Chabad, the Rebbe and Secular Education

There is really no group that I have so many differences with yet also respect deeply quite like Chabad. As Yale’s Hillel co-president, I am awed by Chabad’s outreach formula that involves being extremely welcoming and open minded, and also authentically Jewish at the same time. Yet I am perplexed by their stance toward education which can at times seem antithetical to Jewish values and even to their own expressed values.

Chabad at its best brings together Jews of varied backgrounds and engages them in an intellectually stimulating environment. When I went for a Shabbat meal at the Chabad in Amsterdam, for instance, I was witness to a small sample of world Judaism -- religious Israelis, secular French families, American college students and businessmen. I spent dinner debating Emmanuel Levinas’ relevance to modern Jewish thought with an Israeli masters student, while the Chabad rabbi seemed to be able to connect with everyone in the room in a combination of fluent English, French, and Hebrew. I was impressed by the Rabbi and grateful for the work Chabad does in fostering diverse, intellectual Jewish communities.

Another part of my admiration for Chabad comes from my respect for the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson. He is a leader I have always admired, in part because of how well rounded and educated he was, while at the same time being a great Jewish thinker. The Rebbe studied at the University of Berlin and at the Sorbonne in order to gain a deep knowledge of advanced secular math and science in addition to traditional chassidut. The Rebbe also developed a friendship with Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, the intellectual leader of modern orthodoxy in America, while they were students at the University of Berlin -- in much the same way that his shlichim cultivate relationships with individuals from all walks of Judaism today.

However, contemporary Chabad in some sectors looks different from the Chabad the Rebbe practiced and espoused to the world. While the Rebbe was well educated and seemed to champion education, a growing number of Lubavitchers today eschew secular education. Ohalei HaTorah, for example, a major Chabad Yeshiva in Crown Heights with thousands of students, fails to teach almost all basic secular education. Chaim Levin, a former student from Ohalei Hatorah, wrote eloquently about this issue in an article in the Huffington Post:

I have profound respect for the late Rebbe and his legacy. However, I remember very clearly those talks that he gave -- the ones we studied every year in elementary school about the unimportance of "secular" (non-religious, formal) education, and the great importance of only studying limmudei kodesh (holy studies). As a result of this attitude, thousands of students were not taught anything other than the Bible throughout our years attending Chabad institutions.

The dissonance between this Chabad and the Chabad I appreciate with multilingual shlichim and the college educated Rebbe has been quite a surprise, and I would like to hold Chabad to the standard they promote. On their website, they proudly display how Jimmy Carter declared the Rebbe’s birthday on April 18, 1978 “National Education Day” in honor of the Rebbe. Every year, the current president designates that date “National Education Day” as a day dedicated to “educational awareness” according to the Chabad website. The Rebbe, in a speech regarding the proclamation said:

“The proclamation of ’Education Day, USA’ is of extraordinary significance in impressing upon citizens the importance of education, both in their own lives as well as, and even more so, for the young generation in the formative years—particularly in the present day and age.”

The Rebbe, as we can see from this quote, seems to have taken different stances on the issue of secular education depending on the audience he was addressing: To the public he promoted secular education and to the Hasidim he discouraged it. I have a hard time believing that such a great person could have been disingenuous. Instead, I believe there may be a way in which it is possible to fulfill both of the Rebbe’s statements. Lubavitchers who follow every word the Rebbe said cannot be selective-- they need to find a way to reconcile the Rebbe who wanted secular education with the Rebbe who wanted to limit secular education. When framed this way, this is not necessarily a contradiction, but rather a problem (lack of secular education in Haredi communities) with a clear solution (create Hasidic-friendly, rigorous, secular education).

When I advocate for secular education in Hasidic and Ultra-Orthodox communities, I am driven in part by the conviction that the Rebbe expressed in his speech and by the fact that a world-class secular education could produce such a pious and influential chasid. When the Yale Chabad shaliach asks me about what I did this summer and asks me why I chose to do so, I will simply quote the Rebbe, who said “It is fitting indeed that the U.S.A. has shown, through a forceful example to the world, that it places education among its foremost priorities.” By trying to ensure that Yeshivas teach secular studies, I am trying to make sure America and the Jewish people reach the standard set by the Rebbe and place education among the foremost priorities in every community. I am hopeful that the work that YAFFED does can help bring the boys studying at Ohalei HaTorah the secular education that they deserve in addition to the world class Jewish education they already receive.

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