I. Education is the Key
The past half century of Jewish experience has taught that education is the key to ideological success. Whichever group controls the schools wins the hearts of succeeding generations. But what seems clear in retrospect was not obvious at the time. In R. Ya’akov Ariel’s telling, Religious Zionism failed to recognize this and suffered great losses due to this blindness and accompanying institutional rigidity.
R. Ariel’s recent book of religious ideology, Halakhah Be-Yameinu, includes two essays on the history of Religious Zionist education in Israel, the first on educational differences and the second on the broader history as it intersected with his personal experiences. I find this fascinating because it explains so much. However, I recognize that this is one man’s anecdotal, ideological narrative rather than a comprehensive history. Be that as it may, it still bears consideration. To avoid undue focus on issues such as gender and ethnicity which excite so many of us, I will only address native Israeli male education.
II. Lack of Success
The founding rabbis of Religious Zionism emerged from what we would now call Charedi yeshivas. When establishing educational institutions for the Religious Zionist community, its leaders assumed that these same types of yeshivas would continue to produce great students would fill roles in the Religious Zionist community. And to some degree, they were correct. Leading rabbis, such as R. Shlomo Goren, studied in yeshivas like Chevron and Ponevezhe. However, overall, the opposition to Religious Zionism grew so institutional that these rabbis were the rare exception and were certainly insufficient to fill the many rabbinical roles required in the growing state. Merkaz Harav all but collapsed after the death of its dean, R. Ya’akov Moshe Charlop. There was another reason for the failure to establish Religious Zionist post-high school yeshivas–lack of students.
The initial Religious Zionist elementary and high schools, with a few noteworthy exceptions, were based on Western European gymnasia. They were essentially secular schools with some classes on religious subjects. The religious studies teachers did not set the school’s tone and did not have any more influence than any other teacher. While the goal was to attract the less committed and fight against an oppressively secular culture, the result was a generation full of religiously uninspired and uneducated students. On graduation, these students were interested in high achievements in career and army rather than in Torah.
III. Torah Revolution
In R. Ariel’s narrative, the savior was the Bnei Akiva youth movement. Its inspired youth demanded change, often meeting institutional opposition but slowly overcoming and eventually dominating. After they pushed for the establishment of Religious Zionist yeshivas, Kerem B’Yavneh and HaDarom were established and Merkaz Harav was revitalized at approximately the same time. These institutions of higher Torah learning not only taught Israel-centric values but encouraged army service among its students and graduates, often within the groundbreaking Hesder program.
Additionally, these activist youths successfully started elementary and high schools with more of an Eastern European flavor–with a rabbi as the primary instructor for each class whose job was to guide his students toward a life of religious devotion. These schools were yeshiva high schools. Rather than the secular studies setting the tone for the religious studies, the influence flowed in the reverse direction. The yeshiva high school, as opposed to the religious high school, succeeded in feeding the post-high school yeshivas. In turn, the yeshiva elementary schools grew with a similar model and fed the yeshiva high school. The reverse trajectory of this loose and disorganized movement as well as its grass roots nature led to slow growth.
The Six Day War was not a turning point but an inflection point. The religious fervor of the moment boosted the expansion of this educational movement just as it was reaching maturity. The expansion not only grew the existing framework into the normative model but added another level–kollel. The Religious Zionist educational system was now ready to produce its own exceptional Torah scholars. And it did. These yeshivas and kollels have graduated hundreds of exceptionally capable rabbis, leaders, judges and decisors, not to mention laymen accomplished in Torah and secular pursuits. They have allowed outstanding students to devote many years to growth in Torah knowledge and wisdom.
However, the focus on Torah achievement creates social boundaries which have already generated responses. Not every yeshiva high school graduate is prepared to devote many further years to yeshiva study and army service. The growth of the Hesder yeshiva led to a perception of Torah elitism and a split in the community between those with advanced Torah education and those without. This was answered in two ways.
Specialized yeshivas emerged, focusing on different aspects of the religious personality. Yeshiva frameworks within academic institutions, most notably Bar Ilan, offered additional alternatives. Students with many different needs can find their place within the Religious Zionist system of Torah study, although R. Ariel cautions about the need for proper proportions in areas of focus.
Additionally, to the surprise of many, the army preparation schools wildly succeeded in attracting students. These schools generally teach intense one year courses in Jewish law and thought for those intending to enlist in regular army service (as opposed to Hesder). The schools’ success has been bittersweet because they attract students from across the spectrum, including many who would otherwise have enrolled in multi-year yeshiva programs. However, R. Ariel praises these programs for successfully instilling faith and devotion in its graduates, some of whom eventually end up in a yeshiva.
R. Ariel addresses some criticisms of the Religious Zionist educational system. He accepts its many flaws but argues that it has sufficiently succeeded to merit continuation, even if with nuanced changes. R. Ariel’s favored educational framework is one of personal choice grounded in Torah basics and a religiously nourishing environment. He savors the uniquely Israeli (i.e. Religious Zionist) aspects of study–Bible, history, geography, theology–that have flourished over the past few decades. In retrospect, the Religious Zionist community could not grow during the early life of the country until its religious educational system was put into place.