Friday, July 15, 2005

Are We Left With Five Commandments?

The Supreme Court's split Ten Commandments decision is a case of bad law making for good politics. Each side in America's intensifying religion wars got half a loaf, losing only part of what it wanted to achieve. It's hard to get exercised over half a loaf. For the moment, Justice Breyer's extralegal dexterity put a damper on further bitterness, leaving the court with four Justices who believe strongly that Ten Commandments displays in public places are without question acceptable and four Justices who believe strongly that all public displays are not constitutionally kosher. The country is left with no coherent standard. Likely, there will be much additional litigation because there are thousands of displays around the country and thousands of folks who do not like them.

Inconsistency is usually the rule in church-state litigation and it probably could not be otherwise. Religious institutions, including houses of worship and schools, are active forces in the communities where they are located. They involve tens of millions of persons and inevitably there is the intertwining of the sectarian and the secular. Whether the White House and Congress are in liberal or conservative hands and whatever the ideological make-up of the Supreme Court, billions of dollars flow from governmental coffers into the accounts of religious institutions. This isn't going to be changed much by judicial rulings, partly because these institutions conduct activities that governments need to get done and also because for all of the notion of absolute church-state separation, the life of a society is integration and interaction.

In an important sense, the legal battles we have witnessed are mainly symbolic. There are fights over rote language in the Pledge of Allegiance and Ten Commandments displays. Even in these situations, there is a high degree of inconsistency. Our currency proclaims "In God We Trust," as does language in courtrooms throughout these United States. In some instances, judges decide that invocations of God are on their face violative of the First Amendment. In other cases, judges decide the reverse. In the meantime, even advocates of church-state separation wink at more serious situations that should raise constitutional questions. We are, in short, enmeshed in litigation that has symbolic but little practical impact. There isn't a scrap of evidence that anyone's beliefs or practices have been affected by placing the Ten Commandments in the public square.

It may be that church-state warfare is so intense because it is primarily symbolic. People care about symbols, whether or not they influence what they do. Put otherwise, what goes on in people's minds counts for more than what goes on in their lives. Of course, there are times when the outcome of church-state litigation has practical consequences. One example is the perennial issue of aid to parochial schools. There, too, there is a touch of inconsistency, particularly in the political realm. While the Supreme Court has opened the door somewhat for certain forms of aid, from Washington to state capitals and then to localities there is scant desire, even among conservatives and proponents of aid, to exploit the opportunity.

One apparent reason is that aid to parochial schools costs big bucks and governments are reluctant to go down that path. They can pay their dues to religious groups by declaiming about the symbolic, by rallying around the Pledge of Allegiance and Ten Commandments. It also may be the case that in the Bible Belt and elsewhere where the Christian right is strong, there are discrete ways of achieving religious goals in schools - whether they are public or parochial - without being detected on the constitutional radar screen.

Long experience teaches that the Supreme Court will continue to be occupied by church-state litigation, some of it involving the Ten Commandments. What exactly is wrong with their being displayed in public? Is it their being identified as the Ten Commandments? Or their religious content? Or their biblical source? Or perhaps all of these. How would the strict separationists feel if there were public tablets proclaiming five or six commandments? Would they object to a display announcing the obligation to be respectful to parents and saying that it is sinful to commit murder, steal, give false testimony and covet what is another's?

Maybe we can restore the full complement of ten by adding several more from the Bible, including the pursuit of justice, assistance to the needy, respect for the elderly, and ethics in business. We would then once more have Ten Commandments, all with Biblical sources and all with what might be called universalistic or humanistic overtones. I wonder whether there would still be a constitutional issue. Likely, though, there would be litigation, if only because our society is litigious and there are people out there who object to anything with even the slightest religious overtone.

I imagine that there would be plenty of Jews who would object, perhaps also the Anti-Defamation League which filed a brief before the Supreme Court advocating against the Ten Commandments. I guess the ADL believes that getting a lot of Christians angry at Jews is an effective way of preventing our defamation. As I have written previously, this is a strategy that is risky for Israel, undermines liberal causes and ultimately will be harmful to American Jews.

But this is not the way most American Jews see things. We who are still called Jews - a word that denotes a religious identity - are by a large margin intolerant toward religion and this intolerance continues to spread despite the damage that it is doing and despite the growing number of voices, including among liberals, calling for a more accepting attitude toward religion. We have corrupted the ideal of our being a chosen people. What we now seem to be chosen for is first place in the ranks of those who detest religion.

