Balance and Tolerance in Religious Education

It is entirely natural and expected that a school advances a particular leitmotif . Indeed, some would argue that a school that doesn’t have or project a particular bias is like a body without a soul, wandering aimlessly from issue to issue, approach to approach, without a guiding rudder. Parents choose a particular school for their child, and apart from the expected quality of education, another ingredient contributing to their choice is the compatibility between the philosophy at home and the Weltanschauung  imparted by the school.

In Melbourne, the so-called religiously inclined schools are arguably four:

  1. The Hungarian Charedi, Adass Israel Schools
  2. The Chabad Chassidic, Yeshivah Beth Rivkah Schools
  3. The Mizrachi Religious Zionist, Yavneh College
  4. The Misnagdic/Lithuanian, Yesodei Hatorah School

I am sure that some educational leaders of Mt Scopus College would consider Scopus  a religious school, however, this is not the popular street-view. There are a number of other secular-oriented Jewish Schools in Melbourne and of course elsewhere, but these aren’t the focus of my thoughts.

The Melbourne experience is not atypical. In Israel and the USA one sees more choice but I’d suggest that the choice  is generally an expansion of different shades of the same broad categories above.

My issue with many schools is that they do not promote balance or tolerance. To be specific, I’ll describe some topics which I think would not be dealt with adequately, or at all, within  the above schools. I’m not so much focussing on the particular schools in Melbourne, but rather the type of school.

  1. A Hungarian/Haredi style School would not cover
    • the approach of Torah im Derech Eretz per R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch. They wouldn’t even do so in the context of הרבה עשו כרשב’י ולא עלתה בידם.
    • a rejoinder on the שלש שבועות and an understanding of the philosophy of religious Zionism
    • Chabad Chassidus
    • Torah for women
  2. ָA Chabad Chassidic style School would not cover
    • a comparative study of the Nefesh Hachaim and Sefer HaTanya
    • an understanding of the philosophy of religious zionism
  3. A Mizrachi Religious Zionist School would not cover
    • the philosophy of the Satmar Rebbe ז’ל vis a vis ויואל משה
    • chassidus (although that has changed of late with the emergence of חבקוק (but not in Melbourne)
  4. A Misnagdic/Lithuanian would not cover
    • anything that remotely resembled Chabad
    • an understanding of the philosophy of religious Zionism
    • Gemara for women

Now, you might say that’s a short list of items. They aren’t exactly fundamental issues. There are more important things to focus on. What’s the big deal?

The topics above are just indicators—sign posts. The general issue of balance and tolerance runs deeper than these specific matters. In fact, what prompted  this post relates to none of the aforementioned issues!

Our youngest daughter, who attends a respected Chabad School, was learning the halachos of women wearing a head  covering. Sadly, the lesson style was not a textual study, even though the girls are in year 12. The teacher adopted a more informal—Balabatish—study based on short essays and articles on the topic. I chanced upon the material at home and read it with interest. This material, which the girls passively read in class and then discuss, is comprised of

Warning against those who wear a Sheytel

What struck me about the coverage, however, was the complete and perhaps wilful omission of the not insignificant opinions of those who consider the wearing of a Sheytel to actually be forbidden! This view is held, of course, by Chacham Ovadya Yosef  at one end of the spectrum and various Chassidic Poskim at the other end, who held that if one does wear a Sheytel it needs to also include a hat or kerchief. Others who are against Sheytels include: R’ Yaacov Emden ז’ל, the Vilna Gaon ז’ל, the Chasam Sofer ז’ל, the Divrei Chaim of Sanz ז’ל and R’ Shlomo Kluger ז’ל. Maharil Diskin ז’ל and Rav Elyashiv are opposed to particular styles of Sheytels (those that are “too real”) whilst in Beis Ya’akov Schools I am told that a teacher who wears a Mitpachat (a Tichel instead of a Sheytel) will not be admitted. In Charedi Leumi circles, full tichels are the order of the day, and unlike the claim of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, many women simply do not remove their tichels.

I urge you not to misunderstand me. I am decidedly not taking any sides here in the debate about proper modes of hair covering. Indeed, when we were married, many moons ago, I told my wife that she should use whatever style she was comfortable with. I was never about to dictate the style of hair covering; I felt it was a difficult enough thing to live with and there was really no concensus.

What I am against, however, is imbalance and lack of tolerance in education. The children should have been exposed to alternate Torah-based views even if they aren’t the views of the School. Sure, the Lubavitcher Rebbe ז’ל was very pro-Sheytels and anti-Tichels, even in the house, but if a teacher is going to teach children about the concept, why wouldn’t she also cover the sizeable alternative views?

