Imposing Curriculum on our Yeshivot Threatens Religious Freedom

Think the argument for imposing curriculum on Charedi children is a slam dunk? Think again

Published by Joe Mintz in the Jewish Chronicle on July 8, 2022.

The Schools Bill has been attracting a lot of attention. Tighter regulations would remove a current “loophole” whereby Charedi children at 13 move to a “yeshivah katanah” where they study a curriculum wholly focused on engaging with Jewish texts.

The Bill would bring these schools under the remit of government regulation and require them to teach a more balanced curriculum, including secular subjects. There has been significant opposition from the Charedi community with demonstrations, rallies and a petition. Coverage has seemed universally in support of this legislation — bemoaning the uneducated masses of Charedi Jews claiming benefits and generally putting the rest of us in a bad light.

From the Chief Rabbi and Board of Deputies, despite their pronouncements that, given changing demographics, they need to represent the whole spectrum of Orthodox Judaism, there has been no comment.

Surely this is a slam dunk, and every child in England must be educated to a “minimum” standard in maths and English and be prepared for life in “modern Britain”? Surely it must be right to give everyone the tools to participate in the economic life of the country? Surely people should have the tools to be able to easily leave religious communities such as Charedi Judaism? All obvious points surely for any Western democracy?

Anything but. Everyone seems to have forgotten about the case of Wisconsin v Yoder, the US Supreme Court ruling in 1972 which found that Amish children could not be placed in compulsory education past the 8th grade (ages 13-14). The Amish believe that secular — as opposed to religious — education was not necessary beyond this age. Amish children typically went on to work in farming within the Amish community and thus posed no burden on the state.

The court noted that compulsory state education after elementary school was a 20th century development (as in England). It found that the arguments put forward by Wisconsin did not outweigh the fundamental rights of parents under the First Amendment to freedom of religious expression. The ruling stands today.

The cases of Charedi Jews and Amish are not quite equivalent. Yet they are close enough to give us serious pause in rushing to judgement. What happened to a commitment to religious freedom in the actions of the government in bringing this Bill, or the mainstream Jewish community in condemning Charedi Jews for opposing it? Are we really that sure the public interest arguments outweigh parental religious freedom?

It is argued that many Charedi Jews live in poverty and claim benefits to an unreasonable extent. Yet no actual data has been presented to support this. Many Charedi Jews who have moved out of secular education at 13 have successful careers when they get married, and many make Aliyah.

Others have also raised the issue of the lack of an “escape” route — if Charedi Jews want to leave the community when they come of age, the lack of secular education presents a significant barrier to them making that decision to leave. There is some truth in that. However, the vehement and vocal advocacy from those who have left the community against the Charedi social and education system in a sense proves the point that escape is possible in a democratic society. There is an a priori absolute argument that escape from a religious community must be made possible by the dominant society — no one could be coerced to stay, but equally there is no such a priori argument that it should be made easy.

I wonder if the antipathy towards the Charedi position by the Jewish community is seriously misplaced. It seems to me to have unfortunate echoes of the concerns raised by the established community in the late 19th and early 20th century, when newly arrived Jews from Eastern Europe were looked down as being not just far too religious but also uncouth, uncultured and far too likely to make non-Jews aware of how strange and esoteric, how un-English, Judaism and traditional Jewish life actually was.

Eastern European Charedi Judaism was destroyed by the Shoah, and across the world their response has been to create an unmatched commitment to Jewish learning and Jewish life. We could look at that, at the burgeoning of Jewish religious learning, as something to take pride in and to value. We could also recognise that just because how the government sees fit to balance religious freedom and majority concerns on this issue suits the mainstream Jewish community, that might not always be the case.

The US Supreme Court judgement was not ultimately just about the Amish, it was about the fundamental right of parents to choose the religious outlook of their children. If we think that on brit milah as well as a host of other potential issues, the Government could not one day decide that our religious freedom is trumped by other majority concerns, we delude ourselves. In reality, this should be our fight too.

Joseph Mintz is Associate Professor in Education, University College London

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