During the height of the coronavirus pandemic, some religious schools mounted legal challenges to state prohibitions on in-person schooling, on the grounds that similar secular institutions such as daycares were allowed to remain open. Such a lawsuit was filed in California on behalf of several educational institutions, including three Orthodox day schools. Michael A. Helfand observes that this case and those like it raise important questions about these schools’ underlying mission of Torah u-madda, or Jewish instruction combined with secular knowledge:
[E]ven if a court accepted the schools’ argument, what was the appropriate remedy? Should it ease restrictions for the entire school day or only for religious instruction? Much of the answer depends on the pedagogical comparisons courts would draw to the two halves of a dual curriculum. On the general studies side of the equation, providing such “religious instruction protection” would require recognition of the strong religious value of general studies, such as math, science, and language arts. This immediately goes to the heart of the Torah u-madda agenda and its aspirational goal of an integrated curriculum.
On the Jewish-studies side of the ledger, the extent of legal protections afforded schools depended on how courts viewed religious instruction. Consider that California, in an attempt to provide enhanced protections for religious exercise, had authorized outdoor gatherings for “places of worship and providers of religious services and cultural ceremonies.” If Jewish studies in day schools qualified as religious worship, then schools could provide in-person instruction; but if it qualified as simply education, then providing in-person instruction—even if outdoors— remained prohibited.
In these ways, determining the legal protections available to Jewish education, required a theological assessment of both limudey kodesh (religious instruction) and limudey ḥol (general studies). Is Jewish education more like prayer or more like your garden-variety private-school education—or something in between?