While it has become normal, in some places, for frum schools to include secular subjects, this was never the case in chadorim of old. Throughout the nesius, the Rebbe fought strongly for teaching children pure Torah exclusively.
By Anash.org writer
A New Problem
As Yidden immigrated to America, and especially after the Holocaust, a difficult challenge gripped the Jewish community.
In the cheder of old, boys learned Torah full time, and it was unheard of for a traditional frum cheder to teach non-Torah subjects. Yet, in the new world, things were somehow different. Desperate to secure their children’s financial wellbeing, many insisted on getting their children a secular education.
From the earliest years of the nesius, the Rebbe tirelessly battled this flawed mindset on various fronts. The Rebbe encouraged yeshivos to at least minimize the emphasis on secular studies as much as possible and that it should be scheduled later in the afternoon. (Likutei Sichos vol. 16, p. 146; Toras Menachem vol. 13 p. 73)
But from his chassidim, the Rebbe demanded the ideal choice: to establish chadorim and yeshivos entirely focused on Torah and Yiddishkeit, without any secular education at all.
Why the Big Deal?
What exactly is wrong with innocuous secular studies?
In perek ches of Tanya, the Alter Rebbe explains various levels of kelipos, and how each of them affect a person. Secular studies, the Alter Rebbe says, have a uniquely detrimental effect on a person: whereas material pleasures blunt a person’s love for Hashem, secular studies blunt his mind and make it “tamei.”
The Rebbe points out that the Alter Rebbe doesn’t use the term assur or passul—but tamei, impure. When something becomes tamei, it doesn’t look any different. Yet—its status changes fundamentally.
The Rebbe is clear that is applies to even innocuous subjects, and not just subjects with potentially problematic content, such as science or history. As the Rebbe writes in one letter (Igros Kodesh vol. 11 p. 403), the Alter Rebbe explicitly says that he is referring to subjects that are kelipas noga—neutral in content, which would include even math and language that isn’t relevant to immediate avodas Hashem.
[The discussion here is about learning these topics for the knowledge itself or for future benefit which takes the child’s mind away from Hashem. What the child must know for current function and avodas Hashem is of course appropriate. Thus, if a child’s language is English, they should learn to read and write that language, just as they are taught to speak it (or to tie shoes and the like).]
The Rebbe was impassioned about the topic and spoke about it forcefully. In various sichos, which we will bring throughout this article, the Rebbe spoke about how detrimental it is to the children’s Yiddishkeit and to their general wellbeing.
“Throughout all the generations, Yidden would cover the child with a tallis to bring them into cheder, so that they wouldn’t be affected by the “ayin hara,” which is the satan and yetzer hara who cannot handle Yiddishe children learning Torah. Yet, people are now taking Yiddishe children and putting them into the hands of the yetzer hara, to tear them away from Torah!” (Toras Menachem vol. 27 p. 105)
In one strong letter, the Rebbe encourages someone to continue their fight for only limudei kodesh: “It’s shocking that people are giving reasons against learning only limudei kodesh, for there is no logical reason for it … May Hashem give you the merit and success to break through the “ice” in your community, and you should transform the frigidity to light and warmth of holiness and Chassidus.” (Igros Kodesh vol. 14 p. 43)
The Rebbe’s faith in the desire of a Yiddishe neshama to learn only Torah was so great, that when a certain child “preferred playing over learning, especially secular subjects,” the Rebbe suggested that “perhaps this is a sign that he does not want to learn secular studies – though he may not realize the deeper reason for it – and then it’s also negatively affecting his limudei kodesh studies.” (Igros Kodesh vol. 10 p. 293)
When parents consulted the Rebbe about their children’s emotional health, the Rebbe also advised cutting back on secular studies, since “Yidden need to have harmony between body and soul.” (Igros Kodesh vol. 8 p. 24)
What About Parnassa?
But how will a child succeed in life without a secular education?
In an emotional farbrengen on Simchas Torah 5715, the Rebbe spoke strongly about this topic. Nobody can foretell the future, the Rebbe said, and our actions must simply follow the Torah’s directives.
If something is useful to us, the Rebbe explained, the Torah, our guidebook instructs us to do it; if we would need to study secular subjects to make it in life, there would have been a halacha to learn it. But not only does Torah not mandate it, Torah tells us that it defiles the mind! That means that it won’t help a person in life at all, but to the contrary.
“Some people think that they can outsmart Hashem; instead of using the tools that Hashem gave us for success, in Torah, they will look for their own methods of success—to study English—and then they will be successful. They must remember: Hashem created the world 5,714 years ago. Since then, he has been running it as he wishes, according to Torah, and he will continue to do so!
