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Maarava - Not Enough, Or Too Much?
Maarava Machon Rubin is a charedi yeshivah high school in Moshav Mattityahu. It was famously put in cherem by Rav Schach for teaching secular studies - although, according to some reports, Rav Schach himself was manipulated/pressured into this, and maintained that Maarava was a valuable bedi'eved solution for olim. Rumor even has it that Rabbi Baruch Chait, the musical legend and founder of Maarava, used to carry a gun as protection against harassment from kanna'im! In this post I would like to discuss two mistakes that relate to Maarava.
The first mistake is made by many of my nice-but-naive neighbors in Ramat Bet Shemesh who have made aliyah from the US. They think that because Maarava is a high-level academic institution that offers bagruyot (high school matriculation exams in secular studies), sending their children there means that they will end up in professional careers, just like in America. But in Israel, you can generally only go to college, and be employed "on the books," if you have served in the IDF. And Maarava is a charedi school; most students are not going to break with the hashkafah of their teachers and peers in order to go to Hesder. Furthermore, the new vocational training schools for adults are also going to be an unlikely option, since in Maarava there is increasing pressure from teachers and peers - which usually outweighs influence from the home - of standard Israeli charedi values: that long-term kollel is the "right" way, and working for a living is only for people who are failures. To end up in a professional career, you have to want to get one - it's not enough just to have bagriyot! As a result of all this, there has been a steady decline in the number of Maarava graduates who end up in professional careers, and today it is only a tiny fraction that do so.
The second mistake relating to Maarava will come as a tremendous shock to many. I just discovered that Rav Zev Leff shlita, who was the mashgiach of Maarava for many years, now tells people that Maarava itself is the wrong approach! And it is not for the reasons that I wouldn't send my children there. Rather, he now believes that the entire notion of teaching secular studies to teenagers is fundamentally wrong!
This was reported to me by someone who attended a talk that Rav Leff gave at a parlor meeting on behalf of a local yeshivah ketanah in Ramat Bet Shemesh. (There was an attempt to create a local charedi yeshivah high school, but the kanna'im managed to torpedo it.) According to my source, Rav Leff said that yeshivah high schools in America were a necessary concession in light of the assimilated culture of Orthodox American Jews. But in Israel, he said, no such concession is necessary, and the formative years of a person's life should be spent solely immersed in Torah.
Now I will not claim that there is a definitive, single authentic Jewish approach to secular studies. Throughout our history, there have been many different approaches. But it is certainly the case that there were schools of thought which valued secular studies as innately essential, not a less-than-ideal concession. The Rishonim of Sefarad saw secular studies as important areas of knowledge for every Jew to learn throughout his life (and it was not just something that they did "once they became great Rishonim"). So did Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch and many later figures, who saw Torah im Derech Eretz as an ideal - contrary to recent revisionist attempts to cast it as a hora'as sha'ah. And even many figures at the other end of the spectrum, such as the Vilna Gaon and Chasam Sofer, considered studying the sciences to be important for understanding Torah, and engaged in such studies themselves - though in the case of Chasam Sofer, his studies of the arts and sciences during his teenage years has been expunged from popular charedi biographies. (Many more sources along these lines can be found in Yehudah Levi's Torah Study.)
Thus, there have been different schools of thought with regard to secular studies. There were those who valued them and incorporated them into their education, and there were those (such as the Rishonim of Ashkenaz) who did not. But the contemporary Israeli charedi system, where children go from Talmud Torah to yeshivah ketanah to yeshivah gedolah to kollel, is a complete innovation without any precedent in our mesorah. For although there were those in our history who did not value secular studies, they nevertheless always saw some sort of vocational training and employment as essential! They never abandoned Chazal's dictum that a father is obligated to teach his son a trade, they never abandoned the value that a person should strive to be self-sufficient, and they never had a system of mass kollel where entire societies would raise their children to have neither the education, skills nor desire to work for a living. Contemporary charedi society innovated all these, which has led to a severe economic crisis and many resultant societal problems.
For a long time, I have been critical of Maarava for not going far enough to instill Chazal's values. It was very disturbing to discover that one of its pivotal founding figures is critical of it for going too far!