Do Not Make the Torah into a Crown with Which to Aggrandize Yourself or a Spade with Which to Dig*

The state of affairs in New York Yeshivas is scandalous, with many children not receiving even the most basic secular education.

In a New York Times OP/ED Shulem Deen talks about the real world consequences of this:

Last Friday, as observant Jews hurried with last-minute preparations for Passover, one Orthodox Jew was in Albany, holding up the New York State budget. He was insisting that this roughly $168 billion package include a special provision that would allow religious schools to meet the state’s educational requirements by using their long hours of religious instruction.

In recent years, education activists, among them former Hasidic yeshiva graduates, have pushed aggressively to bring the yeshivas into compliance with the state’s education laws. Simcha Felder, the state senator from Brooklyn who represents the heavily ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods of Borough Park and Midwood, was on a mission to get legal permission for the state to turn a blind eye to the near-absence of secular instruction in many yeshivas. The upshot? Tens of thousands of children would continue to graduate without the most basic skills.

I know about the cost. I was one of those kids.


During my senior year of high school, a common sight in our study hall was of students learning to sign their names in English, practicing for their marriage license. For many, it was the first time writing their names in anything but Yiddish or Hebrew.

When I was in my 20s, already a father of three, I had no marketable skills, despite 18 years of schooling. I could rely only on an ill-paid position as a teacher of religious studies at the local boys’ yeshiva, which required no special training or certification. As our family grew steadily — birth control, or even basic sexual education, wasn’t part of the curriculum — my then-wife and I struggled, even with food stamps, Medicaid and Section 8 housing vouchers, which are officially factored into the budgets of many of New York’s Hasidic families.

I remember feeling both shame and anger. Shame for being unable to provide for those who relied on me. Anger at those responsible for educating me who had failed me so colossally.

A woman I know works as a physician at Maimonides Medical Center, in heavily Hasidic Borough Park in Brooklyn, and often sees adult male patients who can barely communicate to her what ails them. “It’s not just that they’re like immigrants, barely able to speak the language,” she told me. “It’s also a lack of knowledge of basic physiology. They can barely name their own body parts.”


According to New York State law, nonpublic schools are required to offer a curriculum that is “substantially equivalent” to that of public schools. But when it comes to Hasidic yeshivas, this law has gone unenforced for decades. The result is a community crippled by poverty and a systemic reliance on government funding for virtually all aspects of life.


According to a report by Yaffed, or Young Advocates for Fair Education, an organization that advocates for improved general studies in Hasidic yeshivas, an estimated 59 percent of Hasidic households are poor or near-poor. According to United States Census figures, the all-Hasidic village of Kiryas Joel, an hour north of New York City, is the poorest in the country, with median family income less than $18,000.


Knowing all of this, it takes a special kind of audacity on Mr. Felder’s part to successfully strong-arm the state’s highest legislative body to legally deprive his own constituents’ children of an education and a future. Some might call this chutzpah. In Borough Park, it would be more properly called a Chillul Hashem: a desecration of God’s name.

I think that Deen does a fantastic job of describing the real world consequences that salutary neglect has had on the Orthodox Jewish community, but, unsurprisingly given that it is an editorial in the
Times, he does not go into the deeper theological issues beyond calling this state of affairs a Chillul Hashem.

I would argue that the current state of affairs in places like Kiryas Joel is more than a disservice to the members of the community and the taxpayers of New York, I would argue that it is in direct opposition to the basic tenets of Judaism.

The scriptural quote in the title of this post, is just one such example, and the behavior of these leaders constitutes both self-aggrandizement and an attempt to make the study of Torah remunerative, largely by gaming the state welfare system, which is clearly prohibited.

There is more to it than that though:  A Jew is REQUIRED to engage the world in order to make it a better place, to be, “A light unto the nations.” (Or LaGoyim)

More generally, we as Jews are placed on this broken world to mend it. This is frequently called Tikkun Olam.

In order to fix this world, one has to understand it on some level beyond that of signing one’s name on a wedding license or application for food stamps.

One needs to do more that take from society, one has to give back to society.

This is more than a Chillul Hashem, is is a Shanda fur die Goyim.  Their behavior shames the whole Jewish community.

*Perkei Avote, Ch. 4:3.
“I the LORD have called unto you in righteousness, and have taken hold of your hand, and submitted you as the people’s covenant, as a light unto the nations” Isaiah 42:6, among others.

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