There seems to be a lack of balance, let alone tolerance, in our school systems. It cuts across all the four broad types of schools I mentioned above.

Do you agree with me?

Author: pitputim

I'm a computer science professor in Melbourne, Australia although my views have naught​ to do with my employer. I skylark as the band leader/singer for the Schnapps Band. My high schooling was in Chabad and I continued at Yeshivat Kerem B'Yavneh in Israel.

10 thoughts on “Balance and Tolerance in Religious Education”

  1. I don’t think the late Lubavitcher Rebbe would have suspected that Chareidi Leumi women would remove their tichels. He wasn’t addressing Jews in Israel (at least not primarily) and I don’t know if the Charda”l movement even existed when he called for the use of sheitels.

    On the other hand, I well recall that most Orthodox synagogues in Melbourne had a box of doilies near the ezras nashim – proof that there were many women who would cover their hair for religious events, but not generally.

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    1. דתי לעומי and Sephardim in tichels certainly existed at the time of the last Rebbe. I suspect that ultimately his view was formed by kabbalistic notions stemming perhaps from Kimchis in the Gemara that no strand be visible.
      This post though isnt about his attitude per se. Rather, it is about the lack of spread in dealing with topics (or avoiding them) in our schools and the lack of balance and tolerance it causes.

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  2. Issac as a mechanech myself i can tell you that kids need something absolute ever try giving a halacha class? tell them all the different opinions they don’t want to hear all they want to know is WHAT AM I SUPPOSED TO DO! giving them a verity of diffrent views confuses them and is bad for their chinuch

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    1. Slimmoish, it’s Isaac, please.
      If you are teaching sheytels to girls and you don’t give them 5 minutes saying there are many who don’t approve of them, then you are wilfully preaching ignorance! These are year 12 girls.
      Some will be married in 2 years or less!

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  3. Isaac,
    I think slimoish has a valid argument. Yes, it is important to provide our children with a knowledge of alternate opnions, but where do we start, where do we stop and how do we present all relevant information.

    The issue of womens head covering is valid, but who difines what topics require alternate perspectives to be taught and which don’t.

    Perhaps our kids should have a wider knowledge of the philosophies of other religions and how we differ and why.

    Overall your idea is good – implementation may be a lot more complex and may open a whole can of worms. Some communities may not want to expose their students to this format out of fear…

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    1. nukilove, thanks for your comments. I reiterate that I did not speak about the extent or the approach to the coverage topics take. I am of the view, that in the case of this issue, it is however fundamental to mention amongst pages and pages of material which speak about how the sheytel is the best approach to head covering that there are opinions which disagree! There isn’t a single paragraph, a single sentence. That’s my point. I acknowledge that it isn’t always the School per se or its philosophy which causes such a situation, and it may well be a teacher with a jaundiced view or a teacher who has taken upon themselves to homogenise Torah and Hashkafa to an extent that “nothing else exists”. It’s just not true! I know that in my case, when I went to Israel to learn, I was just so flabbergasted that there were other views and approaches. By all means, teach your line, but please, don’t take kids as fools. You can’t hide valid views from them.

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  4. Re your list of poskim who are claimed to have been against sheitels, you might want to look at R Wolpe’s sefer on the subject. Whatever you think of his hashkofos, he’s a world-class talmid chochom and knows his stuff.

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    1. I’m not sure what point you are trying to make. If it is that the teacher didn’t mention those views because of R’ Wolpe’s defence in that Sefer, then I’d suggest that you are clutching at more straws then you can hold.

      If you are suggesting that we all accept R Wolpe over Gedolay HaPoskim then that’s your opinion and you may well hold it, but it is imbalanced to expect a teacher to ignore Gedolay HaPoskim even if the teacher happened to subscribe to R Wolpe’s explanations.

      Of course, it is well known, that R Wolpe was and is a law unto himself. He didn’t listen to his own Rebbe and made him angry. I am well acquainted with him as I regularly speak with his chevrusa from Kfar Chabad days who is also a genius

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  5. Isaac,
    If the schools are to teach other opinions then they will have also to analyze and compare them with the party line, and explain to their students why “our” idea is the correct one, but that is too much to ask from an average beth rivka teacher, whose knowledge in Jewish studies is limited to the education that a girl gets from one half a year in ohel chanah, one year in a seminary in Israel and one year babysitting for a shaliach somewhere in the world.

    you want Schools to teach their students to think, when they were established to teach what is right, and thinking is a wrong idea.

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