"…[W]e became accustomed to the idea that there is the Torah and the opinion of the Torah, which are supreme, and all of a sudden we are told in a [college or technical college] seminar that there is another supreme authority – research and science. Everything becomes valid only if it is reliable and proven by research," a haredi woman said, explaining that she knew of haredi women who "removed their [thick] stockings" (worn by haredi women for modesty purposes) after being exposed to this information.
Israel HaYom reports that after a letter written by new Sefardi haredi Shas Party spiritual leader Rabbi Shalom Cohen banning women from getting higher education was leaked early this week, the issue of women's higher education has become the "hot-button" topic of the Sefardi haredi community. (Cohen was forced to amend his ruling, and now says women can go to college – but only if a host of restrictions are in place, including that all course material is censored and vetted by haredi rabbis.)
But what is most interesting is what some haredi women fear about college – that they will be forced to confront opinions they disagree with and facts that contradict their theological indoctrination – and the fact that the bar to be admitted to haredi-only colleges is so low, and their prices are so cheap (in large party because they are poorly run, understaffed and often not much better than a degree mill), non-haredim sometimes try to be admitted to them, to the consternation of haredi morality and modesty watchdogs:
…In the aftermath of the rabbi's letter, the issues of female modesty and the curriculum that is taught in institutions of higher learning became hot-button topics on the public agenda. The ultra-Orthodox Sephardi radio station Kol Barama took a telephone call from a listener who described herself as a college graduate. With her voice digitally disguised, she spoke of the modesty issues with which ultra-Orthodox women must cope.
"I wanted a job that required a bachelor's degree," she said. "There are two problems with that -- practically and ideologically.
"On the practical side, there's no chance to learn in academia without using the Internet [forbidden in the ultra-Orthodox community].
"In addition, the literature is not closely inspected. The library is full of heresy-filled books of all types. In ultra-Orthodox academia, the lecturers are neither ultra-Orthodox or religious-nationalists. One lecturer told us too much information about his personal life, and in another instance a lecturer criticized the fact that she was required to wear a long skirt and said she didn't understand how we dealt with that. I heard people denigrate the Torah and religion. This bothered us quite a bit.
"On the ideological side, we became accustomed to the idea that there is the Torah and the opinion of the Torah, which are supreme, and all of a sudden we are told in a seminar that there is another supreme authority -- research and science. Everything becomes valid only if it is reliable and proven by research. That's a different authority altogether."
According to the woman, these seemingly minor things are quite jarring for a haredi woman as they are liable to trigger a spiritual deterioration.
"I have three girlfriends who removed their stockings [worn by religious women, who do not expose bare legs], and another girlfriend who transferred her daughter out of her school in Beit Ya'akov," she said.
Afraid of modernity
Just as in the days when Eli Yishai was called upon to explain controversial statements made by Ovadia Yosef, Shas deputies this week were asked to explain the statements of their new leader. Cohen was referring to colleges that were not under strict ultra-Orthodox supervision, they said.
Shas officials even pulled out an old letter signed by Cohen, which spelled out a number of preconditions he believed necessary for haredim to pursue higher education. Female ultra-Orthodox students must be married, or obtain approval from a special council. The letter also stipulates that lecturers must teach, and the curriculum must be decided, "on the basis of our forefathers."
Shas officials said there was a discrepancy between seminars designed for instilling skills necessary for the workplace, and ultra-Orthodox academia. There is also a difference between ultra-Orthodox colleges that are under strict supervision and universities that offer separate tracks for ultra-Orthodox students.
"Today, there are places that are geared specifically toward ultra-Orthodox men and women," an official who is familiar with the issue told Israel Hayom.
"Many religious-nationalists and even secular people are trying to get accepted to these places because the tuition fees are significantly lower than in other places, and also because the minimum requirements for acceptance are much more convenient. Some of them get accepted because they have connections.