“Hashem gave the Torah to the Yidden over 3,000 years ago, and our batlanishe nation that does not learn grammar and so on is standing strong! All the other nations, with all their chochmos, are gone. The Yidden, who have no expertise in the ways of the world—are standing strong, holding on to the Torah!
“The children are not at fault; they aren’t given any choice on the matter. The parents take them and rob them of a portion their life. What gives parents the right to rob the children of those years? Is this why Hashem gave them children?!” (Toras Menachem vol. 13 p. 73-76)
[The Rebbe said this sicha with great emotion and used many other sharp expressions that weren’t transcribed. In the middle of his talk, he said several times: “I say this on the basis of the statement of the Rebbe Rashab that Simchas Torah doesn’t bring any harm; this will be with kindness and mercy.”]
In another farbrengen the Rebbe warned that if people will come and argue the need for secular studies with proofs from Torah, we should be aware that this is from the yetzer hara. He might be quoting maamarei chazal, but he is distorting them… (Toras Menachem vol. 27 p. 105)
In one letter, the Rebbe writes that whatever limudei chol they need to know they will pick up from the streets. (Igros Kodesh vol. 8 p. 24)
Why Some Schools Have It
Many raise the argument that if it’s true that limudei chol should be avoided, why is it that some Lubavitcher schools have secular studies?
The Rebbe addressed this argument and explained that while learning limudei chol was indeed problematic, it is a step up for students who would otherwise attend a less frum school (or public school).
In a letter to Rabbi Shmuel Abba Senig of Munich, the Rebbe writes:
“In certain situations, our Rebbeim opposed it completely; in other situations, they helped such schools from behind the scenes, although they themselves didn’t establish them. [Establishing such schools] was very rare, but it did happen sometimes. You must judge each situation and decide.” (Igros Kodesh vol. 20 p. 120) Likewise, in another letter to him, the Rebbe writes that it depends on whether such a school would be pulling the students to the ‘right’ or to the ‘left.’ (Igros Kodesh vol. 10 p. 297)
Thus, R’ Nachman Sudak in London and R’ Avraham Korf in Miami were instructed to include a secular studies program in their day schools to attract students from a less frum crowd.
At the same time, the Rebbe emphasized that this should not serve as an example for proper Lubavitch schools.
Don’t Join a Hospital
R’ Volf Greenglass, the legendary mashpia of Montreal, related:
During the early years, the concept of not having a secular education was very difficult for many chassidim to swallow. It was a question of trust: of the chossid in the Rebbe.
One Lubavitcher chossid told the Rebbe that he wished to have his son learn limudei chol. As a justification, he argued that the Frierdiker Rebbe had incorporated secular studies in the Lubavitcher yeshiva school curriculum, which he himself had established.
The Rebbe answered him by way of parable:
“When one enters a hospital, at first glance it could be very impressive. The hygiene, the order and the individualized attention. It all looks very good. Still, no healthy person would consider becoming a patient…
“You must understand this,” concluded the Rebbe. “The secular education department of the Lubavitcher yeshiva is a hospital, for those not yet ready to join the full-time healthy society…” (Likutei Sipurei Hisva’aduyos, p. 345)
At the farbrengen of Yud Beis Tammuz 5717, the Rebbe elaborated upon this parable. The Rebbe explained that although in a hospital they apply certain practices for the betterment of the sick, no normal person would think to apply those practices to healthy people since that would harm them.
The same, explained the Rebbe, is true of education. There are certain things that we must do for people who aren’t ready for healthy Torah life, but no one should consider sending a healthy child to a spiritual “hospital” which will only have a negative effect on them.
So, the Rebbe clarified, limudei chol was allowed by our Rebbeim for people who aren’t “healthy.” However, chassidim who want to live healthy Torah lives, should follow healthy chinuch of pure Torah. (Toras Menachem, Vol. 20, p. 116)
To Be One of Those?!
In another episode, R’ Volf shared his own experience and the Rebbe’s disapproval of some chassidim who taught their child secular studies:
When we were in yechidus, my wife asked the Rebbe whether our son Avrohom Yechiel could pursue secular studies. As expected, the Rebbe answered in the negative.
My wife didn’t give up. She mentioned a respected chossid by name, and questioned, “Does he not send his son to English classes?”
“Indeed, I am well aware that there are those who do not listen to me,” the Rebbe responded. “Do you also want to be one of them?!” (Likutei Sipurei Hisva’aduyos, p. 135)
After the Rebbe’s landmark sicha of Simchas Torah 5715, chassidim immediately got together and R’ Michoel Teitelbaum established, with great mesiras nefesh, Oholei Torah, a new cheder which would be entirely al taharas hakodesh.
Oholei Torah opened in a small shtiebel in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn with only three students. Despite the many physical and financial challenges, the teachers, parents, and students remained steadfastly committed to the Rebbe’s call for pure Torah chinuch.