Friday, July 08, 2005

RJJ Newsletter - Secular Studies in Yeshiva High Schools

I am told that at the recent convention of Torah Umesorah, a leading Rosh Yeshiva questioned whether yeshiva students of high school age should be required to take the standard general studies or secular curriculum. His primary concern apparently was that the time devoted to secular studies is a diversion from full-time Torah study, thereby impeding the prospect that American yeshivas will produce Torah scholars and leaders of the first rank. There is the collateral issue which I will not explore here because its reach extends far beyond religious Jewish schools of whether the standard academic curriculum meets contemporary societal needs.

Doubtlessly, few of us will embrace the notion that teenage boys in yeshiva should no longer take any secular courses. The thought runs against the grain of what most of us believe Orthodox children need for their intellectual development and preparation for successful adulthood. It remains, however, that the hours devoted to this portion of the curriculum have been reduced in many yeshivas. In other ways, as well, secular studies are being downplayed, this despite the obvious importance of obtaining English language skills, basic scientific and mathematical knowledge and an understanding of history. For all that is problematical in contemporary life or even antithetical to Torah values, we generally adhere to the view that it is not possible or right to cut ourselves entirely off from engagement with the larger society. The termination of secular studies at the end of the eighth grade - and perhaps earlier - will, in effect, cut off yeshiva graduates from certain career opportunities and in turn this will result in financial deprivation.

Yet, the question raised by the Rosh Yeshiva deserves consideration, if only because a growing number of yeshiva boys of high school age already do not study secular subjects, devoting themselves full-time to Gemara and religious study. This trend is most pronounced in Chassidic schools, including Chabad, as some mesivtas or high schools serving Lubavitch families do not provide a secular education. This is obviously true of the familiar Chassidic groups in the New York area. There are yeshiva-world institutions that are heading in the same direction.

While the issue has been framed in terms of developing Torah scholars, it is evident that hashkafa or religious outlook is the primary factor. Yeshivas are not moving away from secular studies because they want to maximize the prospect that their best students will emerge as topflight talmidei chachomim but rather because they believe that secular studies should be off-limits for all of their students, including those of limited potential. They regard the time devoted to non-Torah studies as bitul torah. The fact that certain subjects, such as biology, may be incompatible with Torah teachings is no more than a secondary consideration.

In view of the way the wind is blowing, before long an even higher proportion of yeshiva high schoolers will engage exclusively in religious study. The issues raised by this development have been scarcely discussed. The following lines are intended to stimulate thinking and discussion. I should point out that the question of whether post-high school students should combine Torah and academic study is a separate issue. I deal here only with yeshiva high schools. At the Beth Medrash or post-high school level, there are powerful reasons why full-time Torah study should be the norm, although it is understandable why there are those who choose a combined curriculum.


The American Torah community was for nearly two generations led by men of great stature who were raised and educated in pre-Churban Europe. These were men of genius and extraordinary knowledge, as well as spiritual eminence. They inspired and guided us and raised the standard of observance in Torah study in a land that long had been regarded as inhospitable to Torah Judaism. The authority of some of these men extended across the globe, specifically to Israel. In a way, their life stories give weight to the argument that total immersion in religious study is a prerequisite for the emergence of elevated Torah scholarship and leadership.

In the Diaspora and notably in North America, the succeeding generation of Torah leaders includes persons of attainment who merit respect and obedience. Yet, it is painfully evident that there has been a steep decline from the heights that we witnessed not long ago. We can appreciate this decline by reflecting on how vital issues affecting American Orthodoxy are now decided by Israeli Torah scholars whose authority clearly surpasses that of American Roshei Yeshiva and Rabbis. This is an arrangement that was born out of necessity and it departs from the traditional understanding that local Torah leaders should, with the possible exception of matters of great importance, rule on issues arising within their community. Accordingly, the development of indigenous top-flight Torah leadership is a critical communal need, buttressing the view that full attention needs to be given to the study of religious subjects during the crucial teenage period of intellectual growth.


The existence of a need obviously provides no assurance that the means taken to address it will result in the desired improvement. We know that the European Churban disrupted and to a considerable extent undermined what we refer to as the Mesorah, the transmission of Torah authority from generation to generation. We were blessed in this country for twenty years with the gift of the great Rosh Yeshiva of Lakewood. He and others of enormous stature had a remarkable impact. They served as links in the Mesorah, for they received spiritual and intellectual sustenance in the communities and yeshivas where they were raised and educated and they imparted their learning and spiritual nobility to the emerging American Orthodox community. Their roots were always thousands of miles away and these roots were not quite transplanted when they arrived on these shores. Thus, we have experienced the decline that I have referred to.