"In places like those run by Adina Bar-Shalom and Yafa Deri, there are no games. A woman applicant has to go through a very thorough vetting process in order to gain acceptance. Modesty is modesty. The wife of Rabbi Shlomo Amar [the former chief Sephardi rabbi] looks at the length of the girls' skirts, and there were instances of girl who were either rejected or forced to leave because of these factors. There is also a spiritual supervisor who goes over all of the learning material and gives his approval, and the lecturers are carefully chosen.
"Girls who finish 12th grade, girls who are 17 years old, want to continue their studies," Yafa Deri said. "But one needs to understand that there are girls who are not built to go to an ultra-Orthodox college at such a young age without going through a formative stage in their personalities and receiving the structure of a Jewish house."
Members of the ultra-Orthodox communities tried to explain the differences and the nuances in the status of girls who pursue higher education.
"There are many families who do not accept seeing their single daughter go off to studies in college," said a haredi mother from Jerusalem.
"It's still not completely acceptable. On the other hand, when the girls finish high school and spend two years in a seminar before continuing on to academia, they think they are wasting two years. The community is weighing these factors today.
"In addition, it's obvious that anyone with an academic degree is more readily accepted to jobs with higher pay. Today, there are very good yeshiva boys who actually think that girls who go to college are more attractive, because then she could support a family while the husband is studying Torah. Still, there are those who say that haredi girls going to college is not a completely good thing. It's a different style. There are more modern girls there, girls who are more open."
Rabbi Aharon Yarhi, the chief rabbi of the Makor Baruch neighborhood in Jerusalem, is considered one of the more vocal opponents of ultra-Orthodox enrollment in academia. "Judging by the results, we are seeing families ruined," he said. "All of a sudden, the wife comes home with all of these different opinions. It's not the same holiness, it's not the same purity, it's not the same modesty."
Yarhi rejects the attempts by Shas officials to explain Cohen's remarks. "If Rabbi Shalom Cohen saw fit to issue this letter, then he certainly knows what he is talking about," he said. "I don't want to hear all of these journalists come out and say we have a letter from eight years ago, because that just proves that this man is not completely disconnected from the reality around him."
'No harm done'
The Shas leadership was caught completely off guard, as Deri apparently did not even know of the letter's existence. The letter itself was issued in response to a request by one of Cohen's relatives. Its blunt language caused quite a stir.
"Aryeh was the victim of a hit," said a Deri associate. "This is something that harms his wife, even if that wasn't the intent."
Another dispute that was ignited by the letter revolved around the legacy of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. Was the beloved late spiritual leader in favor of or against higher learning?
"Adina would not have opened up a college if it went against the opinion of the rabbi [Yosef]," said a former associate of Yosef.
"This letter goes against the rabbi's legacy, and that is what is most painful.
"Rabbi Ovadia was in favor of the colleges. He asked Shas ministers to help Adina and all the other ultra-Orthodox academies. He wanted the public to earn a decent living, and the solution was haredi colleges."
On the other hand, Deri associates reject the notion that the colleges were Yosef's pet project.
"The rabbi understood that this was a need for the young generation," said one source. "It's his daughter. He couldn't say no to her, but one doesn't need to twist the facts and say that his was his mission."
"No harm has been done and there is no change whatsoever," Deri said. "It's all chatter, speculation."
College officials, however, were not pleased. They assailed the letter.
"This is insanity," said one campus employee at a haredi college. "On the one hand, the haredi MKs complain about discrimination in the workplace and are working hard to integrate haredim into the workplace and academia, and all of a sudden this letter comes out. What is the option? More dropouts? More kids who don't learn and as a result can't work?"
Will the success of ultra-Orthodox higher education be stopped in its tracks? It depends upon whom one asks. Yehuda Avidan, a Shas official, said there has been a significant breakthrough in various institutions in which haredim are enrolled.
"If the corporate executives don't take this into account, the rabbis will shut down the whole thing and the public will go along," he said.…