In a powerful sicha on Yud Shevat 5737, the Rebbe spoke of how we go on mesiras nefesh for chinuch al taharas hakodesh just as the Frierdiker Rebbe did in Russia:
“Due to the laws of this country and others, a terrible situation has come to be: Children cannot go through a school day without studying limudei chol. This begins from the age of five, when they begin Chumash, and continues through the ages of ten, when he begins Mishnah, thirteen, when he becomes bar mitzvah, and fifteen, when he studies Gemara.
“We must take a lesson from the Frierdiker Rebbe: He literally risked his life, and sent others to risk their lives, to establish chadorim for Jewish children, where they would study al taharas hakodesh, only limudei kodesh, without changing any of the educational standards that Yidden have used throughout the generations.
“How much more so in our days, and in our country—where there is no physical danger, chas veshalom: The greatest effort must be invested that the children’s education should be purely limudei kodesh, without any limudei chol…”
The Greatest Pidyon Shevuyim
Reb Berl Futerfas relates:
“My father, the Mashpia Reb Mendel, would spend a few weeks every winter fundraising for Russian Jewry. This was a continuation of his work there: to help Yidden begashmius.
“One year he was also asked to collect funds for Oholei Torah Cheder. Not knowing what to do, he asked the Rebbe in a yechidus, and was encouraged by the Rebbe to fundraise for the cheder as well.”
“My father was still troubled. He said to the rebbe, ‘But someone who gave a thousand dollars last year will give the same again, to be split between the two causes. This will mean that it is on the account of pidyon shevuyim (redemption of captives) funds?’
“The Rebbe looked at my father and said, ‘Saving children from learning limudei chol is the greatest pidyon shvuyim!’” (From The Weekly Farbrengen)
A Temporary Solution
In a letter to R’ Zalman Serebransky in Australia, who was facing legal requirements to teach limudei chol, the Rebbe advised him to temporarily fill the limudei chol with Jewish content: To study Jewish history from Tanach, and so on. The Rebbe then advised him to lobby the department of education to enable them to study additional limudei kodesh. (Igros Kodesh vol. 12 p. 452)
One special angle that the Rebbe mentioned was connected to the geulah. Chazal famously say, “Al tig’u bimeshichai – eilu tinokos shel beis rabban,” don’t touch my anointed ones – this refers to the cheder children. Children are called “Moshiach” since they live with a higher awareness of Hashem, and must be educated as such.
At the Simchas Torah farbrengen of 5720, the Rebbe elaborated upon this:
“Children, even during galus, live in a reality that is like yemos haMoshiach. We are responsible to ensure that their education doesn’t violate the kedusha of the Moshiach reality that they live in. Introducing foreign influences from the secular world brings tumah into their taharah.
“The ‘kluginker,’ the sly yetzer hara, argues that these studies are needed to ensure their financial stability in the future. They argue that even Torah instructs us to teach children a trade so that they can earn an honest living!
“This argument is a faulty and erroneous way of learning the Torah’s instruction. To learn a trade, one doesn’t need to be exposed to foreign ideas from a young age. It is perfectly sufficient to learn the skills in adulthood when he must start supporting himself and his family.
“It’s outrageous to suggest that Hashem, Who provides for billions of human beings and for every creature in the entire universe, needs our assistance in providing for this one child and his family by exposing him or her to secular studies during childhood, thereby compromising the geula’dikeh purity he or she lives in today!” (Toras Menachem vol. 27, pp. 102)
Similarly, in a 5751 sicha, the Rebbe explained:
“Chazal say that many tried to emulate Rabi Shimon bar Yochai—in living a life entirely devoted to Torah study—but were unsuccessful. Based on this maamar Chazal there are those who argue that it is necessary for children to learn secular studies to prepare them for the real world.
“We must remember that children are called ‘Moshiach’ and therefore must behave in a manner befitting yemos haMoshiach—in a manner of toraso umnaso, Torah is their only occupation.” (Hisvaaduyos 5751 vol. 2, p. 268)
In a special farbrengen before hakafos on the night of Simchas Torah 5752, the Rebbe emphasized the point with these wondrous words:
“Children are called “Moshiach” and the chinuch of our children must be permeated with the concept of Moshiach: the awareness that our existence and all of creation is just to fulfill Hashem’s will. When you look at the children, you should straight away be able to see in them a reflection of the reality of Moshiach.
“The Gemara states that Yerushalayim was destroyed because the Torah learning of the children ceased. Certainly, by ensuring that our children receive the best and most appropriate chinuch, we will hasten the arrival of Moshiach!” (Sefer Hasichos 5752 p. 37-41; footnote 37)
This article made use of A Chassidisher Derher‘s comprehensive review on the topic “Purity of the Mind.” See there for additional sources.