Thursday, January 04, 2007

Swimming against the current

FOTB [Friend of the Blog] Rabbi Yosef Blau sent me the devestating article that follows

It responds to yesterday's outrage, arguing cogently against the idea the women must be prevented from acquiring degrees. It appeared today in Ha'aretz [Note, those of you planning to reject the arguments this article makes by screaming "Ha'aretz hates Jews" will be yawned at.]

The article:

The debate over education, with a degree or without one, is not new to me. My father, peace be upon him, who on the one hand was ordained to the rabbinate at the Slabodka Yeshiva in Lithuania, and on the other hand had an extensive secular education and enormous knowledge in many branches of the sciences and humanities, all self-taught, would remind me from time to time - whenever I told him about another degree I had acquired - that true learning is learning for its own sake. In the end, sometime in the 1970s, my father was convinced that having a degree opens doors that cannot be opened without it.

In this century, there is no need for such a debate: Academic education is the main tool in the war on poverty. Over the past decade, the leadership of Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jewry allowed girls and women to acquire an academic education that would enable them to acquire a profession, which in turn would contribute to the family income and allow their husbands to concentrate on studying Torah. I was therefore surprised that a forum of leading rabbis is about to put an end to this process and allow only education that does not award an academic degree. Why is that?

After all, it is clear that in order to support a family, the young woman must acquire a profession that does not involve hard physical labor. It is also clear that specialization and knowledge-intensive technologies have penetrated all parts of the economy and production, and that these require methodical, comprehensive learning and skills acquisition, for which random courses and computer skills are insufficient. Without any education, and specifically without an academic education, these women and girls have no chance of ensuring their family's support in the long term.

If this is the case, why are they trying to deprive women and girls of their right to study? I am not interested in the issue from a theoretical, ivory tower, point of view; I have worked, and am working, to expand the Haredi community's academic education base (especially among women). This is not part of my professional duties; it is due to my recognition that academic education is the sole tool in the war against poverty, and that the state must utilize the skills of students from yeshivas and ulpanas (yeshiva high schools for women).

During the peak of the Internet bubble, as head of the Mathematics and Computer Science Department at Bar-Ilan University, I put together (in coordination with yeshiva heads in Bnei Brak) a special experimental program in computer science for the Haredi community, taking into consideration the students' educational experience and their ability to learn in-depth, as well as geographic considerations and the need for separate study areas for men and women. When I was on the committee for the expansion of academic education among the ultra-Orthodox, which is part of the Council for Higher Education, we examined systemic issues that could contribute to significant growth in this field.

The aforementioned question cannot be answered by a possible concern that education (even if it is technical or technological) might raise questions and create cracks in the faith of Haredi women, who are entrusted with the education and care of the next generation. If this concern were the reason for the decision to bar women from education leading to an academic degree, the decision should have been to ban education in general, irrespective of the degree issue. But in this case, the decision was only against education leading to a degree.

It therefore appears that the decision to allow women and girls to acquire an education that does not award an academic degree stems from one thing only: a desire to keep women at a lower status than their husbands. This priority takes precedence over the wish to ensure the family's income, and even over the significance of allowing the husbands to focus on the study of Torah. This approach recognizes the skills that women have - contrary to the view of the former president of Harvard University, Professor Lawrence Summers, who argued that women lack the skills to succeed in the sciences. If the rabbis did not respect women's skills, they would not be afraid of the further skills that they would acquire through education. This recognition ought to go hand in hand with a woman's right to acquire an education and a profession that utilizes her skills.

During the early 20th century, David Hilbert stood before the Senate of the University of Gottingen in Germany and tried to convince its members to accept Emmy Noether as a professor at the university. Hilbert used an argument that has since become idiomatic: "The Senate is not a bathhouse, why not accept Ms. Noether?"

Noether, a German Jew, was the first student to be accepted to study the sciences in Germany. During the 1930s, she had to flee Germany. In the United States, she was also not rejected by a research university (Princeton) and therefore worked at a small college. But Noether was among the greatest scientists of the 20th century, a scientist who was ahead of her time. And she is the ultimate model for every woman who has to swim against the current.

The author chairs the National Council for the Promotion of Women in Science and Technology

Around the horn:

- RWAC says: You can't second guess gedolim!
- Gil, who, damn it, knows better, says: Here! Here!
- Meanwhile Shmarya reports: Another victim of serial child abuser Rabbi Yehuda Kolko has just come forward. This is relevant why? Because the Gedolim we can't second-guess helped Kolko avoid prosecution for 40 years.

No comments: