by filing legal challenges alleging that the state’s behavior infringes on its First- and Fourteenth- Amendment rights. In so doing it has successfully leveraged a coalition of Jewish and non-Jewish religious schools for whom the proposed regulations pose no direct threat but who are concerned about potential long-term ramifications for the independence of religious schools. Most legal experts concur that these constitutional challenges to state regulation of ḥasidic education will ultimately prove unsuccessful, but the wheels of justice grind slowly and the community is counting on a mayoral or gubernatorial candidate looking for the support of the ḥasidic bloc to save the day before that happens.
Legal arguments that turn on the precise significance of a comma in the Bill of Rights will, of course, not be of much relevance when the same issues rear their head in other countries where the ḥasidic community is growing—especially since few countries define religious liberty so broadly as does the U.S. More importantly, both parties have framed their cases in legal language that obscures and distorts the genuine ethical and philosophical issues involved. Much of what has been said on both sides to date is spurious, and even where it isn’t, it fails to cut to the heart of the issue. Since that issue turns out to be a crucial matter of religion and state, it behooves us to try to see clearly what’s going on.
Let us start with arguments made by those who defend the yeshivas—advocates who have conjured up a fairy-tale world that I, as a graduate of the ḥasidic school system, barely recognize. These defenders argue that ḥasidic schools are so dedicated to talmudic and biblical learning that they simply have no time available to teach secular subjects. The reality at elementary and middle school is much different: many hours are spent singing songs, listening to stories, and repeating material that has already been learned. In high school, meanwhile, most of the day is devoted to unstructured learning. This, for many students, consists primarily of socializing while absorbing a tiny amount of material. The system, which eschews academic selection and testing, is the polar opposite of one designed to churn out elite talmudic scholars, and, unsurprisingly, it doesn’t. (Precisely what it is for will become clear in due course.) Indeed, it is well known, within the ḥaredi world at least, that graduates of non-ḥasidic ḥaredi yeshivas—those in New York make up something like a third of the total and have a strong secular-studies program—typically emerge with greater proficiency in Talmud than their ḥasidic counterparts.
Even more strained than the fantasies of impossibly busy students are claims that the yeshivas’ religious curriculum is so sophisticated that it achieves the goal of “substantial equivalency” by accomplishing everything the public system is designed to deliver. Plainly, yeshiva education does something that public-school education doesn’t: namely, providing students with the vocabulary, concepts, and background knowledge they need to study a page of Talmud. Claiming that on top of this it also fulfills the learning goals of the New York State curriculum really amounts to a claim that yeshiva education is superior to the mainstream version and has discovered an almost magical ability to level up the human brain. It’s an extraordinary claim, and extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, none of which is forthcoming. Yeshiva advocates point to the many ḥasidic Jews who are successful in business, or those who received a ḥasidic education and subsequently went on to distinguished academic achievements. The first only demonstrates that which is already widely known, namely that formal education is not necessary in many spheres of business. The second is not evidence of the power of ḥasidic education, but, rather, that overcoming educational deficits is easier and more common than often assumed. A Jew who grows up secular and chooses to become Orthodox will, if he is sufficiently intelligent and diligent, learn to read Hebrew and understand Talmud in one to two years. However, no one would take that as evidence that the public-school system is “substantially equivalent” to an Orthodox Jewish education.
Finally, yeshiva advocates argue that secular education in ḥasidic schools is not really that bad. Making this argument invariably involves blurring the boundaries of the discussion by including a wide range of non-ḥasidic ḥaredi schools that offer relatively good secular education, thus taking advantage of the fact that most outside observers find it hard to distinguish between one variety of black hat and another. The reality is that, with a few exceptions, most ḥasidic schools offer something like 90 minutes a day of secular studies to students ages six to twelve, the quality of which varies widely, but is mostly well below average; and these pupils then go on to high schools that provide no secular studies at all. I can tell you, as someone who attended mainstream ḥasidic schools, that by the age of fifteen I had forgotten almost entirely the smatterings of English and mathematics I had learned in elementary school and had to start again from scratch.
All this makes yeshiva advocates look pretty bad, but it turns out that the leading advocates for improved secular education offer up even poorer arguments. I have dedicated my career to ensuring that ḥasidic boys get better secular educations than I did, and was initially sympathetic to YAFFED’s arguments. In time, however, I realized that, as a result of relying on a shallow understanding of ḥasidic education and culture, the would-be reformers have maneuvered themselves into a foolhardy insistence on untenable claims.
First, YAFFED consistently tries to link the high rates of welfare dependency among Ḥasidim to poor education. But the relationship between educational deficits and reliance on the welfare system is much less direct than YAFFED asserts. Welfare dependency within the community is primarily the product of an expensive lifestyle caused by large family sizes, high property prices, private-school fees, wedding after wedding, and the cost of more than 60 Shabbat and Yom Tov meals a year (the equivalent of having Thanksgiving at least once a week)—all of which make welfare a rational economic choice for many people. I am personally concerned about the reliance of the ḥasidic community on welfare, and the kind of attitudes it fosters. But comparisons with non-ḥasidic ḥaredi communities, where welfare dependency is also common despite standards of secular education being better, do not indicate that education is the chief source of the problem or its solution.
Second, YAFFED has argued that the meager secular studies on offer in ḥasidic schools prevent young adults from pursuing college degrees, as if this were an unintended consequence of educational neglect in childhood. In reality, preventing college is the point. Ḥasidic parents are absolutely opposed to their eighteen-year-old sons or daughters attending college for the entirely rational reason that college consists of a complete immersion in a culture antithetical to Ḥasidism at the most formative stage of a person’s life. Other conservative subcultures within the United States have been doomed, more than anything else, by sending off their best and brightest to institutions that teach them to reject their upbringing as a condition of attaining the piece of paper that provides access to the socioeconomic elite. It is certainly true that having shaky English and math makes it an easier decision for young Shloime to continue with his talmudic education rather than majoring in gender studies at Yale. However, even if standards of secular studies in ḥasidic schools soared, ḥasidic parents would remain implacably opposed to their children pursuing degrees, at least until they are firmly anchored in the community through marriage and having children.
The most fundamental flaw, however, in YAFFED’s argument, is its failure—or inability—to acknowledge what ḥasidic education is and what it is for. Ultimately, the organization denies the existence of any kind of education at all outside the normative liberal form it advocates. Amid the frequent references in its reports to “educational neglect” and “denial of a basic education,” YAFFED ignores the matter of what ḥasidic children are doing for the nine or more hours a day they spend in school. Its flagship 2017 report limply claims that “boys . . . are expected to aspire to become rabbis” as an explanation of the curriculum. To understand the issue properly, we must move beyond such trite and specious answers and turn to a more essential question: what education—ḥasidic education and any education—actually is.
The purpose of the ḥasidic education system, beginning at age three and ending with marriage, is, quite simply, cultivating Ḥasidim. Lessons in the Pentateuch or Talmud are not primarily, often not at all, about developing academic skills—they are about molding a particular type of religious personality, one that will be comfortable in, satisfied by, and loyal to the ḥasidic community and way of life. The American sociologist Samuel Heilman, no friend to Ḥasidim but one of their most acute observers, describes lessons in ḥasidic schools as “far more than a literary foray into a text; . . . they were pretexts for passing along values, tools for deflecting heresies, and . . . means for helping give substance to what it means to be a Jew in the world they inhabited.”
This is the kind of definition that is calculated to offend liberal sensibilities: how can education, which is all about expanding boundaries, be about directing children towards a particular way of life? But this is what education has always been. The first known advocate of compulsory schooling, Plato, certainly did not think it was about imparting career skills. To him it was about developing the raw material of the human mind so that it became fit for citizenship in the perfected Greek polis. The spread of education in the Western world following the collapse of the Roman empire was everywhere connected with spreading and promoting Christianity. It took off following the Reformation, when reading the Bible, and hence literacy, was elevated to a basic religious duty of the ordinary believer. In the age of nationalism, education systems were designed to inculcate national identity and culture in what had previously been loosely bound, linguistically and culturally diverse areas.
Superficially, it looks like the liberal ideal of education as a way of promoting choice and individual autonomy is an exception to this principle. But this is only because choice and individual autonomy are the core cultural features of modern liberal society. No less than any other, the American public-school system has as its purpose the absorption of young human beings into a particular, historically contingent cultural and socioeconomic system. The endless controversies about American education are really controversies about what it means to be a good American. And so, the generic purpose of the tens of thousands of hours spent learning things that not one person in a hundred will ever use in pursuit of gainful employment is the same: cultivating the right type of American.
The extent to which academic education in the 21st-century liberal state can deliver on its own objective of social mobility is dubious. As the political philosopher Rita Koganzon powerfully puts it, liberalism “has valorized a kind of education that only a small elite can well afford—not simply financially but more important, psychically—because it is designed to weaken, in the name of autonomy, the sorts of commitments—to family, religion, and place—that anchor life for the vast majority of citizens.” Every single American can and should, under the liberal theory of education, grow up to be a highly skilled professional, untethered from parochial commitments and loyalties, while imported helots do all the grunt work. But it doesn’t quite work out that way in practice. The ḥasidic education system, by contrast, is markedly successful in achieving its goal of cultivating and retaining Ḥasidim. Ḥasidic Judaism today is a postmodern movement that has selected and adapted elements of East European Judaism to create a model that can withstand the forces that have—generally without direct coercion—ravaged every pre-modern form of social organization, the Amish excluded. And the lynchpin of that ḥasidic success is its school system.
What the dispute about ḥasidic yeshivas is really about, then, is something much more critical than instruction in secular studies. It’s about whether the liberal state is willing to let a countercultural social movement that bends the rules of the liberal order grow up in its midst. From the perspective of the state, and those loyal to it, there are reasonable grounds to prevent that. What is not reasonable, however, is the sort of liberal triumphalism that imagines that, under the pretext of implementing minor or neutral reforms, Ḥasidim will simply be intimidated into dismantling their own social order. Those among YAFFED’s supporters who understand what is at stake and want to disable the ḥasidic community’s ability to ensure generational continuity should do them the credit of not imagining it will be so easy.
In the meantime, those who have the more modest goal of promoting better secular studies in the ḥasidic education system would be well advised to return to first principles and remember the distinction between education—the molding of an individual—and instruction—the imparting of specific skills. If they wish to get the majority of ḥasidic parents on board, then their most urgent priority is to demonstrate how specific forms of instruction can be introduced into ḥasidic schools without imperiling its overall educational purpose. In my own experience as a headmaster trying to do exactly this, I have found the task both easier and harder than you might think. Many seemingly impossible obstacles can be overcome when your goals are clear and defined, and many seemingly innocuous reforms actually have a destabilizing effect that ripples throughout the whole system.
Many features of a ḥasidic school seem pointless or bizarre to those who have not thought deeply about how they fit together, but it is precisely for that reason that reformers—assuming they want to succeed—must tread carefully. As G.K. Chesterton warned in his famous fence parable, you cannot fix what you do not first understand. The instinctive attitude of ordinary ḥasidic parents who would like better, more engaging, and successful secular studies for their sons, but who fear any tampering with the existing system, is wholly reasonable. Improving standards of secular education can be done only by those who have demonstrated their ability to tinker with the edifice of hasidic education without bringing the walls tumbling down. As for those who want those walls to fall so that poor, oppressed ḥasidic children can taste the pleasure of liberal autonomy—well, as we say in Yiddish, zol zayn mit mazel.