So why am I telling you all this? Because the guy had no idea what I was talking about. He never heard about this figure, he was unfamiliar with it, and he was certainly unfamiliar with the important messages it teaches us.
In my mind, this conversation had a direct link to Aryeh Deri’s speech at the Herzliya Conference last week. Deri spoke about the new Jewish culture vis-à-vis traditional Jewish culture. The community represented by Deri likes to view itself as the bearer of Jewish culture in the face of everyone else’s emptiness. So if he insists on talking on behalf of Jewish culture, let’s once and for all look into the exact culture he talks about.
Indeed, the time has come to shatter the myth and explicitly address the most open secret which we all have known for a while now – haredi education on its various yeshivas only focuses on one thing, while creating ignorant students on every other front.
An important clarification: I am not referring, like secular critics, to the haredi disregard for subjects such as math, science, English, literature, etc. At this time I am not addressing the haredi ability to join the workforce or any damage caused to the Israeli economy’s growth. This is a different problem. The issue I have is with the fact that the vast majority of yeshivas only teach Talmud and related questions and answers. That’s it.
What about the Bible?
I am not disparaging, Heaven forbid, the importance of the Talmud. Yet for once let’s talk about the religious people who strictly adhere to the mitzvahs, yet are unfamiliar with the Bible, or Jewish thought, or religious poetry like the one written by Rabbi Yehuda Halevi. And this is not an anomaly – this is the norm.
The only Biblical verses familiar to yeshiva students are those quoted by Talmud sages, and that’s that. The Bible is seen as a sort of inferior genre that is appropriate for young children (or for women…). The same deep analytical process undertaken vis-à-vis Talmudic questions is not being applied to Jewish thought and philosophy, and most students are unfamiliar with the major books on Jewish thought.
At most, these students learn a little moralistic literature, aimed at overcoming one’s urges, etc. Everyone learns Maimonides’ halachaic literature, but who would study the monumental Moreh Nevochim (Guide for the Perplexed) or the extensive literature dedicated to it over the years? (And how can anyone study the Guide for the Perplexed without first being familiar with Aristotle? But that’s a whole other issue…)
And I’m deliberately not mentioning the renewed Hebrew culture – Bialik and Alterman, Amihai and Leah Goldberg, Rachel the Poetess and Amos Kenan. In my view, they too are part of our culture – but that’s another matter. There is no doubt that haredi society is unwilling to bring these texts into its cultural world, and that’s actually a legitimate debate. But the Bible? Rabbi Yehuda Halevi? Rabbi Kook? Without these texts, haredi society cannot claim that its cultural world is full. Its emptiness cries out to the sky.