New Rabbinical Restrictions Against Hareidi Women´s "Careerism"

Rabbis' new restrictions on hareidi-religious women pursuing academic degrees will impair the ability of teachers to earn a living and support their families.

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Gil Zohar, | updated: 20:59

Regulations by Israel’s Ministry of Education requiring a significant portion of the instructors who teach would-be educators to have a master’s degree or doctorate have set off a chain of events likely to lead to growing poverty in the hareidi-religious sector.

Since there are a limited number of eligible hareidi professors with second or third degrees, hareidi education students have been exposed to a wide variety of teachers - leading hareidi rabbis to take action against what they perceive as unacceptable foreign influences.

Thus the Rabbinical Committee on Education, the official body that sets educational policy for most of the hareidi community’s institutions, has issued new guidelines cancelling all academic programs resulting in a bachelor's degree. As well, a significant number of courses will be downgraded and a large number of lecturers will be fired.

The new rabbinic ruling is likely to dramatically impact on hareidi women in the workplace, many of whom earn a living as teachers. They will no longer be able to pursue academic degrees in education in Beit Yaakov, Israel's largest chain of educational institutions for women. The ruling is likely to limit their future earning capabilities, as teachers with advanced degrees earn more - and can find more jobs - than those without them.

The cancellation resulted from a growing concern among rabbis that hareidi women were being taught inappropriate materials, or were being instructed by professors too far removed from a religious outlook.

“For some reason, we have found, in recent years, that courses are taught by foreign lecturers,” ran an editorial in Bayit Ne’eman, the women’s supplement of Yated Ne'man, Israel's largest circulation hareidi newspaper. “Some of these lecturers belong to the Mizrachi stream, and others, to great shame, are secular through and through... there is danger here of contamination.”

The entry of large numbers of hareidi women into the workforce followed the bankruptcy in 1992 of Olympia & York Developments - the privately-owned Toronto, Canada-based real estate firm whch was building the huge Canary Wharf project in London, Britain. As a result, the Reichmann family, the billionaire patrons who had subsidized much of Israel's hareidi world, were compelled to curtail their once vast philanthropy.

In addition, the sharp budget cuts suffered by the hareidi population under Finance Minister Binyamin Netanyahu have also had their effect on the hareidi families, leading more women to see employment outside the home.

Thus was engendered a subtle revolution in the hareidi sector in Jerusalem, Bnei Brak and elsewhere. Pressed to support their Torah-studying husbands and large families, increasing numbers of ultra-Orthodox women joined the workforce, a trend endorsed by several key rabbis and seen by many as essential to the community’s economic health.

The recent decree against higher education, described as “an earthquake” by the Yated Ne’eman newspaper, was issued by a group of rabbis who set the community’s educational policies, and was led by Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv of Jerusalem (pictured above).

Rabbi Elyashiv, 96, is the paramount leader of Israel's Lithuanian non-Hasidic hareidi Ashkenazi Jews (sometimes called by the old label of misnagdim) who regard him as the posek ha-dor ("decisor of the generation"), the modern leading authority on halakhah, or Jewish law.

The ruling, said Bar Ilan University’s Prof. Menachem Friedman, one of Israel’s leading authorities on the hareidi community, is an extreme move but nonetheless in step with socioeconomic trends sweeping the hareidi community for years.

The hareidi leaders, Friedman told The New York Jewish Week, are gradually losing control of their followers, as their society increasingly depends for its survival on women, traditionally cast as mothers and homemakers, earning a living by interacting with Israeli society at large.

In an interview with Yated Ne’eman, unnamed conservative sources in the hareidi community claimed that the move was a response to a growing “aspiration for careerism” among women, a trend, the sources said, that was against religious principles.

“It cannot be,” Rabbi Eliyashiv told Yated Ne’eman recently, “that teachers who are supposed to educate the daughters of Israel and teach in ‘Beit Yaakov’ will take all sorts of courses, without the great rabbis being involved in every detail of what is being taught and who is teaching. Without supervision and a direct setting of the curriculum, it is inevitable that courses might be littered with words of heresy.”

Prior to the cancellations, graduates of Beit Yaakov’s high schools would enroll in teachers’ seminaries, obtaining a certificate allowing them to teach in hareidi educational institutions after two years, and another certificate enabling them to become teachers in any Israeli educational institution after three. Until now, most women pursued a fourth year of study, which awarded them the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree, a distinction that allows teachers to advance professionally and increase their salary.

The new decree effectively cancelled the fourth-year option, and may have an indirect effect on the third-year route as well.

Further, the new decree specifies that women who have already completed the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree would be at a disadvantage if they apply for a job at any institution affiliated with Beit Yaakov.

Sarah Ziv, director of the department of teacher training in the Ministry of Education, told the Tel Aviv daily Haaretz that while the academic courses were designed in full coordination with the hareidi rabbis, “it is obvious that we will not give up the demand that whoever teaches education have a master’s degree in the field.”

The decision is bound to have much influence on other fervently Orthodox streams. The Gerrer (Gur) sect, for example, one of Israel’s largest hasidic sects, has traditionally aligned itself with whatever the Rabbinical Committee on Education, which is hareidi but not hasidic, has decreed. It is still unclear how other hasidic rabbis — including the fifth Belzer Rebbe Yissachar Dov Rokeach, who has traditionally been more open to secular education — will react.

According to Bar Ilan’s Friedman, the decree is likely to have far-reaching implications, ones that will likely exacerbate the already grim economic situation of the haredi community. “When you deny an entire society the ability to fit in with the modern economy, you deny it of its only mean of surviving in modern life,” he said.

Friedman added that the move is likely to put a greater strain on Israeli society as a whole, as less hareidi earning power will mean less contributions toward pension funds and more strain on the system at large.

“I’m an Israeli patriot,” he said, “and a Jewish patriot, and I’m weeping for the state and for these women.”