Students of American religion, American Judaism, and Jewish political philosophers might want to pay attention. The headline reads “Yeshivas Get Curriculum Reviews As Orthodox Power Wanes in New York” and the ramifications for haredi Jewish life and American Jewish life could not be bigger. Josh Nathan-Kazis here at the Forward broke what may or may not become a big story with major ramifications relating to the constitution of Haredi Jewish life in New York State. Let’s just say it’s worth picking up an ear.
For over decades, Haredi yeshivot in New York City and in New York State have reportedly neglected the education of their students in basic secular subjects such as English, math, and science. The problem becomes aggravated as that the demographic of those communities have ballooned. Google “hasidic yeshiva new york regents” and you’ll catch some of the back story. With a change in the New York State legislature following the 2018 midterm elections, now it seems that New York State and the Board of Regents is ready to step in and exercise oversight and control starting with curricular review. Are haredi yeshivot making the grade? Are they providing their students a basic education? Or are these young people left dangerously exposed to lifetimes of poverty and dependence? Will New York State actually shut down yeshivot if they don’t make the grade? Will more and more haredi Jews make aliyah to Israel?
In modern and contemporary Jewish philosophy much has been made about “law” and the self-contained and self-sustaining semi-autonomy of Haredi/halakhic community against “liberalism.” Of particular note in the American context is the buffeting of these haredi communities in relation to a secular liberal state that protects what conservative legal thinkers today call “religious liberty.” This is the Kiryas Yoel model, the Satmar model of Jewish life. According to conservative theories of Jewish life, these are the Jewish communities that supposedly sustain themselves into the future, that create vibrant Jewish life.
Or was that a just says-so story? To what degree and for how long can communities close their members off from mainstream society? Are these conservative communal bubbles sustainable? What happens when these closed communities scale up in terms of population? It’s one thing to occupy what historian Salo Baron called a special or narrow ghetto street of a few thousand souls. It’s another thing when that closed, intensive community begins to resemble a mass, numbering in the tens and hundreds of thousands.
This story as reported by Nathan-Kazis could turn out to be nothing. Maybe it’s just a trial balloon. Or what we are watching in real time is the protective bubble characteristic of haredi Jewish community beginning to sag here and there as the air begins to leak out, exposing conservative Jewish community and conservative theory of Halakha to what is just the latest acid test of modernity.
I’ll keep updating this post with newspapers and other sources relevant to this story as it unfolds:
Here is an article about Haredi resistance to the plan.