The experience of Israeli Torah leaders was different in that the intra-generational transmission reflected far less discontinuity with the pre-Churban European experience. In fact, some outstanding Israeli Torah personalities of the recent period were raised and educated in Israel. The variance in Torah development between Israel and North America has abetted the view that the absence of secular studies is a key factor in the emergence of Torah greatness because Israeli Torah leaders have not studied secular subjects.

But there may be an historical lesson that points in a different direction. What are we to make of the incontrovertible fact that during the past 1,000 years or more there were Torah giants who read widely and were knowledgeable in secular subjects? Were they no more than exceptions to the rule that exclusivity in Torah study is a prerequisite to greatness of do such examples challenge the claim?


There may be what can be called environmental conditions that determine the capacity of a society to produce preeminent Torah scholars. Rav Yitzchak Hutner, ztl, the extraordinary Rosh Yeshiva of Chaim Berlin was a genius in chinuch, in understanding how to develop to the fullest the skills of his students. Many of his students have made important contributions to the Torah community. After his passing, one of them, Rabbi Pinchas Stolper, wrote a memorial tribute in Jewish Life, then the publication of the Orthodox Union. According to Rabbi Stolper, Rav Hutner asserted that it took ten generations for Torah greatness to emerge in a new geographic setting. We are familiar with the concept of "Ten Generations" (Pirkei Avos), so that the Rosh Yeshiva's observation is more than a bit of homiletics.

Can the process be speeded up, perhaps through immersion in Torah study? My recollection is that Rav Hutner suggested that because of the Churban, there is an obligation to seek means for the more rapid development of Torah scholars. There is a sense of urgency, the feeling that to compensate for the disruption of the Mesorah, we need to establish advanced and intensive Talmudic and kollel study as the norm for our young men. In a word, quantity is to compensate for the loss of quality.

Hopefully, the enthusiastic embrace of Torah learning by thousands of young men will result in the emergence of eminent scholars who will inspire and lead. There is, however, the additional question of whether mass education brings about mediocrity, if only because when the many rather than the relatively few with the greatest promise are provided support, inadequate resources are available for the limited number of students with the greatest potential. This issue is raised reluctantly because I fear being misunderstood. Kollel students deserve our respect and support. Yet, by developing a study system - it probably wasn't planned - that essentially treats students equally, we may be inadvertently undermining the goal of developing great scholars.

Mass Torah education, as all forms of mass or universal education, is predicated on cultural norms - that is, it is the right thing to do - as well as on the ability and willingness to provide the funds to sustain such an arrangement. In periods of economic deprivation, as was true of pre-Churban Europe, generally only the best students continued full-time Torah study after their marriage. In this sense, poverty was perhaps a breeding ground or a precondition for excellence. While there are now significant pockets of poverty in this country in both the Chassidic and yeshiva world sectors, there is also considerable affluence which sustains the expanding network of advanced yeshivas and kollels. Without underestimating the effects of financial deprivation in many homes in our community, it remains that what some of us may call poverty would have amounted to near affluence in pre-Churban Europe. In a letter to Rav Chaim Ozer Grozienski, ztl that is included in the fourth volume of Mishnas Rav Aharon that was recently published, the Great Roshe Yeshiva writes that there is not a scrap of food in Kletsk and no funds to buy any food.

As we know, the Talmudic sages saw a link between Torah greatness and the children of the poor. Can we readily disregard the prospect that our relatively affluent life style reduces the prospect of achieving Torah greatness? By affluence I do not mean the possession of wealth and comfort but an approach to life, an approach that is antithetical to hatznea leches or modesty. The point is not what we have but what we want to have. This is evident in our homes, in our travel, in our dress, in our being conspicuous consumers whose focus is self-indulgence.

Most of us have lost the ability to be mistapek b'muat or satisfied with little. With relatively few exceptions, kollel families, including those that are rightfully regarded as poor, are not entirely immune from this phenomenon. Is it inappropriate to inquire whether our addictions to cell phones and cars are greater impediments to achieving Torah greatness than mathematics and English language arts?

Could it be that the reason why there are Torah leaders of greater stature in Israel is that their life style and the homes they live in are more conducive to greatness?


