Back to school
by Jonathan Rosenblum
September 4, 1998
Well the children have all returned to school, and for the first time in 18 years, my wife and I are contemplating a home with no babies underfoot or toddlers to be picked up at nursery school.
Not everyone, of course, has been so fortunate. While haredi schools opened across the country last week, fter a three-week summer vacation, the scheduled September 1 opening of the public school year did not take place due to a nationwide teachers' strike.
The immunity of the religious sector to this sort of strike is, by now, an old story. Religious hospitals, for instance, are largely unaffected by doctors' and nurses' strikes. The late Klausenberger Rebbe insisted that every employment contract in Netanya's Laniado Hospital, which he built, include an explicit undertaking not to strike.
If religious teachers do not strike, it is not because they are all driving Cadillacs, or don't need the money to support their families, or because their working conditions are optimal. In fact, salaries are often late, classes of 35 to 40 students are common, and many classrooms are in trailers or other makeshift accommodations. Typically, there is one day-long school trip a year, as well as a few outings to local parks, for which the teachers are paid nothing extra.
Heder rebbes don't strike for the same reason that religious doctors and nurses don't: the fear that by striking they would be endangering lives. For them, Torah is not another academic subject - not even a very important subject - it is life itself. A day lost from Torah study cannot be compensated by a day added to the end of the school year. The potential growth of that day is lost forever.
The obligation to teach children Torah is derived from the words in the first paragraph in the Shema: 'You shall teach [these words] to your son.' The unique gift of parents to their children is life, and similarly the transmission of Torah - the gift of spiritual life - is described as one from parent to child.
Religious Jews do not conceive of Torah as a body of knowledge apart from oneself. The true measure of one's Torah learning is not mastery of a technical body of knowledge, but the extent that it transforms those who study it as human beings. Torah learning that does not lead to action and change one as a person is not the real thing.
'TORAH as life' is the guiding principle of the religious community, not just words to which it pays lip service. Intersession in the yeshivot is often referred to as 'between life,' and it is unthinkable that it should pass without its own fixed times for Torah learning. Every morning during the summer vacation, the shul across from the street from me was filled with yeshiva students - some of them no older than 10 - learning.
And the same was true in shuls throughout every religious neighborhood. Hundreds of young men could be found in the Mirrer Yeshiva beit midrash in the mornings throughout the vacation, and during Elul one can find the beit midrash of the Hebron Yeshiva in Jerusalem filled at 2 a.m. with students learning as if it were the middle of the day.
It's not that these young men know nothing else than learning Torah. During the summer vacation, they could be spotted touring all over the country during the afternoons.
Whenever I run into an old friend from yeshiva, the first question is inevitably 'Where are you learning?' not 'What are you doing?' If I point out that I'm pushing 50 pretty hard and that there are a lot of mouths to be fed and weddings to be made, the question changes only slightly to 'What are you learning?' Failure to answer that question immediately or to be able to discuss the topic with which one is currently struggling is an admission of spiritual death.
The vibrancy of a religious community is measured to a large degree by the extent to which its members set aside regular, daily times for Torah study. In Har Nof alone there must be close to 20 daily daf yomi Talmud study groups. The earliest begins at 5:30 a.m., and they continue until late at night.
I don't even know the last names of many of those in the morning Talmud class I've been attending for years, see no one in the group socially, and don't wear the same kind of yarmulke. And yet, in some strange way, I feel as close to the members as to almost anyone I know. If someone is missing or has to drop out for any reason, his absence is felt by everybody in the group, and there is a palpable love for our teacher. What binds us is the recognition that for each of us, the hour spent learning together before work is the most important hour of the day.
For those accustomed to academic libraries, the din of a Torah study hall requires a good deal of adjustment. The decibel level of a large beit midrash is probably matched only by the trading pit of a major exchange. And in both cases for the same reason: The participants view the stakes as the essence of life. For some - money; for us - Torah.
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