OPINION: Rabbis misunderstand purpose of education

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OPINION: Rabbis misunderstand purpose of education

The continuation of unregistered yeshivahs denies boys in the Chasidic community not just secular learning but access to their basic human rights, claims Eve Sacks

A member of the Chasidic Jewish community of Stamford Hill.
A member of the Chasidic Jewish community of Stamford Hill.

It was recently suggested that multiculturalism discourages integration and promotes a society in which different communities live parallel lives. With that in mind we should not only be worried about the lack of integration by some of those who hold culturally antisemitic beliefs about Jews. We should also be concerned about the lack of integration inside the Jewish community.

I’ve been lobbying about unregistered schools for the best part of a decade, and in that time another generation of boys have progressed through a system that leaves them innumerate, functionally illiterate and unaware of the world around them.

In particular, I’m appalled by the group of Chasidic men who wear yellow stars as part of their protest outside parliament at each stage of Flick Drummond MP’s private member’s bill.

Two loopholes in UK legislation have enabled the continuation of unregistered yeshivahs. One is that the yeshivahs can’t register as schools as they do not provide education suitable for children of compulsory school age. The other is that the government does not know which children are not in school.

The private member’s bill, which seeks to require local authorities to keep track of children who are not in school, is designed to ensure all children are safe and educated, particularly post-Covid when so many have dropped off the radar.

It is a far cry from Nazi persecution. The suggestion there is any comparison desecrates the memory of those who suffered in the Holocaust and has no place in civil society.

Eve Sacks

And yet, we see a group of Charedi rabbis opposing the bill on the grounds it “threatens the sacred education we have provided our children for generations, following the teaching of our Torah and tradition”. The rabbis, it seems to me, have no clothes and no one seems willing to tell them that the need for literacy and numeracy, and the ability for boys in their community to access a broad range of careers, are basic human rights.

The truth is that full-time yeshiva education is a recent institution. In previous generations, in the absence of the welfare state, boys had to learn a trade. As the Gemara cautions at Kiddushin 29a: “Any father who does not teach his son a trade teaches him theft.” The Gemara expresses surprise at this statement: can it enter your mind that he actually teaches him to steal?

Rather, the verse means that it is as though he teaches him theft. Since the son has no profession with which to support himself, he is likely to turn to theft for a livelihood.

Second, providing a broad and balanced secular education in a school setting – even one that leads to GCSEs and A-levels – leaves plenty of time for Torah study. Third, there seems to be a total lack of understanding that the aim of a broad and balanced education is so that the next generation become productive members of society. The social contract in this country requires you to contribute as well as receive.  Government welfare is a safety net, not a universal entitlement.

The Gemara rightly cautions against theft – which is precisely what earning cash in hand while claiming welfare benefits is. The intention of the Gemara is Jews should be able to earn a trade so they can, instead, support their families honestly and with dignity.

Fourthly, the Judaism I love taught me the importance of Jews being a light to the nations, set out in Isaiah 42:6: “I created you, and appointed you a covenant people, a light of nations.” This requires Jews to integrate into and contribute to wider society.

The denial of secular education to a whole cohort of Chasidic boys, leaving them functionally illiterate and innumerate and unable to contribute to wider British society, supported by a group of extremist Rabbis who teach intolerance and seek to remove Chassidic boys’ right to education, is a failure of multiculturalism.

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