We must hope, even expect, that outstanding Torah leaders will emerge in North America. What of the many more who will not reach a high level, young men of sincerity and piety who will eventually enter the job market. Those who teach in yeshiva or take other communal positions will presumably be sufficiently prepared under an educational arrangement that focuses entirely on religious study. But a substantial number will not seek communal jobs. Will they be hurt if they did not develop writing and other skills needed in contemporary workplaces?

There is the possible example of Chassidic young men whose secular education is more limited than yeshiva world graduates. Perhaps because they have not been prepared for ordinary jobs, there is among such young men an instinct for entrepreneurship, for going into business. This indicates that a secular education may not be all that it is cracked out to be. There is another side to the picture, a side that indicates that there are many Chassidic families that cannot cope.

In the yeshiva world, there is far less of a cultural imperative to go into business. The more pronounced tendency is for graduates to become employees, with many working hard and honorably and being trapped in jobs that offer insufficient pay and limited advancement. Of course, factors other than an inadequate educational background are at work, including limited geographic mobility, large families, the cost of religious obligations and lingering job market discrimination toward religious Jews. But it is not mere speculation to suggest that their limited academic background is also a factor.

To sum up, limited secular education may be desirable for yeshiva students with outstanding religious and scholarly promise and it may work for those who veer toward communal positions or entrepreneurship. It is not a desirable approach for the great number of yeshiva students who do not fit this bill.


We know that there are yeshiva students who are at risk and that their number has been growing. More students, primarily of high school age, do not fit into the yeshiva regimen. At times, behavioral factors are the catalyst for these students being designated "at risk." More frequently, I believe that these are students who cannot cope with a curriculum that focuses nearly exclusively on Gemara study.

It is admirable that steps have been taken steps to establish schools for such students. As a rule, these separate educational programs do little to ameliorate the problem, perhaps because they do not have sufficient resources. More likely, the act of removing students from the yeshiva-world educational mainstream generates attitudes and behavior that add to the at-risk character of such students. Put otherwise, it might be better to retain such students in the regular educational program, even if they are weak, which was the practice in the early period of Othodox Jewish development in the U.S.

As yeshivas increase the time allotted to Gemara study and certainly if secular studies are eliminated altogether, there is a diminished likelihood that students who cannot cope will be able to remain. I believe that there is a correlation between the growing number of at risk students and the shrinking number of hours allocated to secular studies. If yeshivas eliminate secular studies entirely, there is a good likelihood that the number of at risk students will swell further.

This consideration may not be strong enough to warrant opposition to all yeshiva high schools requiring all students to take secular courses. It is certainly strong enough to justify opposition to blanket policies that would deprive all Orthodox highschoolers of a secular education.


As indicated, the winds are blowing strongly in the direction of limiting or eliminating secular classes. This is the reality, however we may look at the issues I have raised. We will have to live with this trend, at least until new developments bring about change. Whatever other consequences this trend may have, hopefully it will produce men of great learning and great stature.

There is a side issue that needs to be addressed. New York, New Jersey and probably all of the states have compulsory education laws mandating secular education through all or nearly all of the nominal high school years. Teenagers are required to remain in school until they are 16 or older. How does the trend in the yeshiva world fit into this requirement?

The U.S. Supreme Court decided Wisconsin v. Yoder in 1972, a case that has a direct bearing on whether yeshiva students must attend high school. It involved the Wisconsin Amish, a religious sect distrustful of modernity, governmental regulations and secular education beyond the eighth grade. For these Amish, on religious grounds formal schooling ends after elementary school. Wisconsin charged Amish parents with violating the state's compulsory education law. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the parents, saying that the Amish belief system had a long history going back to 18th century Switzerland, where the sect had its roots. The refusal to send children to high school was therefore not opportunistic but grounded on religious belief which was protected under the Free Exercise of Religion clause of the First Amendment.

At the time, some yeshiva world students were already not continuing on to high school.

I alerted several Roshei Yeshiva of the Supreme Court ruling and suggested that if only because our obligation to study Torah extended to Sinai, the decision provided a legal basis for those students whose secular education ended with elementary school. My efforts were for naught.

What happened years ago cannot be altered. As more students have opted out of high school, there is, I believe, a responsibility to locate this development within the framework of America’s legal requirements. I conclude with the hope that there will be leaders who understand this opportunity and obligation.

Friday, July 01, 2005

The Supplicant State

Friendship is a good thing. It can also spell trouble when goals diverge and the more powerful friend controls the relationship. The United States and Israel are friends, perhaps more so now than ever before. President Bush cares about Israel and this caring arises far less from political considerations as from a deepfelt personal perspective. But the relationship is not of equals and the two countries have different, at times clashing, interests, which explains why in the recent period Israel has incrementally ceded sovereignty, its right to make decisions about its security without first securing American approval.

The U.S. - Israel relationship has always been imbalanced because the Jewish state is small, endangered and dependent on American support. Israel is like the child or student who is constantly being graded. While it's good to get U.S. approval, the process is degrading. During the current Bush presidency, the two countries have often been extremely close and yet Israel has forfeited more of its independence because it does not fully share America's Middle East calculations and goals. This loss of sovereignty is a clear and present danger to Israel.

The following is from a New Yorker profile by Jon Lee Anderson: "After his brief flash of assertiveness, he seemed more a supplicant than ever. His relationship with Washington - which gave him security, status, and a certain amount of pride - revealed itself in all its dependency and weakness." This was written about Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan's President, but it can serve as an apt description of Prime Minister Sharon. It also tells us how the U.S. treats close and dependent allies during the imperial presidency of George W. Bush. In return for American support, these allies are required to follow the script prepared for them in Washington. Key decisions must be reviewed and approved by American officials.

In short, these allies surrender much of their sovereignty. Any sign of independence, including the assertion that they cannot dance to the American tune, is met by rebuke and perhaps retaliation. Mr. Karzai got his spanking recently in Washington; Mr. Sharon has been chastised and threatened repeatedly. To an extent, he is the Co-Prime Minister, sharing authority with Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and other U.S. officials.

When Mr. Sharon announced the Gaza withdrawal last year, his close advisor Dov Weisglass declared that because the withdrawal would be traumatic for Israelis, after it was completed Israel would need a respite before it yielded other territory. He has now backtracked, because the U.S. has told his boss that he must. The Gaza withdrawal will result in more and not less American pressure on Israel.

Putting aside our views on Gaza, isn't it necessary for Israel to assess what happens after Palestinians take control of what had been Israeli territory before it gives up additional territory? Hamas says that, at most, it will abide by a temporary truce and Hezbollah won't even go that far. Iran, Hezbollah's sponsor, advocates Israel's destruction and is proceeding with an extremely dangerous nuclear arms program. Israel is to ignore these inconvenient facts because Washington's Middle East strategy requires that further concessions be made.

Israel continues to do heavy duty work for the U.S. in Iraq and provides vital information regarding Iran. Presumably, in return it should receive U.S. intelligence on Iranian developments that affect it. But as the still murky AIPAC story indicates, the U.S. has withheld information that has a direct bearing on Israel's security.

Of course, the United States does not want to endanger Israel. However, its geopolitical considerations now give top priority to establishing better relations with the Islamic world, buttressing Mr. Abbas among the Palestinians, getting out of the Iraq quagmire, securing as much Saudi Arabian oil that it can get and figuring out what to do with Iran. If Israel figures in these calculations, it is in ways that are inimical to its welfare. While the U.S. gives Israel cover in the United Nations and shields it somewhat from European hostility, these are of secondary importance to the Jewish state. Israel has to worry about suicide bombers, not about nasty words at the U.N. We should keep in mind the schoolyard ditty about sticks and stones.

Israel has made remarkable progress in developing good relations with China and India. Apparently, this is not to Washington's liking. Supplicants do not have the right to play in the big leagues. Israel has a fraction of one-percent of the population of China or India and it is the height of chutzpah for it to engage in significant diplomacy with these major powers. When Israel sold unmanned aircraft or drones to China, Washington pounced, acting as if a great sin had been committed. The supplicants have done their penance, with Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom formally apologizing for Israel looking out for its own economic and diplomatic interests. In addition, four senior military officials have been dismissed and Israel has signed an agreement requiring all arm sales to China be reviewed and approved by the U.S.

It could have been worse, as Mr. Shalom might have been ordered to fall on his sword or, perhaps, each night for a year attend a different Jewish organizational dinner.

A Jewish leader with strong White House contacts tells me that the situation has deteriorated since the presidential election, that there has been a shift away from the White House to the State Department in the management of Israeli - Palestinian negotiations. Secretary of State Rice is, in effect, making decisions for Israel. I never thought that I would pine for the return of Madeleine Albright.

If Israel does not regain its sovereignty, it may gain much American applause while it puts itself at great risk.